22 July 2020

Toronto - What Should Happen Next?

We're a couple of days removed from the huge news that Toronto Wolfpack have withdrawn from the 2020 Super League Season. If you want to hear our snap reactions on the day of the news, listen to this week's show: SLP E271.

Since then, I've been thinking about what should happen next. First, I want to state that I remain supportive of well-planned and well-managed expansion. Also, I truly hope the thousands of fans that the Wolfpack have engaged in our sport aren't left without a club to follow.

Whatever I think, and more significantly, whatever Super League and the RFL decide, the key is David Argyle and his fellow backers behind the Wolfpack are still committed to the team and sport. I really hope they are.

Assuming Argyle & co are still behind the club, and the Wolfpack play on in 2021, here are the four options I see for 2021:

Option 1: As you were
Wolfpack stay in Super League. No sanctions or repercussions from this season's withdrawal. No change in their central distribution position, i.e. they still get none. But they're at the Super League 2021 starting line on equal footing with the rest of the league.

Some will feel this is fair, Toronto have been hardest hit by Covid, and that can't all be blamed on them. Its not their fault UK clubs got furlough or access to the Government loan but they didn't. Yes, it's a consequence of their unique position, but they were allowed to take up that unique position. Of course, some others will say without Covid, they had already overspent and were already bottom of the league.

This would surely be the Wolfpack's preference. Even better, they would like this, but with access to the central distributions too. My view is they were crazy to not look for any on promotion anyway, one of their mistakes. Even if they had taken less than everyone else to allow for potential travel costs etc., they should never have accepted a position where they took nothing. And, really, them taking nothing is a huge part of why they've withdrawn - they aren't beholden to the broadcasters like the rest, as they get no money from them either way. Bad for them, and ultimately, far from ideal for everyone else too now. A lesson for everyone to learn, whatever happens.

Option 2: Stay in but with sanctions
A second option, and maybe one more palatable for the other Super League clubs, is that they stay in Super League for 2021, but with some sanctions applied.

It could be a points deduction. I'm not in favour of a straight up points deduction, you almost may as well relegate them now rather than give what would likely be a stay of execution. I would be in favour of a potential points deduction if set conditions aren't met. For example, I'd approve changing the Operational Rules for Super League/full-time clubs to have 2 point deduction for every month players are paid late. But I don't see the benefit in a club starting on a points deduction over relegation/demotion, this far out from 2021 starting.

It could be a financial sanction instead. Firstly, they could be forced to pay for any costs associated with their late withdrawal - for example, as one of our listeners pointed out, Hull KR lost out on a week of furlough for their players. Toronto would certainly have to forego central funding in 2021, and could also be asked to pay a fine that would be shared amongst other clubs as penance for their failure to complete the season this year.

Whilst it may be expensive for Toronto in 2020/2021, it might help get other clubs back onside, and still means they get to sit at the top table. Also, from a Toronto perspective, it allows them to play a part in renegotiation over central distributions under the new TV deal from 2022 onward. For the long-term sake of the club, they need to be part of those distributions, even if that isn't a full share, with travel costs for other clubs, for example, removed from their share. Also for the other clubs, it makes sense. Because if Toronto do sort their act out, consolidate then prosper in Super League, start earning their own broadcast deals or associated revenues, if clubs don't share with them, why would they share back. It's an 'if', but one it makes no sense to gamble losing out on for the league and other clubs, in my view.

Some will definitely feel this isn't a strong enough measure, especially Championship clubs hoping for a backdoor promotion for 2021. Others will think this might be the fairest way out of this mess. It makes the competition for next year simple, clubs can start planning, but Toronto don't get away scot free.

Personally, I wouldn't be opposed to Toronto getting away with this option. They stay in Super League, but at a cost to themselves and no detriment to the other 11 clubs. It's clear to me they deserve some punishment - Covid arguably just brought forward some failings of their own making, with cap management and squad development miss-steps. Also, the timing of the withdrawal was far from reasonable or ideal. That's without some of the practices I can't get on board with, like regular late payments to players and creditors.

Option 3: Relegation to the Championship
This one feels likely. There's a lot of pressure to punish Toronto and many would feel this is the most suitable punishment. Similarly, there's a lot of pressure, and criticsim, from a small number of Championship clubs that feel they've been unfairly denied a shot at promotion this year. This option appeases both of those pressure groups.

It may also satisfy Toronto. They get to reshape their squad, but they aren't starting from scratch. And, it gives them a chance to renegotiate their position with Super League and central distributions, should they earn promotion back on the field of play. Given their two fairly dominant Championship campaigns in recent years, they'll be optimistic of earning that.

Whether or not one year away will be enough for them to undo all the bad will their 11th hour withdrawal in 2020 has caused would be a different question. I'd suggest maybe not. And don't forget too, them being relegated will either mean unbalanced fixture lists for the 11 Super League clubs in 2021, or sharing the central distributions with a 12th club who get promoted from the Championship. Strangely, the other 11 Super League clubs might be the biggest opponents of this option.

I don't really like this option. I'm not wholly sure who it benefits, other than one Championship club. I'm not sure how much confidence I have in the likely promotion candidates from the Championship to add value to Super League, Toulouse and potentially York aside - but even those two would be likely one-season wonders in all likelihood, unfortunately.

Option 4: Start again
Finally, they could be moved back down to League 1. Doing so means they can start from scratch. They can learn from some of their mistakes and missed opportunities from the first time around, of which there have been plenty, if we're all being fair. Those who want Toronto punished would be satisfied surely.

But also, starting again means Toronto can fundamentally renegotiate their relationship with the sport. They could ensure they're treating the same way as any other club, in terms of the say they get and the share of central distributions they get. It also means something can be built with Toronto and Ottawa in the same league for at least one season. And, last time Toronto were in League 1, we saw them employ some North American players too, it's a level of play they can be competitive in. Maybe even they go up to the second tier together and build on that further. That would arguably be a positive for expansion.

I see positives from this option that outweigh the same negatives that Option 3 creates. It will be a head-scratcher to balance up the divisions, deciding how many teams should be in each league and then which teams deserve to be moved about. But it allows a full refresh and refocus on the North American expansion, not just for the overseas clubs, but for the RFL and other clubs and competitions too.

As a pro-expansionist, but also someone who wants to see good ownership practice, Option 2 or Option 4 are the best of the options I can see. I suspect Option 4 might be the best overall compromise, depending on how much financial sacrifice Toronto would be willing to give up to make Option 2 happen.

We'll be putting it to the SLP poll so you can have your say. We'll also be sure to continue the Toronto discussion on our next show, with further news bound to break before we record and more fan views on the topic already reaching us.

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