This is now the 11th year in succession that the NFL has played games at Wembley Stadium, and every passing year brings talk of an NFL franchise relocating to the UK. The Toronto Wolfpack have essentially done that in reverse, and from the bottom up, traveling through the divisions of British rugby league while based in Canada.
Toronto entered the rugby league pyramid in 2017, winning the third-tier League One and playing front of crowds of more than 7,000, far more than the league average and comparable to clubs in the Super League, the premier division of European rugby league. They were promoted and, in 2018, finished top of the Championship to earn a shot at a place in the Super League, which they lost last weekend to London Broncos.
Nevertheless, the Wolfpack experiment, largely funded by owner David Argyle, has been hailed as a massive success for rugby league – a game predominantly confined to the north of England, the south of France, Australia New Zealand – and opened a totally new market to the sport. The world’s first transatlantic sports club, the Wolfpack have succeeded in creating a fan base, a club culture and a successful team from scratch.
As the NFL prepares to play yet more games in Europe, we called up Toronto Wolfpack General Manager Scott Lidbury to speak about the challenges of playing professional sports on a different continent, the differences between North American and European sports environments and the development of this radically new business model for the sports sector.
Forbes: One of the biggest questions regarding transatlantic sports is obviously logistics. How does the Toronto Wolfpack deal with being the only team in the league on one side of the pond, with all the traveling that that entails?
Essentially what you have is the Wolfpack being based in Manchester and then flown out here for blocks of home games. This year that we June and July in Toronto, which allowed the team to be based here for over two months, which is not something we’d expect to happen with scheduling again, but we had some unique circumstances this year with the redevelopment of our stadium.
We have an amazing partner in Air Transat and one of their key routes is Manchester to Toronto, so that allows us obviously to transport the team between those two bases with the team probably being in Toronto for four to five months of the year depending on schedule. The visiting teams will typically come in on the three-night trip: they will fly in on a Thursday night for a Saturday game and fly out Sunday. Once you sort of get into a groove with it, it’s all pretty seamless.
I’ve often thought about this at the NFL. If the NFL did it, how would they do a similar thing? Would they have a New York base? Rugby league is predominantly based in the north of England so Manchester is within two hours drive of everywhere we play.
Longterm, you would want to have the team full time with more locally based, locally produced North American players, but as, as any expansion team would know, it’s not the reality in year one, two and three. I’m sure the Vegas Golden Knights don’t have many players from that area and in terms of our market, the Toronto Raptors came in 20 odd years ago and are only just starting to get Canadians coming through playing their sport. So it takes time.
It is said by the NFL that they have 6 million fans in the UK, who presumably they would want to become the people who will become fans of the London team. Now that might be true, but the truth remains that the majority of casual sports fans in the UK don’t even know the rules of American football. What measures did the Wolfpack take to give the crowd at the games something to enjoy when they don’t understand the sport?
You obviously have to build a game day experience first. I very much believe that. Because you have to give people a reason to come down and beyond just the sport itself. I think what we’ve tried to do with the Wolfpack is create a real festival type experience from Year One. We have a beer garden where we have a lot of craft breweries from Toronto. We’re in summer. We always try and do some pretty quirky game-day entertainment at halftime and things like that. Maybe a lot of people in that crowd didn’t even know the difference between Rugby League and Rugby Union, let alone really what rugby is in any form.
You’ve got to bring those casual fans in, those event goers, and give them that entertainment experience because I don’t think you’re going to get a packed house full of hardcore avid fans straight away. You’ve got to give people a reason to come out.
What did the Wolfpack do at the actual in the game to give the fans enough of a grounding in the rules of rugby league so that they could enjoy what was going on in front of them?
It’s something we always discussed in terms of how much we want to prescribe to the crowd about what’s going on versus letting them discover their own ways. I grew up with rugby league in Sydney, I’ve lived in Canada for years and I think that fundamentally rugby league is not a difficult sport to understand.
We have had things where we’ve had sort of sponsored elements on a game day where the PA announcer describe a rule but I think for the most part we don’t go over the top with that. We just let people bring their own interpretation to the sport. I think one of the most exciting things about the Wolfpack is that you sometimes get fans from England or Australia who say “Why don’t you explain this, these people don’t know what they’re watching”. I get that – but I also really enjoy the fact that North Americans and Canadians can bring their own interpretation to the game.
In terms of the rules, we’re looking at doing some things like rugby league one-on-one videos maybe on YouTube or something like that to explain them and some of the terminology that they’re familiar with. But I think you also don’t have to insult people’s intelligence – if they watch a game enough and they’re having a good experience and they want to come out, they naturally will pick it up.
You started with a support base of zero and little general knowledge of rugby league – how did the Wolfpack go about starting a fanbase from scratch?
I think we’ve tried to let it grow organically, but one thing we certainly haven’t shied away from is bringing a North American interpretation to the game. From a game day experience perspective, you’ll always see things like national anthems before the game. For those of us who grow up in places like England and Australia, we don’t really do that. We grow up in cultures where it’s all about the game and nothing outside the game. Something like the Superbowl, which is the epitome of American sport, is about practically everything that happens that isn’t on the field. It’s about the commercials, it’s about the halftime show, it’s about everything else. With the way we present the game, we have national anthems, we play music in between scrums and penalties and things like that because that is what people in North America expect and I think after you’ve lived in North America for a while, you start to come over to the fact that it does need to be an entertainment experience.
In England and Australia, you watch the first half and you grab a beer and a pie at halftime and then you come back and watch the second half and that’s kind of it. When you go to an NBA game, it’s just constant sensory overload: timeouts, dancing, t-shirt giveaways. We don’t go that far with it because rugby league isn’t a sport that is susceptible to that level of interjection within the experience, but we try to add elements of that kind of North American culture into the presentation of the sport.
One of the major draws of the NFL in the UK is the Americanness of it all. Fans like the glamor, the tailgating, the national anthem and all the stuff that goes on around the game precisely because it is very un-English. Did you sell rugby league to the Canadian public as something familiar or as something exotic and foreign?
Canada is different to America in that way and we did try and sell it as something that would connect with the Canadian audience. We tried to connect the sport of rugby league with the spirit of other Canadian sports. I used the line ‘it’s like hockey on grass’ because rugby league is a very physical sport and hockey is also physical and has a culture of guys dropping the gloves and having a fight. That kind of grittiness really appeals to Canadians.
We certainly tried to connect rugby league to the locals here rather than saying that it’s this sport that’s transplanted from the north of England or Australia. The NFL is obviously just so American in everything that it does, it’s a real reflection American culture, whereas rugby league isn’t (with British Australian culture).
We’ve said “this is a great sport” and explained why we think Canadians will love it. I think so far that’s really connected with people. They come out, see it and discover for themselves. For those of us who have grown up with rugby league, we’ve always thought that it’s one of the world’s best-kept secrets because it’s not a sport that’s traditionally been successful in a lot of markets globally. Hopefully, through a project like the Wolfpack people see that this is a product that has a lot of legs to compete with some of the biggest sports in the world.
While there is an idea of “franchise” players on which an NFL franchise hangs its organization – Tom Brady at the Patriots, for example – there is basically no name recognition of any NFL players in the UK. How did Toronto take figures like Fui Fui Moi Moi and Ashton Sims, who would be well-known rugby league personalities, and sell them to the Toronto public?
I think every sport wants characters and that’s certainly something that we want. We’ve tried to raise the profile of our guys. In Year One, that was obviously Fui Fui in a big way; in Year Two guys like Ashton and Liam Kay have really come to the fore. They have starred and have become quite marketable over the last two years.
But I think rugby league is a little different in that sense where it’s more of a sport about the team, whereas American sports are very much about the individual personalities. We really thrive and stand behind the team ethos of rugby. Something our owner David Argyle always talks about is that the first thing a rugby player does after they score is to go over to congratulate their teammates. In the NFL, the first thing a guy does is whatever his touchdown celebration is. It’s a bit of a different culture in that sense.
At the same time, I think this year particularly we’ve seen a lot of our guys getting out into mainstream media, whether it’s on Sports Center-type shows on TV or by having billboards in Dundas Square, which is the Times Square of Toronto. We highlighted our biggest personalities, the guys like Ashton, that can really appeal to people, but I think we were more interested in creating that kind of aura of the rugby player in the mind of the Toronto fans because they see these guys and they recognize the athleticism of them and what they do on the field. These guys are impressive specimens and pretty humble guys when they get out there.
As a team that is trying to rise up the ranks in the English RL system, there is going to be some player turnover as the team gets promoted. It’s difficult to have any one or two players that you can just ride for five to ten years as you might with a Tom Brady-type who has been playing in the NFL for almost 20 years. In the NBA and the NFL, the personalities are just so huge because of things like fantasy sports and endorsements. We’re trying to raise the profile of our guys but in much more of a team environment than compared to some other sports.
If you could give a piece of advice to an NFL ownership group looking to relocate to London, what would it be?
You’ve got to trust in your sport. If you believe in the product and you believe in the sport then I think you can make it work. The world is such a small place these days. The flight from the UK to the East Coast of the US is not that much further than a flight across North America.
It is hard work, but it’s a really exciting thing to be involved in transatlantic sport and if you have a great product, there’s no reason you can’t succeed. I do firmly believe that you have to create that all-around game entertainment experience for people, which I know that the US sports are exceptional at doing. If you create an experience that connects with people in the market that you’re trying to break into then there’s no reason that you can’t succeed.
Obviously on the field success helps as well. That’s been a big thing for us. I hope the Wolfpack can be a real sort of instigator, a beacon of this transatlantic sports model. I think we will have a lot more teams looking at this model and saying this is achievable and this is the way that the modern sport is going.
Comments have been edited for concision and clarity.