One week after Super League rejected the Toronto Wolfpack’s bid for reinstatement, head coach Brian McDermott remains angry, bitter and incredulous.
“I won’t pull any punches,” said the 50-year-old former Royal Marine. “It’s rocked everybody. It’s shocked and stunned me.”
McDermott had to give the news to his players via a Zoom call, one final negative update on the transatlantic rugby league team after months of uncertainty during the pandemic.
“That was one of the hardest ones I’ve done, where I’m effectively telling the players ‘That’s us done. That’s the fight over. We are all now officially unemployed. And we’ve got to go out and try and find employment somewhere else. And this dream is over for everybody.”‘
“Nobody said too much. A very sombre moment for everybody,” he added.
For players and staff who have not been paid since June 10, there is also the fear they may never see money owed. McDermott, for one, signed a new five-year contract last November.
“That’s not worth anything,” he said with a laugh.
“It probably shouldn’t need explaining but there isn’t a club, now,” he added. “There’s no club, there’s no entity, there’s no bank account, there’s no overdraft. There’s nothing that you can rely upon. There’s nothing. It’s gone. That’s it. Over. Finished.”
The journey we were on was more than promising. And just overnight – bang. Gone. That’s it. It’s finished.— Toronto Wolfpack head coach Brian McDermott
McDermott then paused.
“I’ve got to be careful about what I’m saying, because I’m feeling very resentful. I’m feeling very angry. I feel very bitter. And embarrassed, for the people of Toronto.”
“The journey we were on was more than promising,” he added. “And just overnight — bang. Gone. It’s finished. That’s it. Done. You’re over.”
Central funding drawn primarily from TV
McDermott says Super League’s criticism of the club’s proposed new business plan is nothing more than a smokescreen.
He believes the fate of the Wolfpack came down to one issue — money. Potential new owner Carlo LiVolsi wanted the same share of the central distribution funding as the other 11 Super League clubs.
“That’s when we got refused,” McDermott told The Canadian Press. “That’s when Super League clubs thought ‘At the moment my slice of the pie is a certain width. And if we allow Toronto back in with a 100 per cent distribution, then my slice of the pie is going to get thinner next year.’
“That’s the reason. And I think that’s the embarrassment of all this, not what we did.”
That central funding, worth about 2.3 million pounds ($3.9 million) per team in a normal year, is drawn primarily from TV revenue with a portion from sponsorships. Lower-league teams share a much smaller amount.
Under terms of its agreement with rugby league authorities, Toronto was denied any of that. The club believed the issue would be reopened once it got to Super League, but that didn’t happen.
Last home game drew sellout crowd
Current Wolfpack majority owner David Argyle has said he and the existing ownership group poured $30 million into the team since it first took the field in 2017.
News that Super League, in mulling over Toronto’s reinstatement bid, had appointed an independent committee to look into the viability of the sport in North America had heartened McDermott.
“All the evidence and all the common sense would suggest that we would get another go,” he said.
The Wolfpack’s last home game, a 24-6 win over Featherstone Rovers on Oct. 5, 2019, in the Million Pound Game that earned the team promotion to Super League, drew an announced sellout crowd of 9,974 at Lamport Stadium.
McDermott said the team averaged 8,000 at home last season.
The Super League-appointed committee concluded “that operating a team in a fiercely competitive North American sports market was non-strategic and added no material incremental revenue to Super League in the short or medium term.”
Unable to afford playing out season
McDermott says the Super League verdict on the Wolfpack lacks transparency.
“I think it’s a dishonest decision and I think it lacks integrity,” he added. “I think it brings into question the governance. I think it brings into question the voting process about how Super League clubs are allowed to vote for their competitors, whether they want to have them in or not.”
The 11 other Super League clubs had a vote on Toronto’s fate, as did the Rugby Football League and Super League chief executive Robert Elstone. The vote reportedly was 8-4 against the Wolfpack with one abstention.
Because of the pandemic, the Wolfpack never got a chance to play any Super League games at home this year. The team stood down July 20, saying it could not afford to play out the remainder of the season.
Super League ripped up Toronto’s participation agreement and expunged it from the standings.
While at least 10 Wolfpack players have found other clubs, either on loan or permanently, others have suffered without pay. Few get rich playing rugby league, a punishing sport that takes a physical toll.