Wolfpack founder says expansion vital for NRL to avoid being left behind

Toronto Wolfpack founder and the man behind the bid for a second Canadian team, Eric Perez, believes the NRL could become a feeder to Super League within a decade unless the Telstra Premiership expands.

Perez, whose plan to relocate a team from London won the backing of a majority of UK clubs at a meeting in Salford on Thursday, told NRL.com that Super League could soon be played in markets totalling 100 million people with the inclusion of teams in Ottawa and New York.

In comparison, he said the NRL has a presence on the east coast of Australia and in New Zealand only.

The ARL Commission has ordered a detailed report on expansion by the end of the year but Perez said without teams in Perth, Adelaide and other new markets the NRL would risk being outstripped by Super League, as well as the AFL.

"It’s a time for globalisation and the era of small town clubs or cities divided by eight clubs should probably go with it," Perez said.

"The best English talent now goes to Australia but I think that if the RFL continues on this path that I have set out in North America there will be a time in 10 years - especially if the NRL doesn’t spread out from Sydney - that the NRL could be a feeder competition to the Super League because we have got bigger markets."

Wigan Warriors playmaker Thomas Leuluai takes on the Roosters in the World Club Challenge.
Wigan Warriors playmaker Thomas Leuluai takes on the Roosters in the World Club Challenge. ©NRL Photos

To gain entry into the third tier League One competition next season, as Wolfpack did in 2017, Perez proposes to relocate Hemel Stags from North London to Ottawa and he believes the NRL should encourage some of the eight Sydney-based clubs to move to Adelaide, Perth or other areas.

"I think that what the NRL needs to do is maybe shuffle around some of the clubs," Perez said.

"Adelaide and Perth are only going to grow and it may be time for a second Victorian team or a second New Zealand team as well."

The MLB model

Baseball used the relocation of teams to expand from a competition based in the north-east of the USA, with 10 franchises moving cities between 1953 and 1972.

The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants successfully moved to California in 1958 to become the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants.

"The intensity with which these clubs were followed in New York was the same as, if not more than, rugby league clubs in Sydney and they still felt like there were too many teams in a city triple the size," Perez said.

"A place like Adelaide has got to woo one of these Sydney clubs over. As an individual club you might say, ‘we are safe in the Shire, we have got our fan base, we have been here for so long, why should we move'.

"The Coliseum was big at one time too, but they didn’t evolve and now they are gone."

The Wigan Warriors after taking on Hull FC at WIN Stadium in 2018.
The Wigan Warriors after taking on Hull FC at WIN Stadium in 2018. ©NRL Photos

The future of broadcasting

While the NRL will consult with the likes of Nine and Fox Sports about the footprint for the Telstra Premiership in the next broadcast deal from 2023, Perez said major sporting bodies were now selling subscriptions for matches to fans.

He predicted most fans would soon stream matches via a subscription from the NRL and said expanding into new markets would increase audiences and therefore the revenue which delivers clubs their annual $13 million grants.

"If you control your own content people will buy it directly from you, especially the younger generations," Perez said.

"The NRL were early movers in this and if you get teams in Adelaide and Perth, that is a lot more people who will buy direct packages from the NRL. I think that is the only strategy.

"You could watch Cronulla versus Penrith but if I am in Adelaide I kind of don’t care. I want to see an Adelaide team. Australia is big enough that some of the clubs should take a flyer on it and do it."

Rabbitohs hooker Damien Cook against the Wigan Warriors in 2018 at ANZ Stadium.
Rabbitohs hooker Damien Cook against the Wigan Warriors in 2018 at ANZ Stadium. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

Player development 

Perez said the establishment of teams in Perth and Adelaide would not only grow the NRL’s fan base but the number of people who play the game.

However, he believes that if the NRL does not expand now those markets will be left to the AFL for another generation, at least.

"If you open up new markets, you open up much more potential for the game and you create sustainability long term," he said.

"Not only will that bring more money because sponsors can see we are nationwide, but also young people will grow up thinking it’s cool.

"Right now there are 1.3 million people in Perth and soon it might be 2 million, so all of a sudden you could have been in this market but it is just all AFL because they are the ones who have taken the time and the money and the effort to build that market.

"If I am a seven-year old kid in Perth or Adelaide, I am going to idolise AFL players."

Hull FC forward Mark Minichiello against the Wigan Warriors at WIN Stadium in 2018.
Hull FC forward Mark Minichiello against the Wigan Warriors at WIN Stadium in 2018. ©Robb Cox/NRL Photos

The American dream

A meeting of UK clubs on Thursday voted to allow teams from Ottawa and New York into the League One competition in 2020.

The New York team will play at Red Bull Arena and has announced partnerships with Virgin Atlantic, Mastercard and Hilton Hotels, while ESPN+ has indicated interest in broadcasting matches in North America.

Perez is partnering with Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group, which is involved with three other sporting franchises in the city, and he said a derby match between Ottawa – the capital of Ontario – and the state’s biggest city, Toronto, had enormous potential.

"You have a chance to open up a massive market like Ottawa, with 1.5 million people. It is a capital city and we are hungry for the sport," he said.

"Toronto Wolfpack opened the door [for league in Canada], but it hasn’t satisfied everyone. People want more."

Under the relocation proposal, Hemel Stags - the club which has produced the likes of Wigan's former Gold Coast centre Dan Sarginson - would continue at junior level in north London.

Speaking to reporters in Salford after the vote of clubs on Thursday night, Perez compared the expansion of rugby league into North America with the AFL’s push into NSW and Queensland.

If you control your own content people will buy it directly from you, especially the younger generations.

Eric Perez

"We’ve got to do what the AFL did and expand to markets that are hungry for our sport," Perez said.

"What Toronto have done is show there is a massive hunger [in Canada].

"My goal is to have the best English players play in our competition and the best Australian players play in our competition."

The RFL board is expected to make a final decision on expansion next month after further due diligence of the North American bids.

"The clubs were in principle supportive, by a comfortable majority, of the proposals for both Ottawa and New York to join the competitions, and for the RFL board to continue to exercise its discretion to negotiate with both clubs, and to make a decision in due course," RFL director Simon Johnson said.

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.