Sonny Williams Is Still The Future of Rugby

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In the big world of North American sports a 2-year, $10M contract is not news. That’s an average NBA salary around these parts, a good living in the NFL and a respectable bag in the NHL. But these parts have never seen Super League rugby, where that figure represents the highest ever paid out to a single player. That player is Sonny Bill Williams and he is coming to Toronto.

When the rugby league club Toronto Wolfpack were promoted to Super League after winning the awesomely titled “Million Pound Game” they landed in a different world. The competition in Super League is much tougher than the League 1 and Championship divisions they had to break through to get there. To compete on this stage you need players with heart and hustle along with an ownership ready to spend. To lure Williams away from rugby union and his native New Zealand – where he is a certified superstar – the Wolfpack paid the big bucks. They also gave him ownership in the Wolfpack franchise, another rare move that gives Williams a vested interest in the club’s longer-term success.

“He is such a big brand personally in the UK,” says Wolfpack CEO Bob Hunter on the topic of Williams. “That is why the Wolfpack will probably be the most broadcast team this year. Sky (Sports network) picked up more of our games than any other team. That’s UK-wise. Here he has brought more attention and obviously appreciated the value of our games.”

The Wolfpack are an experiment to many in the sport – a bid to test the viability of rugby league in the big markets across the pond from the UK base of Super League. In Toronto the club is an investment and Williams is a big part piece of the value – maybe the biggest. His social media reach is impressive and his willingness to speak on issues beyond rugby keep him relevant away from he field.  Since his “arrival” in Canada the Ottawa Aces organization has been granted permission to join the entry level League 1 in 2021. A New York franchise will enter in 2021.

How the two new franchises approach things will be influenced by how the Wolfpack do business. Right now they are the expansion model that made it to Super League in just three years and landed one of the sport’s biggest names. Williams is a standout in rugby and a celebrity on the other side of the world but can his personality compete with the well-marketed characters that make up the Raptors? The big money that floats around the Blue Jays roster? The instant stars that are created just by putting on a Maple Leaf jersey?

Toronto Wolfpack CEO Bob Hunter looks on as Sonny Bill Williams addresses the media in January. (photo: Getty Images)

The 6ix isn’t a hard city to win over. Hardhat work ethic always endears here and Williams – even as he exits the prime of his career – has that. He excites with his style of play and has a global following watching his Toronto journey with bright eyes. Williams also uses his celebrity for global causes and is a dedicated family man with a wife and four children that he sits with in the limelight. How that all translates to Toronto and how deep Williams plants himself into the city remains to be seen. All the ingredients are there but Toronto is a congested town where every professional sports team has championship history. Registering as an elite won’t be easy.

“He’s just a great person,” says Hunter. “He’s fit in well. He’s proceeded to be one of the leaders just given his maturity and his experience and the wars that he’s been through. I think the guys were just excited about playing with hi, because they have so much to learn from a guy with that skill level. There’s been no ego, just “I’m here for the team”.

Williams is expected to win now, both on the field and by doing his part to turn Torontonians into rugby fans and, more specifically, Wolfpack fans. The team is unique enough and so is his star. How much it shines and what that light touches depends more on winning than anything else, but it also depends on building an exciting product to watch with a face that’s of the people.

Sonny Williams in action vs. the Castleford Tigers in early February. (photo: Chris Mangnall/SWpix.com)

Without a great TV deal or any of its money exposure has been limited up until now. With only two years of Sonny Williams guaranteed that’s the first thing that will have to change. If Williams is here to be seen then securing a deal with a Canadian broadcaster is essential. The Toronto Arrows – a rugby union club playing in Major League Rugby and co-tenants with the Wolfpack at Lamport – recently landed a deal with TSN to air games across their multiple platforms.

“We’ve got 11 games at home,” explained Hunter just before COVID-19 concerns postponed the season. “Our intent in working with Sky is that we’re going to broadcast 8 of those home games. Your local fans will hopefully be at the games but certainly from the standpoint of getting those games back to the UK and getting more exposure for the Wolfpack. We’ve committed to broadcast those games (and) we are just now in the process of working on who it is that we will work with to present those games. Sportsnet World has the rights to any of our games during the week but any of the games that are on the weekend we own the broadcast rights. Obviously it’ d be nice to be on mainstream television but there is just so much going on in this town that it will be challenging to do that. We are talking to both sports networks about that.”

Williams won’t be here forever and the total of what he leaves behind will be more important than the sample size he’s shown thus far. He’ll need to leave a big impression but it’s one destined to be long in the making. Williams was due to arrive in Canada in April for the Wolfpack’s first Super League home game on Canadian soil but the coronavirus pandemic has put sports leagues on hold worldwide. Instead he’s in New Zealand recovering from minor knee surgery while in isolation with his family. Before that the anticipation was growing and it will be hard to replicate the hype once Williams and rugby league resume. To blow the roof off the Wolfpack will need to win, which is always the hardest part of the equation.

“You know this town very well – they like a winner,” says Hunter. “Needless to say we’ve got to come back (to Toronto) with a decent record. No matter what though certainly the initial response for him will be very, very positive. We get six to seven thousand very hard-core fans and I think his reception with those hard-core fans that are true rugby league, ardent supporters will be very, very positive. It’s really a matter of getting him more exposure in the sports scene in Toronto. That’s certainly one of our objectives.”