On­tario Ar­rows rugby team shoot­ing for big things

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - REPORT ON BUSINESS - DAVID SHOALTS

Toronto-based club could be­come the first Cana­dian mem­ber of new U.S. league

The On­tario Ar­rows are a short-term ex­per­i­ment with a long-term goal of mak­ing a big im­pact on rugby in Canada.

While the team will of­fi­cially ex­pire at the end of the month af­ter a two-game set against the Canada Se­lects, which be­gins Fri­day at York Univer­sity’s York Lions Sta­dium at 7 p.m. ET, co-founder Bill Webb and his col­leagues hope the Ar­rows will re­turn per­ma­nently in 2019. The goal is to see the Toronto-based team be­come the first Cana­dian mem­ber of the new pro­fes­sional rugby league based in the United States, Ma­jor League Rugby.

“We’re run­ning an exhibition sea­son,” Webb said. “Call it re­ally an R&D, due-dili­gence sea­son be­fore we de­cide whether we want to ap­ply for league mem­ber­ship and make the in­vest­ment re­quired, which is sig­nif­i­cant.”

MLR is a seven-team league that is in its first sea­son, and it op­er­ates un­der the same struc­ture as Ma­jor League Soc­cer, in which each team owns a share of the league.

Be­fore Webb, the chief in­vest­ment of­fi­cer of Way­point In­vest­ment Part­ners, which is a team in­vestor and spon­sor, and his fel­low in­vestors de­cide if they will pony up for an MLR fran­chise, they want to see if the Ar­rows can be com­pet­i­tive at that level. They also want to see if there is suf­fi­cient fan and spon­sor in­ter­est.

The re­sults so far are en­cour­ag­ing. Webb, Ar­rows gen­eral man­ager Mark Wi­nokur and head coach Chris Sil­ver­thorn formed the team us­ing the core of the On­tario Blues se­nior men’s team, the lead­ing pro­vin­cial am­a­teur team op­er­ated by Rugby On­tario. In five games against U.S. clubs, the Ar­rows have a 3-1-1 record, which in­cludes a win over the Utah War­riors and a tie against the Houston SaberCats, both MLR teams.

On the busi­ness side, the Ar­rows drew 1,600 fans to their first home game on May 5 at York Lions Sta­dium with al­most no ad­vance mar­ket­ing. The team also has sev­eral cor­po­rate spon­sors in ad­di­tion to Way­point.

“We said we need more in­for­ma­tion be­fore we de­cide to ap­ply [to MLR],” Webb said. “Let’s cre­ate a team and see how good we are. So far we’re pretty darn good.”

The Ar­rows and MLR op­er­ate in what’s known in the game as the rugby union code, which is the 15-player game. The other ma­jor rugby club in the Greater Toronto Area, the Toronto Wolfpack, plays what’s called rugby league, the 13-player game, in a league based in the United King­dom.

It was not dif­fi­cult to get play­ers to come to the Ar­rows, Wi­nokur said. About 60 per cent of the team is made up of univer­sity stu­dents, and the rest man­age to fit the train­ing and games in with their full-time jobs, as there is not enough money in North Amer­i­can rugby to earn a liv­ing.

“This was a pretty easy ask be­cause [the play­ers] were go­ing to get tremen­dous com­pe­ti­tion and they were go­ing to get to travel,” Wi­nokur said. “It gives more play­ers ac­cess to a pro­fes­sional train­ing en­vi­ron­ment. They have strength and con­di­tion­ing, diet and video anal­y­sis.

“They have ac­cess to more and bet­ter coach­ing, bet­ter games. We play teams down in the U.S., who would be our fu­ture part­ners. That’s all new to [Ar­rows play­ers].”

The odd thing about the set against the Canada Se­lects is that some of the Ar­rows will switch sides and play for the na­tional team. The Se­lects are made up of the na­tional team mi­nus the pro­fes­sional play­ers who are in Europe play­ing for club teams.

The games against the Ar­rows will help the na­tional coaches pick the best play­ers for a set of three in­ter­na­tional games in June. The pro­fes­sional play­ers will be re­leased from their teams for those games against Scot­land, Rus­sia and the United States.

Af­ter the game at York Univer­sity, the Ar­rows and Se­lects will fin­ish the set on May 26 at Westhills Sta­dium in Lang­ford, B.C.

An­other ben­e­fit of putting a team into MLR, Webb says, would be the cre­ation of more op­por­tu­ni­ties for rugby play­ers in Canada to play the game at a much higher level.

“We think hav­ing pro­fes­sional rugby in North Amer­ica is re­ally im­por­tant for the game both in Canada and the U.S.,” Webb said. “I don’t have an an­swer as to whether we will ap­ply, not yet.

“But we’re pleased with what we’ve done on the field. We think we would be very com­pet­i­tive in the MLR, but the busi­ness of sport re­quires sig­nif­i­cant in­vest­ment. We have to see if the appetite is there.”


The On­tario Ar­rows and Bos­ton Mys­tics play­ers fall to the ground in a tackle dur­ing the Toronto-based team’s home opener at York Univer­sity Alumni sta­dium on May 5.

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