The Toronto Wolfpack rugby league team is only three years old, yet it now boasts the highest-paid player in the sport, and an expense bill that would make any sports executive wince.
On Sunday, Feb. 2, Wolfpack plays Castleford Tigers in Leeds, England, in Round 1 of England’s Super League.
Over the past three years, the team has played its way up through England’s rugby league system to gain promotion to the top division.
The team is owned and bankrolled by Australian mining tycoon David Argyle.
This season, Argyle has brought in one of rugby’s biggest names, New Zealander Sonny Bill Williams, on the league’s biggest-ever contract — estimated to be $10 million over two years.
Williams, 34, has had a decorated career in both rugby league and the sister sport of rugby union, winning two Rugby World Cups with the New Zealand All Blacks.
But Argyle’s pockets will need to be even deeper as his team continues to deal with a possibly-unique expense item in world sports; covering the transatlantic travel costs for their opposition.
“We, under the current financial model, absorb the costs of the other teams,” said Chairman and CEO Bob Hunter.
“We have to do the logistics on their behalf, and that even includes immigration and work visas for the players. So it’s a very special and unique scenario that presents its many challenges.”
Hunter is a former executive at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, and says the long-term goal is to challenge the Argos and Toronto FC as Toronto’s fourth biggest sports team.
For logistical reasons, Wolfpack’s squad is based in Manchester, England for most of the year.
The team then decamps to Toronto for blocks of games throughout the spring and summer.
There are no longer any Canadian players on the team, but Hunter says the popularity of the mostly-international Raptors team proves success is the most important ingredient in connecting with sports fans.
“The reality is, the fans, the sponsors, the city, the country want to see a winning squad,” said Hunter.
“And if that takes 24 international players, then that’s what the fans want to see.”
Rugby’s Dual-Code Superstar
At a press conference in Manchester, England, newly arrived star player Sonny Bill Williams admitted that he hasn’t been to Canada yet.
“I’m pretty excited to get over there as a rugby player, a rugby league player, and see what it’s all about,” said Williams.
“The boys tell me that it’s mayhem at the stadium, and hopefully, well, I’m pretty sure they’ll turn-out next year.”
Williams has switched between rugby league and rugby union across his career, and has also competed as a professional Heavyweight boxer.
The devout Muslim convert is known for his philanthropy and work ethic.
“Toronto, some people say it’s the sporting Mecca of the world,” said Williams.
“So if we can add our little five cents in there as well, it would be special.”
Some of his new teammates had to do a double-take when learning the Kiwi legend was joining the squad.
“When it got announced, we were like, you know, what’s going on?” said Andy Ackers, who joined Wolfpack in 2018.
“We’ve signed Sonny Bill Williams, probably the biggest rugby player there has ever been!”
His teammate, prop forward Adam Sidlow said Williams’ presence has inspired the squad.
“What an acquisition, for a new club as well. I would imagine any Super League side, any rugby league side, would love to have him,” said Sidlow.
“It’s just brilliant for the club and it gets a lot of exposure and therefore the club does as well.”
Toronto Rugby Competitors
Hunter and the back office team will be hoping the extra exposure translates into a bigger income, to help sustain the team’s viability in Super League.
However, since 2019, Toronto Wolfpack has also had to compete for attention with the newly-formed Toronto Arrows rugby union franchise, which plays against U.S. teams in Major League Rugby.
The Arrows share Toronto’s Lamport stadium with Wolfpack.
Many Canadians are more familiar with rugby union; the version of the sport that is regularly played in high schools and amateur leagues across the country.
Bob Hunter says there are proposals for Super League teams in cities like Ottawa and New York, but they will only happen if and when all teams are obligated to cover their own travel costs.
“I would just say that from a long-term success opportunity, we really need to figure out a better financial model than we operate under today,” said Hunter.
“And that is certainly one of my focuses; to get us to that point.”
The Wolfpack home opener is scheduled for April 18.