Jon Wilkin says Toronto Wolfpack would bring 'showbiz' factor to Super League
Last Updated: 31/01/19 10:57am
Jon Wilkin says Toronto Wolfpack offer a "showbiz" factor to Super League, and says expanding the game should happen alongside investment in existing structures.
The Wolfpack were favourites to gain promotion into Super League last season, but fell at the final hurdle as they were beaten by London Broncos in the Million Pound Game.
Undeterred, the Wolfpack are aiming to bounce back with immediate effect and win the 2019 Championship play-off final at the end of the season.
That game will be live on Sky Sports, as will all of the Wolfpack's fixtures after they secured a deal to produce all of their games in the UK and Canada, and have all the matches available for live broadcast on Sky Sports platforms in the UK.
"It's huge, the more rugby league we can have on TV the better," Wilkin told Sky Sports. "That gameday experience we're hoping will come across from the Canadian games, but what a fantastic opportunity for Toronto.
"We'll be getting that brand out there and showing Super League what Toronto can offer these competitions. It's really exciting, there's a lot of energy and enthusiasm towards the brand, and that's something that has to be met with performance on the field."
Wilkin, who will be a studio guest for Thursday's Sky Live Super League Preview Show as well as the game between St Helens and Wigan, says the residents of Toronto have embraced having a rugby league team in their city.
"It's catching the imagination of the people of Toronto. They like combat sports; ice hockey is traditionally an aggressive sport and rugby league has a similar mentality. It's got working-class roots, very similar to hockey, and the contact element is something the Canadian people and the people of Toronto have taken to.
"David Argyle, the owner, has put a lot of money, investment and time to get Toronto off the ground. We've got to get those performances right in the big games to get up into Super League next year, because that's where the club needs to be."
The former St Helens man says Toronto have an important part to play if rugby league is to expand.
"They bring a new audience," said Wilkin. "I always think in these situations where rugby league has had such a closed shop for such a long time - new eyes, new energy, new focus without the shackles of history, heritage and legacy around them, I think that can help drive the standards of the competition and also take the competition into new directions.
"They can push, promote and engage with a different audience altogether. It's an energetic brand with some clout behind it, and I think it can bring a bit of showbiz to the competition.
"Toronto is one of those cities you never hear anybody speak badly of. It's a huge city with extreme wealth and also a huge appetite for sport.
"Opening up our competition to that market is an exciting opportunity, but it has to be done delicately in the right way, so as not to alienate the historical brands we've got in the game.
"It's a crossroads for the game. This is the acid test for me, because how receptive we are to a new entity like Toronto - how receptive the game is to new ideas and a different way of thinking - will determine what the short-term future of rugby league looks like, I believe."
Wilkin says he is aware that growth of the game can't come at the expense of investing domestically.
"There's two ways to [expand]," said Wilkin. "One is to push boundaries and establish new markets, and the other is to make sure your existing market is as strong as possible.
"I believe you can develop the current clubs and infrastructure and the grassroots system of our game, but also at the same time looking to new markets and exploring new markets. It has to be a two-pronged approach to growing the game.
"Look, I grew up in Hull, I played 16 or 17 years in St Helens, I've been around traditional rugby league areas my whole life, and there is as much work needed in those areas as there is in new markets. The frustration from existing rugby league fans is they'd like to see potential investment brought back in.
"We need Toronto, we need Catalans Dragons, we need Toulouse, we need a New York franchise. We need to think bigger, but we also need to remember that the base of that pyramid needs to be strong. That's the game's challenge, but that's what's exciting as well."
Jon Wilkin and Jamie Jones-Buchanan join us in studio on Thursday for our Super League Preview Show and the derby between St Helens and Wigan, live on Sky Sports Arena and Mix from 6.30pm.