RL 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 two of their interview, Pallett shares an insight into the club’s sponsorship deals, its financial situation and their negotiations with TV partners.
Miss part one? Read it here.
NM: Do you remain in Toronto all season, or do you travel with the team to the UK on occasion?
JP: We do send some of our Toronto staff, myself included, back to support our colleagues in the UK at key times. In particular our three ‘home’ games in the UK are ones we want to promote, drive ticket sales, help our sponsors activate and create great events for fans who attend. A number of the Toronto staff will support planning remotely in the build-up, and then head over for the week of the game to offer support in their key areas. Of course there is always stuff to be done in Toronto too, so for most of the off-season, including the last three months, the entire team is almost always in Toronto.
NM: As regards sponsors, Air Transat, central on the team’s jersey, is currently in the process of being bought by Air Canada. Will this affect the team’s sponsorship in any way, or even the branding?
JP: All of our players and all of the opposition teams will travel with Air Transat in 2020. They remain one of our major partners and will be on the 2020 kit. Obviously they are in a bit of a transition but we have a great relationship and are delighted that is continuing. In 2021 we will still be booking flights so I’m sure we will be working together again following that buy out.
NM: A local team sponsor has been Three Brewers, where fans and visitors have gone before and after games for drinks and meals. They’ve just announced they’re closing down many of their locations, including the one in Liberty Village. Is there going to be a new team bar or affiliation, or has the team given any thought to purchasing that location as someone has suggested on social media?
JP: The partnership with Three Brewers meant that on a game day all over our social media, in our pre-game emails, from our match hosts, we were telling everybody to go to there for the official post-game party. We are now open to working with other bars, but this may be working with several bars locally rather than just one. We could easily have three or four bars in Liberty all sponsoring players, hosting viewing parties on rotation, having their staff promote our fixtures and generally being ambassadors for the team. If we get 10,000 fans and 1,000 from the UK there’s going to be too many for one bar, so having fans mixing in three or four bars might be the better experience. We’ll still have the Friday night welcome for our visiting fans, likely at Northern Maverick.
NM: There is a strange dichotomy of finances for players and finances for operations with the Wolfpack. How do you explain to people why there is significant spending on players while there are various stories in the media of unpaid bills or lawsuits or winding-up orders?
JP: I think the media stories are speculation and opinion pieces, rather than anything quoting specific sources. It is no secret that a significant amount of money has been invested in the team to date by our ownership, which is obviously still a start-up organization. We do occasionally experience temporary cash flow issues, in part because our revenue streams for tickets, sponsorship and merchandise fluctuate around our home games, while a lot of our costs to run the team are fixed each month for 12 months, or large set-up costs ahead of the season. We are incredibly lucky to have some great partners and suppliers on both sides of the Atlantic who understand our challenges, buy into what we are trying to achieve and work with us through these.
NM: Has a TV deal been reached as to who is going to cover it or what channels?
JP: I believe Sky Sports have picked us up for four of the first 10 games before we come over to Toronto including the opener (vs Castleford at Leeds). For the Wolfpack there is no pre-existing deal to roll over or change, so we’re looking at the games in Toronto in the coming weeks. We are confident everyone involved wants to help us showcase our games at Lamport Stadium this summer. It’s still in the works, but we don’t play at home until round 11 so there is still lots of time. The first year with the Wolfpack in Super League is a big experience for the Super League, the RFL, the broadcasters, and their sponsors. Everything is new for everyone. Before Christmas we had every game locked in, every kick-off locked in, every flight, every hotel booked, every ticket on sale. That’s the position we simply had to get ourselves in. Something like broadcasts was always going to roll into the new year, as was the kit launch mentioned earlier.
NM: What are you most looking forward to this season?
JP: I think probably I’d say the Wigan game on April 25th. I’m particularly excited because it’s a 4 o’clock kickoff – Wigan fly back on Sunday to be able to kick off at 4pm – which means that the Wigan players will have the chance to spend time with their fans in the beer garden and then in the bars. This is what we used to have for games in the 2018 regular season and to have athletes come off the field and spend time with fans is just so special, and rare. I think Wigan are going to travel with 1,200 fans and that will really add to the atmosphere too. In 2021 if the Super League teams have to play Thursday or Friday night the week after the visit to Toronto they’re going to fly back Saturday to recover and we will need a 1:30 kickoff. However, we will be looking for more teams to take the additional night and later kick-off if their schedule permits. This would give our fans a bit more variety on kick-offs, and give our opponents the chance to spend time in Toronto and enjoy the city more.
NM: During the season, or even now, what is it that keeps you up at night, figuratively speaking?
JP: I think there’s some unknown unknowns in the build-up to any season in sport. There will be something that you just don’t even know, and we’ve been hit with a few in recent years where something wasn’t even on your radar and then all of a sudden you think ‘Ah, of course we have to do that’ or ‘Oh, that’s something that we need to do’ and I think there’ll be a few of those in Super League. The Home Opener will be a big stress for everyone involved, and game by game everyone will relax more and more. Halfway through the season you realise you are then only worried about the 10% of things you weren’t happy with the game before, as 90% of things went well, and will again.
NM: Are you learning from other Toronto sports teams? Do you personally go out to see other sports in the Toronto area?
JP: Yeah, I do. The Leafs and the Raptors are incredibly polished in terms of what they do because it’s a contained, indoor arena. The sound system’s great, the big screen is exceptional. In particular the Raptors know there will be a set number of time-outs in a game and have entertainment just waiting in the wings for each one. We try and draw inspiration from them but you don’t want to try and copy that because it just won’t work. You have to poke fun at yourselves for not quite being at that level. We have a big field to fill as well so it’s also hard to fill with entertainment. There’s things you can do in this market where you’re never really accused of copying someone’s idea. You don’t consider yourself in the same league as those teams, so you can consider them as the inspiration. Our mascot is named after the street the stadium’s on, and (the Toronto Maple Leafs mascot) Carlton the bear is named after the street they used to be on (when the Leafs played in Maple Leaf Gardens on Carlton Street). As well as Toronto we look at some of the other North American teams, the Sacramento Kings as an example, and just how refreshing they are on social. They just post stupid memes and GIFs, and how they don’t take it too seriously. There’s a lot you can learn from some of the teams that don’t have the good records, that aren’t the best teams as they don’t have that winning record to base their social media on. Our inspiration comes from a lot of the NBA and the NFL teams and how they do things.
NM: They’ve been doing a good job recently with all the Jefferson content, that’s been really popular.
JP: It’s almost come to the point that’s a separate project. We’ve often wondered about who we give the log-ins for the Jefferson account but it may turn into an entirely different stream of our communication. As the season gets underway we think that will become our cheekiest channel for engaging with our opponents and their fans.
NM: What are the main differences you’ve found between Canada and UK sports audiences?
JP: I think there’s just a massive demographic difference. Female fans and young fans are just part and parcel of following sport over here. Every time I watch the Premier League and they cut away to the stands there’s very few children, very few women. I’m always amazed when I go to a Blue Jays game and there’s groups of 15 women watching the game, and I think that carries over to the Wolfpack. Where I’ve worked in the UK before in rugby and cricket it’s been an older demographic of predominantly male fans. Anything done for kids is always seen as ‘oh, we’ll move one of our games to Wednesday night and we’ll have kids go free and we’ll just try and get kids to that one’ rather than what we do, which is that every game has a base of activity for kids. There’s two mascots, there’s dance packs, half of the half-time shows, like Medieval Times for example, are very family and kid focussed. One of the big changes you’ll see this year is the improvement in the fan zone outside the east stand which is something we hope adds to the appeal for families even further.
NM: What’s your prediction for the team’s results this year?
JP: Very much not my area, but I think the team will win some stand-out games against the really big teams, and I think they’ll win well against some other teams. In terms of where we’re going to finish, it all depends on the injuries that they pick up. How long can they keep their chosen starting lineup on the field without injuries, and then how many players do you see week-in, week-out, who have a minor injury who maybe would have a week or two off if the squad was bigger.
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