It all comes down to a final vote today to see if the Toronto Wolfpack will be allowed to remain in Super League, the UK’s premiere rugby league division. Since a last-minute withdrawal from competition before SL’s pandemic restart in August the team – heavily in debt to players, staff and partners – has been put up for sale, identified a prospective local owner in businessman Carlos LiVolsi and presented a proposal to SL brass in a bid to keep the franchise afloat. None of that seems to have impressed chief executive Robert Elston who ordered the Wolfpack back to their lab last month to formulate a more detailed plan after the first was rejected as “unrealistic”.
Still, with all the hoop jumping, delayed announcements and a stunning coinciding league report investigating the pros and cons of having a team in Canada – a document reportedly created by Elstone associates that leans towards his stance to relegate the Wolfpack – the organization doesn’t feel any closer, or farther, from a resurrection in Super League than they did two months ago. The research report summarizes – laughably – that the Toronto market doesn’t add any significant value or potential to rugby league and there is “no strategic benefit” to in remaining in Canada (which should go over well with the new Aces franchise in Ottawa). The relationship between the Wolfpack and the league doesn’t appear to be notably improved either, leaving any sight of the final decision murky and impossible to predict.
“We’ve spoken to every owner in the Super League family,” says Wolfpack CEO Bob Hunter. “We understand who supports us and who doesn’t and we understand why they don’t support us. The reality is it is going to come down to what I’m assuming will be a very tight vote.”
Among the 11 other Super League teams most seem to have already made up their minds one way or another. Catalans, Leeds and St. Helen’s are said to be in favour of a Toronto return while Hull, Hull KR, Castleford, Huddersfield and Wakefield are believed to be against the move. 13 votes will be cast in total (11 team owners, the governing Rugby Football League and SL) meaning the Wolfpack require seven votes to gain approval. The RFL is thought to be a Wolfpack supporter and their position may carry extra weight with the fence-sitters but LeVolsi is being heavily relied upon to deliver a final pitch strong enough to win over the undecided – reported to be Salford, Warrington and Wigan – and maybe even change some minds in the process.
With word circulating on Sunday that LiVolsi’s second submission failed again to impress league executives Toronto’s last chance has taken an early hit. There has been other news suggesting that team owners are being encouraged to vote against the ‘Pack directly because of the latest proposal.
“I would just say more detail on our financials and our business plans,” explains Hunter about what he feels Super League needs to be convinced. “And some level of security that we have staying power and sustainability. I think that’s what Carlo will attempt to confirm for them.
“I think we have done a significant job on the second submission that should give them a high level of confidence that we have an appropriate business plan and owner in line.”
Elstone making his case against Toronto so publicly adds another layer to the saga and pits the commish’s vote against the RFL and other Toronto supporters. In that way a Wolfpack reinstatement could be seen as a loss for Elstone and by doubling down he may have inadvertently tied his future in the league to the outcome of today’s vote.
When Elstone asked for a more detailed report from the Wolfpack his big hope was to get the full scope of LiVolsi’s net worth, something LiVolsi has been hesitant to provide without the assurance of re-admittance. It’s become a major sticking point in the process. Lost in all of this is the league’s second biggest concern; the egg on their face from the embarrassment of Toronto’s bailing out of the restart due to the team’s financial tap-out. It was a bad look for everybody SL wants every assurance it can get to avoid suffering through those optics again and the scramble it caused. It’s an understandable position, as is LeVolsi’s insistence that his purchase of the Wolfpack only happens if the team is returned to the top tier and is treated as an equal member on all matters – including the hotly debated issues of central distribution, of which the Wolfpack want their cut.
“I think that’s a fairly significant point of discussion,” says Hunter. “Our position has been clear form day one. If we’re allowed back in to participate we expect to be treated equally amongst the other 11 clubs. Whatever that number is – better, worse or equal – that we would expect our 1/12 share.”
Elstone has created an atmosphere of divide as the decision has drawn closer. Walking out a side report that destroys the idea of Toronto as a money maker the weekend before a final decision is to be made with at least three teams still undecided smells like a campaign. If LiVolsi’s last proposal represents hope for Wolfpack fans the “findings” of Elstone’s report represent a big dark cloud hanging over it. It’s timing, content and collection of authors all make it quite questionable.
Either way, the long and drawn out drama of the 2020 Wolfpack is coming to an end. Either decision will take rugby league into a new era but wether or not the Wolfpack are part of it will say much about how Super League sees itself – as a player and disruptor on the world sports stage or a company content to tread water in a system barely keeping it afloat?
Barring another delay, we’re about to find out.
(PHOTO: Getty Images)