By STEVE MASCORD
SO what was it like, then?
This month’s Bondi Beat comes to you a little late because we were busy witnessing rugby league history close up; we went to Lamport Stadium, Toronto, for the Wolfpack’s very first home game.
This was an event many rugby league train spotters had circled in their diaries from the moment it was announced. It just so happened that I had to travel from Australia to the UK around the time of the May 6 game anyway and it was on the way … sort of.
One of the things we wanted to check out firsthand was the level of awareness of the Wolfpack around Toronto, which has a population of 9.2 million people.
When we arrived at YYZ two days before the match and made our way into town, the portents weren’t particularly good. Not a billboard or poster to be seen.
But upon checking into our hotel and turning on the TV, the local news station had a live cross to the club media day and there were other mentions in bulletins throughout the night.
The place to be for visiting fans is Katana, a sushi restaurant and cocktail bar owned by club founder David Argyle. That’s where we kicked up our heals on the first night.
On day two we hung out with Phil Browne, the CEO of Try Tag Rugby in the UK who flew in under his own steam and has to be the biggest Toronto Wolfpack fan outside of the Argyle family.
On game day, the Globe & Mail carried a full page on the new team in town – despite the NBA regional play-offs being staged there on the same weekend – while the National Post carried a strip across the top of the front page of their sports section.
It was clear upon arriving at the official match day pub, the Brazen Head, that something special was about to happen. The place was packed. Coach Paul Rowley’s dad and the father of player
Sean Penkywicz holding court in one corner and staff handing out free t-shirts and scarves. There were locals dressed in wolf onesies and an hour before kick-off, a march to the ground led by a group of fans called the Den – complete with drum.
If there was any doubt this would be a spontaneous, organic success, it was dispelled by the line snaking out of the merch store opposite the stadium. Caps completely sold out and a black market in the black gear even arose.
I met a fellow in the Wolfpack Store from Newfoundland who had got into “rugby” while living in New Zealand. He was aware league was a little different but didn’t care; he’d signed up for a season ticket almost immediately.(continued below).
At kick-off there were probably 3000 inside the very basic Lamport Stadium, despite the inclement weather and complete lack of cover. By halftime, that figure appeared to have doubled.
The key to the good attendance was the party atmosphere around beer tents at one end of the ground; sport is often just an excuse for a keg party in Toronto and the Wolfpack have the advantage of being far more affordable than the other teams in town at just C$16.50 a ticket.
One family had travelled two and a half hours each way for the match, unable to believe they could go see pro sport for less than 100 bucks for the the lot of them. They planned to be back.
In summary: no, the Wolfpack don’t have a huge paid advertising presence around Toronto and many people are completely unaware of their existence.
But just via world of mouth and an open-minded media, they are still ahead of every other team in their league when it comes to profile and potential crowds at home games.
Toronto itself reminds me of Melbourne – a city that’s pleasant enough to look at but more defined by its people than its scenery.
And, as with Melbournians, Torontonians love their sport to an extent that could be the making of rugby league.
FROM a distance, things might seem rosy in the NRL.
Sure, crowds are down a little – particularly in Sydney. But the rugby league is pretty entertaining, the production line of talent is pumping our geniuses on a weekly basis and the local media is completely fixated with the sport.
But those who work in the game paint a very different picture indeed.
The player market is in completely chaos because no-one knows what the salary cap will be next year.
The lack of leadership is palpable. The club chairman, united a few months ago, are now deeply divided by mistrust.
The amount of selfishness is unprecedented, the enmity at its highest level since 1995 and the outbreak of the Super League war.
The best metaphor: a volcano – one very, very close to an eruption.
WITHIN a couple of years, we are supposed to have a professional, national competition in the United States.
That’s what Jason Moore, the promoter who has been given the 2025 World Cup, has promised us. One suspects the RLIF will demand it if the tournament is go ahead in the United States and Canada as announced.
How will it work?
Well, there is a business plan doing the rounds. The projections are for massive losses in the opening years, with a profit by year five. How those losses are going to be covered is the big question.
The league needs investors. I’ve also heard they hope to make money by licencing gambling on matches to Australian betting companies. The idea is that desperate rugby league punters will be just as keen to bet on a game in the middle of the night as desperate greyhound punters are to find a fake rabbit out for a run in South Africa.
But alongside these plans are consortia from New York, Vancouver and elsewhere hoping to enter teams in British competitions, joining the Wolfpack.
The extremely limited resources of rugby league in the US are already being pulled in different directions.
IT didn’t make headlines outside of Australia and one Chinese city but we should all be concerned about an AFL match played on the second weekend of May in Shanghai.
As a sport we rely on the NRL to represent us in the world’s biggest emerging market and they have failed us dismally. There was talk of a match in 2013 between Canberra and Manly but nothing happened.
In an editorial slamming the NRL for its lack of vision, colleague Paul Kent pointed out a litany of failures on the part of the current administration.
These included club memberships being 100,000 down on projections, average attendances down by 5000, participation (leaving aside touch football) being a fraction of the target and central revenue also failing to hit the goals.
If rugby league is to realise its potential, it is going to have to rely on people like David Argyle – not Todd Greenberg and John Grant.