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Toronto Wolfpack: Super League clubs vote against Canadian club’s return in 2021


Toronto signed stars like Sonny Bill Williams for Super League, but the project has now been put on ice

Super League clubs have voted against allowing Toronto Wolfpack back into the competition for 2021, by eight votes to four with one abstention.

Toronto resigned from the 2020 competition in July after former owner David Argyle withdrew, stating he could no longer fund the club.

New owner Carlo LiVolsi offered to underwrite the club’s losses but his plans were rejected.

The meeting to discuss the 2021 structure will be held on Tuesday.

Super League executive chairman Robert Elstone admitted the decision would “divide the game’s fans” but that the evidence presented meant allowing the club to return “would not be right for the development of the competition”.

He referred to the results of a report which stated that running a team in the north American market would be “non-strategic” and “added no material incremental revenue to Super League in the short or medium term”.

Elstone continued: “Our review of the club’s recent submission identified a number of areas of concern, particularly regarding the aggressive revenue targets on which the financial forecasts are based.

“Separately, it was also apparent that no assessment of the scale and accessibility of the commercial growth that might accrue to the sport from entering the Canadian market was ever completed prior to the club’s first entry into the sport.”

The 2020 season resumed in August after a four-and-a-half-month coronavirus hiatus with Toronto’s results expunged. It has been run as an 11-team competition with bye-weeks to make up for the lop-sided number of teams.

Prior to Monday’s vote, the Super League Europe executive considered a report into the business plan submitted by LiVolsi, which urged the clubs to turn down the proposal.

“Toronto Wolfpack and the investment group had previously submitted an extensive five-year business plan, including significant input from independent financial advisors,” a club statement said.

“The submission addressed original feedback received from the Super League and member clubs, including improved clarity on what benefits the Wolfpack bring to the League as a whole, as well as detailed plans for the growth of rugby league in Canada.

“The club shares the obvious disappointment of our players, staff, sponsor and partners, as well as incredible fans, at today’s decision. The Wolfpack will now take some time to consider our position and consult further with the current ownership group, led by David Argyle.”

The ups and downs of the Wolfpack

The decision ends the Super League dream of the Wolfpack, who climbed from League One into the top tier within just three seasons of starting up.

Their arrival in the elite brought great fanfare, never more so than when they brought former All Black cross-code star Sonny Bill Williams back to league as part of their building for the new campaign.

However, such big-name, big-money signings left the club short on the salary cap, particularly as they could not draw on central funding through television revenue nor stage home matches because of the harsh early season Toronto climate, and they had failed to win a league game before their withdrawal during the initial coronavirus lockdown.

Now there is also uncertainty as to whether the players, who had not been paid and were told their salaries would be guaranteed if the club was readmitted after agreement between the owners and the players’ union, will receive the money owed to them.

Toronto Wolfpack skipper Josh McCrone celebrates promotion to Super League
Toronto won promotion to Super League with a 24-6 victory over Featherstone in October 2019 in front of 9,974 fans at Lamport Stadium

Analysis – ‘The North American dream over for now’

BBC rugby league correspondent Dave Woods

The vote against the Wolfpack being readmitted was perhaps more decisive than expected.

They had four votes in favour of their readmission – believed to be from the RFL, Leeds, St Helens and Catalans. The rest voted against, except for Warrington, who abstained.

New owner Carlo LiVolsi had pledged to honour existing debts of around £1m and cover estimated losses of £3.5m over the next three years.

The clubs heard from Livolsi on Monday and had previously been given a report from the Super League executive that said there was no value in the Wolfpack’s readmission and that there were too many holes in their proposals.

The Super League clubs must now decide whether they go with an 11-team league next year or find a way of bringing a new club into the top division.

If they go with 12 clubs next year, it will be a difficult process selecting who can join the Super League club, given the absence of competition in the Championship this year.

There will be no shortage of clubs in the lower leagues clambering to be included. But for the moment, rugby league’s North American dream seems over.

This whole process does call into question the governance of the game. Clubs themselves have been able to decide on the future or otherwise of a fellow club. Undoubtedly self-interest, rather than what’s necessarily best for the game as a whole, will have had some part to play whichever way a club may have voted.

There will be many outside the sport who will consider it puzzling that the game’s own governing body, the RFL, had only a tiny say in the matter with one vote, the same as each Super League club.

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