Former Wolfpack CEO Eric Perez details his rugby league road to Ottawa

The Canadian Press

Having co-founded and launched the Toronto Wolfpack, Eric Perez always knew one rugby league team wasn't enough in North America.

"There's so much more potential for it to grow over here," he said. "It's kind of the perfect sport for North America.

"When we started the Toronto Wolfpack, we always knew that for the Wolfpack and the whole venture to be properly successful, there needed to be further expansion. I think Ottawa makes a lot of sense with the venue (TD Place), with the city itself, proximity to Toronto, rivalry with Toronto. I think it's kind of the perfect choice."

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

On Monday, Perez will unveil his new vision — announcing the name, colours and logo for the Ottawa club that will kick off next season in England's third-tier Betfred League 1 — as the Wolfpack did in 2017.

While the Wolfpack were a new franchise, Perez wanted to buy an existing League 1 club and move it across the Atlantic. Rugby league's governing body was open to the idea "in theory" and Perez eventually narrowed his search down to the West Wales Raiders and Hemel Stags. 

West Wales, however, saw itself as a pathway for Welsh players to become professionals. Perez did not want to remove that by talking the team across Atlantic.

Hemel was a more suitable target.

The team started in the early '80s as a community club in the south of England and found success. In 2013, it received permission to enter League 1.

"The truth is Hemel Stags is a proper amateur club. And should be an amateur club," Perez said. "The best way they can help the amateur game is to remain an amateur club and keep being an incubator for all this great talent."

Perez's consortium bought the Hemel license in September 2018. The Stags, who took a hiatus from League 1 in 2019, remain an amateur club now playing in the Southern Conference League which is just under League 1 in the rugby league pyramid.

"I knew by buying Hemel and moving them to Ottawa, I wouldn't be killing rugby league in Hemel. Actually I would be freeing them up to focus on what they do — be one of the strongest community clubs in the game."

Perez got his team. Hemel, which remains the Stags, got money to upgrade its facilities.

"Then the next part of the journey began, which was moving it to Ottawa," Perez said.

Without the path laid down by Wolfpack, Perez said he would have had "no chance" of succeeding. He calls the Toronto franchise the "Yuri Gagarin of rugby league," citing the Soviet cosmonaut who in 1961 became the first man to travel into space.

"When we started the Wolfpack, it was an absolutely an alien concept," said Perez, who was Toronto's first CEO. "I just don't think that would work any other way. There was no way we could have bought an existing team and then move them. There were too many things to prove, that the Wolfpack subsequently did prove and pave the way for this."

It also helped partnering with Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG), which owns and operates the CFL Redblacks and OHL 67's as well as managing the stadium/arena complex.

But there were still plenty of challenges. The hard work came in negotiations with the Rugby Football League over the actual terms of moving the club.

Because Hemel was already an RFL member, Perez believed the Ottawa club should have the same rights of any club member.

"The RFL thought maybe not — and tried to give us the same deal as Toronto," he said. "And we said 'Well listen, it's not that we want a better deal than Toronto. We also think Toronto's deal is unfair ... We should probably get a 'better deal for everybody in North America.'"

There were multiple meetings, votes and "arguing 'til faces were blue."

Perez believes the deal Ottawa ultimately negotiated is fair (he says it will apply to future North American clubs or Toronto if it falls out of the top-tier Super League).

New York will likely be next. It's believed a group is looking at taking part in cup competitions in 2021, with a view to joining the league in 2022.

But like Toronto, Ottawa will pay for visiting teams to get to North America.

Perez has assembled a 26-person ownership group in Ottawa. He calls it a "more of a communal thing" than Toronto, where Australian-born Toronto-based entrepreneur David Argyle is the majority owner and clear signal-caller.

Perez, who is Ottawa's chairman and president, says his consortium features family and friends — "people who have done well and believe in the concept after they saw what I did in Toronto."

While he expects to leave the Wolfpack's board of directors, he retains a small ownership stake. He also plans to end a temporary front office role with struggling Bradford. 

Perez, who says rugby league has "consumed" him since 2010, famously wrote down his blueprint for rugby league in Canada on a fish and chips wrapper. His original proposal to the English rugby league authorities called for "multiple teams" in Canada.

A graduate of York University, where the Toronto native earned a degree in business and society, he worked in university advertising with a few friends. That took him to England, where he looked to start up a similar venture.

He was taken by the lesser-known 13-man rugby code when he watched a Super League game on TV in 2010.

Perez was drawn by the game's combination of  skill and physicality, seeing a similarity between rugby league's hard men and hockey players' willingness to play through pain.

Upon returning to Canada, he formed the Canada Rugby League Association and started making his case. He convinced IMG, which had the rights to Super League, that a highlights show would be good for the sport in Canada. Then he persuaded Rogers Sportsnet to air the show, which also featured his fledgling domestic efforts.

The show ran for six seasons before Perez took the year off to focus on building the Wolfpack.

In 2012, his efforts with the sport in Canada won him an invitation to a Rugby Football League dinner in London where he made his case for a Toronto team to then-RFL chairman Richard Lewis.

They thought he was crazy at first, but Perez kept pitching and eventually won them over.

 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 8, 2020.

---

Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

What to Read Next