TORONTO — The future of the Toronto Wolfpack was thrown in doubt Monday with news the transatlantic rugby league team will sit out the rest of the 2020 Super League season.
Simply put, the club — which missed its last payroll — could not afford to continue this year.
"The COVID pandemic has presented unexpected and overwhelming financial challenges to the Wolfpack organization," the team said in a statement. "Greatly reduced ticket, sponsorship, merchandise and game-day revenue streams have resulted from the loss of all 11 of the team's home Super League games in Toronto.
"The Wolfpack would be left covering significant additional costs simply to complete a season of games in the U.K. including COVID testing, stadium rentals, medical costs and player pay increases to align with the rest of the league."
Majority owner David Argyle, for whom the Wolfpack have been a labour of love, says the ownership group has invested $30 million into the franchise since its inception in 2016. Most of that came from Argyle, a Toronto-based Australian mining and natural resources entrepreneur, with help from "shareholders, friends and family."
With no home games this season, due to the pandemic and its accompanying travel and other restrictions, the balance sheet was only going to become more lopsided.
The Wolfpack "fully intend to field a team in the 2021 season," saying the club will be working with Super League and the Rugby Football League "to understand this process moving into the next season."
Rugby league authorities, with Super League now down to 10 English clubs and France's Catalan Dragons and needing to redo a revamped schedule announced just last Thursday, seemed less certain about the future.
In a joint statement, the Super League and RFL said they were "very disappointed to learn that Toronto Wolfpack will not be able to fulfil their obligations to Super League 2020."
"Super League Europe and the RFL have been in regular dialogue with the Wolfpack over the past weeks and months regarding the club's ability to take part in the competition and firm assurances had been received as recently as last Thursday, July 16.
"The club's decision is especially disappointing given the imminent restart of the season. Our immediate focus is on getting the season back underway on Aug. 2 and meeting the needs of our host broadcaster, Sky Sports. A discussion around the longer-term consequences and the future of the Wolfpack in Super League will commence shortly."
Toronto was to have resumed play Aug. 2 against Hull Kingston Rovers at Leeds Rhinos' Emerald Headingley Stadium.
The franchise and its players, including New Zealand star Sonny Bill Williams, now await word on what's next from rugby league authorities. Should Toronto return in 2021, the question remains in what league would it be slotted.
"Ideally we would love to stay in Super League," said Wolfpack president and CEO Bob Hunter. "But if demotion is an outcome, then we will accept that and prepare to play back in (the second-tier) Championship."
There is also the possibility there will be no next year.
"If it isn't one of those outcomes, yeah, unfortunately the experiment might actually be over — as disappointing as it might be," Hunter said.
The Wolfpack have not played since March 11, when they blanked Huddersfield 18-0 in the fifth round of the Coral Challenge Cup. Play was suspended five days later due to the pandemic, with Toronto in the league basement at 0-6-0.
The Wolfpack opened the vault last November to get Williams with a two-year deal worth a total of US$9 million, with Williams getting an ownership stake, according to a source granted anonymity because they were not in a position to publicly divulge the information.
The pandemic lockdown and season suspension meant the franchise's biggest star was kept out of sight.
The team missed the monthly payroll in June, which was due July 1. It had hoped to cover it through new investment which never came through, a major factor in Monday's announcement.
The club says the player and staff payroll "has been guaranteed" by Argyle and "secured by a personal guarantee to the RFL." Player pay throughout the league has been reduced this season due to the pandemic.
The team has had issues before, missing payroll in December 2018.
Hunter said while players are free to join other clubs for the rest of the season, those who stay on the roster will continue to get paid through October. Those whose contracts run past 2020 season will also be able to negotiate with the club whether they want to stay or go.
While the 34-year-old Williams is owed plenty, it is more than likely he will look to a new rugby challenge.
As for fans, the Wolfpack said ticket refunds will be issued to Ticketmaster "in the near future in order for the refund process to be fulfilled."
Toronto began in 2017 in the third-tier League 1, winning promotion to the second-tier in the first season. The Wolfpack were one victory away from earning promotion to the Super League in 2018, eventually winning their way to the top-tier last October.
The Wolfpack have been hit by one body-blow after another this season.
The latest was a visa issue, with Williams and six other imports facing having to leave the U.K. prematurely.
Australia's Josh McCrone, Darcy Lussick and Blake Wallace, Australian-born Samoan international Ricky Leutele and New Zealand's Williams, Chase Stanley and Bodene Thompson have visas that allow for six months in England over a year.
That's not a problem when the Wolfpack are spending part of the season in Canada. But the pandemic has kept the players in England, meaning their visa expires at the end of the month.
Because the Wolfpack are Canadian-owned, they require different visas than overseas players employed by English clubs.
The team is in the process of arranging travel home for the imports and their families.
The departure of winger Liam Kay, the club's first-ever signing and leading try-scorer, to Wakefield Trinity left the Toronto team with just 22 players. Subtracting the imports would leave the team with 15 or 16 players, given Stanley was late arriving this season — ironically due to red tape — and so had more time on his visa.
Rugby league teams dress 17 players for game, including four on the bench.
The franchise has faced unique difficulties as a Canadian entry in the English league.
The team was not eligible for any of the 16 million pounds (C$27.4 million) in loans made available by the British government to help rugby league teams survive the pandemic.
The Wolfpack were already behind the eight-ball in terms of their agreement first to come into the league and then into Super League. The team does not get a cut of the Sky TV broadcast deal — worth some 2.3 million pounds (C$3.94 million) per team a season.
That essentially covers the salary cap of 2.1 million pounds (C$3.6 million) although that number can grow given teams are allowed two marquee players whose salary cap hit is limited to 150,000 pounds (C$256,875) per person.
Toronto's marquee men are Williams and Leutele.
The hope was the Wolfpack could negotiate a piece of the TV pie for next season.
The club has had to self-fund, paying for the travel accommodation of visiting teams. It also failed to get a piece of the central distribution funding split in the lower divisions during its rise to Super League.
Argyle maintains the franchise would still be running had it not been for COVID-19.
"There was enough momentum to make it work," he said. "The trigger point was COVID."
But he also points to the team's onerous participation agreement with Super League and the RFL.
"I'm not trying to put blame on anyone because we also signed it. But it was a flawed relationship," he said.
Toronto has not played at home since Oct. 5, 2019, when it won promotion to the Super League with a 24-6 victory over Featherstone Rovers in the Million Pound Game before an announced sellout crowd of 9,974 — a Wolfpack record — at Lamport Stadium.
McCrone, the Wolfpack captain, took to social media to voice his displeasure at the lack of support from Super League and the RFL compared to Australia's NRL during the pandemic. He also talked up Toronto's love for the sport.
"If you don't believe that the appetite for rugby league is in Toronto, ask anybody who has witnessed the 'Den' (Lamport Stadium) in person," he wrote.
Under the original 2020 schedule, nine of Toronto's first 10 games were to be played in England with the other in France — with the late start due to the Canadian winter and the bubble over Lamport Stadium yet to come down. The Wolfpack were to play 11 of their last 19 games at home, with the season wrapping up Sept. 11.
Three other home games were to be played at neutral sites in England.
A second Canadian team, the Ottawa Aces, is set to follow the Wolfpack's footsteps by entering the third-tier League 1 next season. The Ottawa president is Eric Perez, the Wolfpack's founder and first CEO.
At its board meeting Monday, the RFL decided that the Championship and League 1 seasons will not resume this year, given the teams' preference not to play behind closed doors.
Instead the lower-tier clubs will be invited to take part in a voluntary competition this fall, when it is hoped fans might be allowed back, with a prize pot of 250,000 pounds (C$428,280).
The board also ruled there will be no relegation from or promotion to the 11-team Super League this season.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 20, 2020.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press