A new professional rugby league circuit is set to kick off this summer in North America.
Organizers of the North American Rugby League say play will begin in June with 12 American teams. Two Canadian franchises, in Toronto and Ottawa, are slated to join in 2022.
The Toronto team will be known as the Wolfpack but will be a separate entity from the franchise that collapsed last year after standing down in July from England's Super League due to financial problems.
A private group has purchased the intellectual property of the Wolfpack, whose bid to re-enter the Super League in 2022 under new ownership was voted down in November.
"They want to give the city back the team that was there but put it back in a way where it's going to last," Gary Sloane, the NARL's chief commercial officer, said in an interview from England.
The other Canadian franchise will be the Ottawa Aces, who are slated to join the third tier of English rugby league next year. Ottawa president Eric Perez said the Aces could field teams in both the North American and English leagues.
"I'm not guaranteeing that's going to happen. But we're going to be 100 per cent in the NARL," Perez, a longtime rugby league enthusiast who founded the Wolfpack before establishing his own team in Ottawa, said in an interview. "COVID pending, we'll be in the RFL (England's Rugby Football League), but obviously COVID is a major factor. in that."
The NARL will play rugby league, the 13-player rugby code that is mainly played in England, Australia and New Zealand, along with some presence in France and the Pacific Islands. Major League Rugby, a 12-team North American circuit in its fourth year with the Toronto Arrows the lone Canadian entry, plays rugby union — the more popular 15-player version of the game that is featured every four years in the Rugby World Cup.
The NARL's East Coast Conference will comprise of the Atlanta Rhinos, Boston Thirteens, Brooklyn Kings, Cleveland Rugby League, New York Rugby League and Washington Cavalry. The Canadian teams will join the East in 2022.
The West Coast Conference will feature the Austin Armadillos, Las Vegas Blackjacks, Phoenix Venom, Portland Loggers, San Diego Swell and San Francisco Rush.
NARL organizers say the first round of U.S. competition will start June 19 in Brooklyn and June 20 in Las Vegas. Games will continue to be played in one stadium on one day this season with no fans due to COVID-19.
The teams will play a 20-game schedule during the shortened 2021 campaign.
Due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, the Canadian teams won't join in 2021. Instead Toronto and Ottawa are working on meeting in a "Canada Cup" on home soil, possibly in August.
Perez said while there are different ownership groups, league organizers will hold an small ownership stake in some teams.
Sloane said those behind the league itself include a private group which plans to operate at arm's length. Perez described the backers as "very solid."
As for the teams themselves, Sloane said many former and current players are involved in the operation, citing U.S. rugby league internationals Mark Offerdahl, Nick Newlin and Ryan Burroughs, a former Wolfpack player.
"They're just generally good guys who want to do the right thing with the game and have a business partner behind them that's helping guide them from that point of view." said Sloane.
Sloane said those behind the Wolfpack are "a private set of investors" mostly from the U.S. but including a Canadian.
"They're trying to do everything from scratch," he said. "They're trying to put their front office and back office together at the moment."
"It's a totally new formation," he added, "Nothing to do with the previous (owners) … They're in their infancy. We're going to have to work very hard with them over the next couple of months to get them where they need to be to be ready to play the Canada Cup competition with Ottawa."
An email to the new Wolfpack referred all queries to Sloane.
The NARL will have a salary cap, which "is never going to get out of hand," said Sloane. Just how much teams can spend for Season 1 will be announced in the next week or so.
Sloane says his background comes from the commercial side of soccer.
"What I like about rugby is it hasn't been ruined by finance, as some sports have," he said. "It's very ground. The people within it are very wholesome, very grounded.
NARL games will be broadcast via the SportsFlick online streaming service.
Bob Jowett, chairman of the Canada Rugby League Association, said the NARL has his group's support given a condition of teams joining the new league is supporting grassroots development.
“The formation of a North American professional rugby league competition has long been discussed and is considered to be a key progression for the sport," he said.
Perez said while the new league will feature international players, it will have a "major focus" on domestic talent. That will mean a steep learning curve given how few North Americans currently play the game.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press