TORONTO — On the eve of their promotion showdown with Featherstone Rovers, the Toronto Wolfpack have got the green light to join the Super League if they win Saturday's Million Pound Game.
The terms are essentially those under which the transatlantic rugby league team has been operating for the first three years of its existence. But this deal would cover only the Wolfpack's first year in Super League with team officials hoping to sweeten the agreement down the line.
Toronto started life in 2017 in League 1, the third tier of English rugby league. It has spent the last two seasons in the second-tier Betfred Championship and is now one win away from replacing the relegated London Broncos in the 12-team Super League.
In looking to join the sport's top tier, the Wolfpack have had to satisfy officials from both the Super League — which consists of 11 English teams and one French side — and the Rugby Football League, the sport's governing body.
It has proved to be a learning process for all concerned.
"We're going in there with the deal that we have today. The same deal we have in the Championship is being extended to our deal in Super League," said Bob Hunter, the Wolfpack's chairman and interim CEO. "Long-term is it commercially viable? That's all open for discussion."
Should Toronto earn promotion, it will have to bite the bullet to start — covering more costs and missing out on some of the revenue that Super League teams enjoy.
The Wolfpack would still have to take care of the transportation and accommodation costs of visiting teams.
That burden has been eased by a sponsorship deal with Air Transat. Toronto is currently in discussion with the airline on extending the deal, talks that have been complicated by Air Canada's pending acquisition.
The Wolfpack would also miss out on the existing Sky TV broadcast revenue, which Hunter says is worth more than two million pounds ($3.3 million) annually per team. That amount would cover the Super League salary cap of 2.1 million pounds ($3.5 million) in 2020.
"That is certainly the initial intention of Super League," Hunter said. "Those discussions have yet to take place. They're going to have to explain it to us."
Also up for discussion are commercial rights such as Canadian TV. This season the Wolfpack paid to produce home telecasts, which were shown by Sky TV in Britain and on Game TV and CBC online back home, in order to showcase the team.
The rugby league authorities wanted a promotion deal done before Saturday's game at Lamport Stadium, which is expected to attract a Wolfpack-record crowd. The current mark is 9,562 — the highest single-game attendance for any Championship game — set during the April home opener against Swinton.
The Wolfpack have had some off-field issues with a missed payroll and a lawsuit by a TV production partner over alleged non-payment. Majority owner David Argyle stepped down as chairman and CEO this season after finding himself in the middle of a racism scandal involving an opposition player.
Team officials met last month with the Rugby Football League to provide details on the franchise's long-term financial stability.
"We checked a whole bunch of boxes, got them a bunch of information right away," said Hunter, a former Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment executive. "And they said 'Well actually, we want to negotiate the (promotion) agreement (in advance of the Million Pound Game).'"
"Then there was a whole bunch of more boxes we had to check ... With us, it was just a matter of because we absorb so many costs, they want to make sure that we were going to be able to hang around," he added.
On Thursday, the authorities signed off on the promotion deal.
"Betfred Super League wishes to confirm its position on the potential promotion of Toronto Wolfpack or Featherstone Rovers ahead of Saturday's Betfred Championship Grand Final," the RFL said in a release.
"The winners of the Million Pound Game will be welcomed into Betfred Super League, as approved by the governing body, the RFL. Promotion is sanctioned by the RFL who have confirmed that both clubs have met all the relevant criteria."
While Toronto has been dominant on the field again this season, winning 27 of 28 matches, the team's future was raised last month when Super League chief executive Robert Elstone cited the need for "a number of assurances" before admitting the North American franchise.
The travel issue is complicated by the fact most Super League games are Thursday or Friday evening. Toronto has played its home games on weekend afternoons, allowing for better travel options.
Hunter says Toronto will continue to play home games on Saturdays, which allows visiting teams to return on a late-night flight that same day.
Should they earn promotion, the Wolfpack plan to continue playing in the 9,600-seat Lamport. The team hopes to sign a long-term deal with the City of Toronto, which owns the venue.
"It's just a matter of enhancing the guest experience with a lot more amenities," Hunter said.
"We've still got to prove our worth in the sports market in Toronto before we would ever consider anything bigger," he added.
Toronto, one of the few fully professional sides in the Championship, also made it to the Million Pound Game last season, losing 4-2 to London.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 3, 2019.
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