Perez Living Toronto Dream in Ottawa

Life after the Toronto Wolfpack has been good to Eric Perez who returns to Canada with a new team and a dream setup in the nation's capital. The Ottawa Aces founder and CEO talks the ugly past, the exciting present and the bright future of rugby league in North America.

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It’s a sunny day late in July, Perez’s phone is hot and not because of the weather. It’s been over a week since the Toronto Wolfpack – the rugby league team he founded in 2016 – pulled out of Super league competition, throwing the future of the franchise into serious doubt. Despite leaving the club at the end of the team’s first season in 2017 due to differences with owner David Argyle the Toronto-raised Perez maintains a mystery interest in the franchise and is a point of contact for rugby league in Canada.

Its been less than a week since Argyle suggested a fan buy-in of the team at $100 a share with a goal of $10M to help the team out of its financial struggles – including two (now going on four) months back pay for players and staff –, a proposal Perez believes opened up a floodgate of private buyers. His phone caught fire quickly.

“It’s not my deal to do,” says Perez, dousing the flame of his involvement. He insists he’s had little to do with the process. “I just passed it on to the people at the club, you know what I mean?

“That was my baby. I started that club.”

With Wolfpack CEO Bob Hunter doing yeoman’s work in pulling together a new ownership deal that would keep the club in Toronto the list of potential buyers was quickly whittled down to two before resting on Carlo LiVolsi in late August. A Toronto-based entrepreneur with a focus on health and beauty product distribution, LiVolsi was an original investor in the Wolfpack and is a major sponsor of the team through his Wolf Grooming line. His group was presented to officials in August and formally proposed to Super League brass in early September with an 80-page submission outlining his plan.

As the rugby world awaited the decision that will drastically shape the future of Super League commissioner Robert Elston – after three long weeks – squashed all momentum by sending LiVolsi’s team back to the drawing board to present a more detailed and convincing playbook. Theatrics? Hoops? Or a league genuinely trying to make it work? It begs the question because Super League has been bafflingly hesitant with almost every step they’ve taken on the expansion path.

“In every other league you’re going to get more support,” acknowledges Perez. “Start with marketing and with a lot of different areas but this was such a unique venture – transatlantic, English league – and they don’t have a huge history of expansion. Most of the teams have been there for a hundred plus years! So, they just really didn’t understand the concept of it like we do and that’s been a bit difficult.

“But if you work with the league and you work with the RFL then they tend to be more helpful and I think that Toronto kind of stopped doing that, started going their own way with things.”

During his semi-public introduction LiVolsi immediately distanced himself from Argyle by denouncing the mining magnate’s way of doing business as “dishonest” and “disgusting”. LiVolsi himself is reportedly owed money from the club and appears to have ended his relationship with Argyle, claiming the two have not spoken in months.

But any thoughts LiVolsi and Hunter or even Perez might have had about a quick resolution were dashed by Elstone’s delay. The whole saga is playing out across the Atlantic like stop-and-go, anti-climatic sports porn between the Wolfpack and Super League that runs the risk of alienating the only serious Toronto-based buyer it has willing to make the team work, pay off debts and stay put.

“The club wasn’t being run the way I would have run it,” explained Perez when the Wolfpack first withdrew from competition. “It was being run unsustainably with too many high-priced talent players coming in and not enough patient infrastructure, which is what I would have done and I think what a lot of the new ownership options would do with it.

“I wanted to do things sticking to the original plan and a cowboy plan kind of emerged.”

Ottawa Aces founder and CEO Eric Perez has quickly become one of the most important executives and influencers in rugby league. (Photo: Toronto Wolfpack)

Meanwhile in Ottawa – as founder and CEO of Super League’s newest expansion team – the Ottawa Aces – Perez is preparing his own re-entry into rugby league competition for 2021. Its part of the reason he wants the Wolfpack to recover – knowing the faster the big city club finds its footing and regains momentum the better off the expansion effort as a whole will be. Hunter confirms that Perez has been a strong ally but that like every other team, the Aces have their own agenda.

“Us not being successful is not good for the Ottawa Aces, so he has a vested interest in us coming out of this,” explains Hunter. “I would say that he has been helpful but I just had to control the messages sometimes. It’s the balance between being an owner and having an interest in another club. Eric’s been supportive.”

Cognisant of the off-field struggles that club has been mired in since his departure Perez has gone through great pains to create a better blueprint for the Aces and other teams to follow. After his ouster in Toronto Perez bought and ran the Hemel Stags of first-tier League 1 and then quickly relocated the franchise to Canada’s capital city.

“We have an incredible set up at TD Stadium,” says Perez. He doesn’t attempt to contain his excitement. Partnering with the established Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group and its three existing sports teams and stadium ownership has been massive. “Everything – what I wanted to do originally with Toronto – my ideal situation – I actually made it happen with Ottawa so things are looking good.”

The strategy he used with the Stags was shrewd. Because the Wolfpack was founded in Canada they don’t fit into Super League’s constitution requiring all full member teams to be founded in the UK. This meant they had no voting rights or access to central distribution upon their arrival in Super League. By acquiring a UK founded team and gaining approval for relocation (another successful Perez sell-job) the franchise inherits full member status and can avoid a lot of the bullshit the Wolfpack have had to sift through.

“So we have different rights,” Perez explains. “If Toronto gets relegated out of Super League for example, they would get the same deal as us.

“It was a deal made for all future North American clubs so there would be no disparity.”

Footing the bill for UK teams to travel to Canada will still be a requirement for the Aces and the New York franchise set to follow in 2022, with the expectation being that once a team makes the top flight Super League division the responsibility ends. It was a promise once given to the Wolfpack but never fulfilled. The team was due to renegotiate with the RFL on that and other issues, including central distribution, before the pandemic shut down sports leagues worldwide.

If the Wolfpack were to be relegated it would give the Aces an immediate cross-province rival in Toronto, which would be great for league business and the Aces – putting the two teams side by side on the starting line – in a scenario keeping with Hunter’s hint that with Perez there is more than meets the eye.

“I don’t know if they would be full members but they would get the same deal we got, besides maybe a full membership,” Perez clarifies. “I don’t know if that’s up for debate, that’s more of an RFL question.”

Wolfpack owner David Argyle – who reportedly spent $30M on the club since 2017 – has walked away from Super League after withdrawing from competition and putting the club up for sale this summer. (Photo: Canadian Press)

Perez’s sights have always been set beyond expansion and team building. He wants to build rugby culture in Canada and sees rugby league as the next and maybe last big sport left to make its mark in North America. His passion for the game is evident and is the fuel behind his sell-jobs. He’s a mid-forties shaker, relatable to the very fan he is trying to attract and the type of players he wants around to help build up the scene.

“You know what the difference between North American league sand this league are?” poses Perez. He’s trying to get around to making a point about the value of secured franchises versus relegation and promotion but gets wonderfully side-tracked. “Besides the North American drip that we have, that they don’t have. There’s a different drip level. There are no Jah Morants in this shit, you know what I mean? But there will be.”

The team hired Laurent Frayssinous as its first head coach in July and have since announced a flurry of player signings capped recently with the acquisition of 6’7 prop Adam Lawton. With 18 players now in the fold there are still more roster spots to fill out and staff to expand as the franchise continues to turn the wheel towards the start of their maiden season. With all that remains to be done before the first ball drops in this unpredictable time of pandemic, Perez feels much better about the Aces’ chances than he did with the Wolfpack under the old regime.

“Way better because I’m unequivocally leading this one,” Perez positions. “Whereas I was leading that one but it got taken over with another philosophy. I’m unequivocally leading this one so I really feel we’ll stick to the game plan and we’ll do well and when the new ownership takes over Toronto they will also be in a better position. They’ll have better will from the clubs around the league and from management in the league, administration and they will do things that are more long-term rather than short-term decisions.”

If Toronto was Super League’s biggest city Ottawa (population 1.4 million) might be its second and is definitely the largest outside the top-tier. Add New York and lure London back to the fold an you’ve got the major city involvement needed to power the bright lights professional sports should be played under. You have to do more than just want to survive. That or its just everybody sucking the sport dry until it’s a dead carcass on the highway of what-ifs and could-have-beens.

“At the end of the day the first guy over the top in a battle most likely gets his head blown off, you know what I mean?” Perez sighs, slighted by that truth but more than happy to feast on the lessons. “Then the next guy comes and he might just come through with a little wound in the arm and the third guy just plows right through. That’s kind of the way this is except I think that Toronto took so many bullets for us that we were able to kind of see everything coming and plan for it.

“Too be fair they made it to Super League and got crazy notoriety in the city and cut through when people would say that’s impossible – so who am I to say that was completely wrong?”

Toronto businessman Carlo LiVolsi wants a shot at running the Wolfpack but only if the team is permitted to stay in Super League, the top flight in the three-tier rugby league competition. (Photo: thesun.co.uk)

Part of the attraction to Toronto for players is its market size and culture, far removed from the small towns in the UK rugby league is traditionally played in. Perez, while watching a Leeds vs Bradford game on a television in Birmingham during a visit (and eventual move to work in advertising) to the UK more than a decade ago, quickly saw the appeal the gritty sport could have to fans in North America’s bigger markets and how badly rugby league needed to grow. When he returned to Canada he set about founding the Canadian Rugby League, re-establishing the national team and sparking local interest. In no time the Canadians were playing fixtures at home and abroad and within two years Perez was planning a proposal for a professional rugby league franchise. His big sell began and never stopped.

The pains though, have been deep. His voice still holds traces of what could have been – a Toronto boy with a Toronto team, a captain of his own ship forced out by the hand of an over-ambitious owner who quickly lost course, in many ways leaving the club adrift at sea.

“For sure it concerns me because I started the team,” explains Perez. “I was the first CEO. I named it the Wolfpack before David Argyle even knew that there was a team coming to Toronto. Everything about it concerns me but not in terms of Ottawa, because it won’t really effect us.”

Perez wants you to know what he did with the Wolfpack and what he’s about to do with the Aces. He is unapologetic in his push to make rugby league a major league sport in North America. He sells with no mercy and has assembled a group of mostly private investors to fund his vision with an ownership group that he leads and holds final sway with, something he didn’t possess in the 6ix. Perez is a Toronto man – a local who can speak to the city’s ins and outs, its places to see and be (and not to be) – and its that connection to big city life and opportunity with its appeal to the modern rugby athlete he carries with him and uses to help build the culture.

The speed at which Perez has managed to execute the first leg of his vision is impressive. In the past four years he has founded (and relocated) two organizations and paved the way for a third in New York. He has become a disruptor in sports by establishing the world’s first transatlantic professional sports teams and if he can help navigate the Wolfpack through these choppiest of waters and reignite interest in expansion it will cement his pioneer status, if it isn’t solid enough already. A remarkable climb but a far, far distance from where rugby league needs to be for it to work in Canada and register as a major league.

Perez will lead the Ottawa Aces franchise into the 2021 season in what he hopes will strengthen his rugby league movement in North America. (Photo: Ottawa Sun)

“Hey, sorry about that,” says Perez when he calls back.

It’s all good. We’re done here.

We agree to talk down the road and spend a few minutes chatting about his ambitious plans for the Aces before getting around to all the good restaurants he’s missing in Toronto. His bio says his favourite is Katana – the upscale Argyle owned joint in Bay – but I get the feeling that information is outdated. Besides, you can just as easily see Perez eating a hot beef patty on a cold day behind a window on Eglinton West or the dime-a-dozen pub across the pond in Gibraltar where he first crafted his plans on a fish and chips wrapper. It’s been quite the trip.

It’s October now – over two months since my conversation with Perez – and the status of the Wolfpack still sits under a giant question mark. Argyle has completely stepped away from his $30M investment and losses to allow for an unimpeded sale. Super League tore up the Wolfpack’s participation agreement back in the summer as part of the punishment for pulling out of the 2020 season meaning the club must apply for reinstatement. This prompted LiVolsi’s “Super League or bust!” condition that likely kills any sale if the ‘Pack are relegated to League 1 or the second-tier Championship division. It would put the team in further arrears, leave players and staff unpaid for at least another month and throw the existence of the franchise back into doubt.

There will also be a fan base to reengage, sponsors to lure back in and a TV deal to be made somehow, some way. All this, of course, is dependent on the looming decision from Super League owners who gave LiVolsi until the end of the month to come up with a tastier presentation for it to dine on. No, the struggles in Toronto are far from over but things are looking pretty good from Perez’s seat in Ottawa.

“It’s going to be huge, man. I’m telling you.” Perez’s love for rugby league is bright and kinetic and it’s easy to see how it’s helped him brave the heavily mined landscape of the professional sports business. He’s selling again but there isn’t a single rehearsed line in the delivery, only a contagious belief in his speak that often comes from men who have built something from nothing and against most odds. “Toronto will bounce back, they’ll bounce back in a better way.”

For Perez though – just as it was four years ago with the Wolfpack – that time is now. The beginning. Another one. The place may not be the city of his childhood but it’s still his dream – now 400 kilometres away in Ottawa – alive and strong as ever.

“Everybody has their time and place,” said Perez on that late afternoon back in July. “Maybe David Argyle’s time and place has passed but the club is the most popular rugby club in the world in terms of notoriety and it’s in Toronto. We have to support that.”

 

 

 

(Cover photo: Total Rugby)