Rugby League News Magazine’s Nicholas Mew borrowed time from Toronto commercial vice-president Jon Pallett’s busy schedule to discuss a range of topics ahead of the club’s maiden season in Super League.
In part one of their interview, Pallett shares an insight into his role at the club, the challenges of running an organisation in two countries, plans for the Lamport Stadium and the experience visiting clubs and their supporters can expect in 2020.
NM: To start with, different resources ascribe different job titles to you. What is your actual job title and what is it you do?
JP: My title is commercial vice-president, but it’s changed a couple of times in the two and a bit years I’ve been with the organization. From January 2019, I looked after the Toronto side of the business. We brought in Bob Hunter as CEO in August and I’m delighted we’ve just appointed a new business operations director too. This means we have grown the senior management team and now have someone devoted to various challenging logistics we face in terms of putting our team and away teams on flights, hosting our team, hosting the away teams, booking buses and training facilities, and of course managing our relationship with the city and Lamport Stadium. My new title means I oversee the revenue streams for the Wolfpack. Broadly speaking, these are tickets, sponsorship and merchandise and all of the marketing, PR and social media activity that supports those.
NM: What are some of the unique challenges you face running a team that operates in two different countries five hours apart?
JP: For any business that operates across multiple time zones, the people living further west wake up and it’s into the working day for their colleagues living further east. The first hour of my day is spent on emails and calls and things that have happened in the UK overnight, and similarly if you work for the Wolfpack in the UK you are likely getting emails and calls from me in the evening local time. The senior management teams on both sides of the Atlantic are in constant dialogue with one another, so with a five-hour time difference we do end up working some long days.
NM: Tell me about how the Wolfpack successfully host the opposition teams and allow them to easily visit Toronto for a weekend to compete at Lamport.
Hosting visiting teams is a particular challenge and we have learned over three years that the best way to manage this is to find something that works for our opponents, and then repeat this for each trip. In 2020, with the exception of Leeds, who play us on a Sunday, and Wigan, who play a slightly later kick-off, our other nine games are all on Saturday at 1:30. That means the teams fly in on the same Thursday day-time flights, stay at the same hotel, train at the same facility on Friday, eat the same food, turn up to Lamport at the same time and then take the same flight back. There was some press a few weeks ago where one opposition Super League club said they were worried because they were the first team coming over. I think Barrow and Oxford in 2017 were the first teams to come over – who would probably have been right to be slightly apprehensive – but we’ve hosted 37 games to date, including two Million Pound Games, and hosted Widnes and Hull KR here as Super League teams, so we are pretty confident in this process.
NM: You mentioned travel and hotels – how will the experiences for visiting Super League teams in 2020 be different from previous Championship and League 1 teams?
JP: The opposition teams traditionally stayed at Seneca College in the regular season, however for Super League teams and their athletes we will use an airport hotel, which is somewhere we have used for play-offs in previous years. What players and coaches really look for are comfortable beds, black-out curtains, quiet rooms and quality, healthy food – and that meets those needs.
NM: There was a complaint last season from one visiting team about the breakfast food. Was that just a cultural difference about what was offered and how it was prepared?
JP: I think that cultural difference – like the size of a bacon rasher – was part of it, but, from that moment, we just paid for double breakfast helpings for all future teams. In the airport hotel there’s a buffet breakfast, and the chefs at the hotel know when the rugby teams are playing and they put more food on. We joke about the rugby players raiding the buffet, but in all honesty they come over here to play a game of professional rugby league, so they need to be fed well. The last thing we’d want to happen when we’re hosting a team is to be put on the back foot and under pressure due to a complaint about food the day before the game, because that sort of thing gets all over social media. We’ve got to win the hearts and minds of Super League teams, so the last thing we’re going to do is cut some corners or costs, and risk an argument, a social media storm or a complaint to the league.
NM: In previous years, it seems that some visiting teams left applying for their electronic travel authorizations (visas) until quite late. Is that going to be done differently this year?
JP: As with the travel plans, this is our fourth year of providing work permits to every visiting player and each year the process becomes more efficient, and of course earlier. We’ve had instances in the past where teams have turned up to the airport and said ‘oh no, this guy is coming instead of that guy because that guy got injured’. But then he’s only got his passport, he’s not got a boarding pass, he’s not registered, he’s not got a travel visa and I think that gets cut out when you get to dealing with the Super League teams.
NM: What do you wish people knew about your job?
JP: We only have nine full-time members of staff in Toronto, although of course we scale up our workforce for six months in the summer. I think we punch well above our weight in terms of our reputation from a PR and media standpoint and sometimes that can count against us. Some fans might see that another team – either in Toronto or in Super League – doing something and challenge why the Wolfpack aren’t doing the same thing. A recent example I can share is on the kit. We’ve just made Super League and signed Sonny Bill Williams, and these give us a massive opportunity to attract new sponsors for the kit. We also changed kit suppliers and spent time ensuring the design is bespoke to the Wolfpack. That work is all being carried out by the staff, who also need to do scheduling, ticketing, marketing, operational planning, social media, PR all at the same time. Consequently, the first Wolfpack Super League kit was always going to get to our fans later than other teams.
NM: You joined the Wolfpack at the end of the first season. In your time with the team, what’s been a personal highlight for you?
JP: Definitely the Grand Final in 2019, partly because of the amount of people we got in the stadium. I never discuss figures, but I am happy to share that it was not a typical game for the Wolfpack in terms of the number of people that turned up and the ticketing breakdown. Obviously, the boys were brilliant on the day to come back in the second half to win, and I just think, looking at how full and how loud the stands were, and how those pictures went around the world on the broadcast, that it was our finest hour. It really was the culmination of all the hard work through the season in building the fanbase, ticketing efforts, raising awareness of the team, building into the play-offs and putting on 11 great game day experiences on before that. The players were also great getting out there to community events, being accessible to fans and even going on TV breakfast shows at 6.00am. Everything just kind of came together and 10,000 people wanted to pay to watch that game and get behind the team.
NM: On the flip side of that, in your time with the team, what’s been a particular low point?
JP: It turned out to be one of the highlights in the end, but I think the Markham game (May 5th, 2018, vs. Swinton Lions at Fletcher’s Fields) was a real baptism of fire for a lot of people that I brought into the organization. Scott Lidbury had come in soon after I started, and we’d brought in Elliott Devine for a couple of months on the operations side as well as the game day direction, and also brought in a lot of good young people: Audrey, Amy, Samantha, Jeff, Oliver. A lot of us hadn’t seen a game before, and that was the first game and there was just such uncertainty. I remember we had a schedule list that said ‘TBC’ on three or four games, and that wasn’t on the date or the time, that was TBC on what continent is this game going to be played on. At one point, it looked like we could lose three or four games from Lamport as well as the Swinton match, and obviously if you do that, it completely tears out the opportunity you have to build a fanbase at Lamport, and to get 7,000 fans to every game, and the whole season would have suffered a horrible false start. We only managed to get back to June 9th because of some fantastic work from the city, MLSE (Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment) and some of the local unions, who came together and solved the challenges of ‘How do we lay that pitch quicker?’
NM: Speaking of venues, are there going to be any improvements made to Lamport in the off-season or during the season itself?
JP: We’ve always talked about “a facelift” for the stadium. We like the fact that fans can move around, we like an open seating venue, we like the atmosphere it creates and, with the 10,000 projected away fans in 2020, I think we’re going to have a great atmosphere all year. You wouldn’t swap it to have a 20,000 seater where you couldn’t fill it. I also think we could squeeze a few more in Lamport too with a few improvements. But the planned improvements would be little things like power and electric, and a lot of things that have been neglected over time. That’s not a slur on the city because they just have a good community venue that has a hell of a lot of use. But it’s now us saying “Well, if it’s a professional sports team in here, and we’ve got 10,000 people a game, we need to scale up”. We need LED signage for our sponsors and we need a big screen so we can have our fans watch replays, and see a stream of the action. It would also allow us to take our half-time show to the next level, because we’ve got (announcer) Rob Cardno or (interviewer) Samantha McDaid on camera talking to 10,000 people, rather than just on a microphone. You can’t start knocking walls down and making wider entrances, it’s still going to be the same Lamport we have had for three years, but fans will see gradual improvements which may continue once the season starts.
Stay tuned for part two of my exclusive Q&A, where Jon discusses TV deals, club finances, his predictions for the future and more!
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