There were doubts that the Toronto Wolfpack would succeed when the team was announced. A lot of Torontonians didn’t know about the game of rugby league. This was especially true for a sport that only appeared in 2010 with the Canadian men’s rugby league team nicknamed the ‘Canada Wolverines’.
However, what rugby league fans in England do not know is the history of other pro sports teams in Toronto. This includes teams that faced similar criticism. This list includes Toronto FC and the Toronto Raptors, which was pegged by some experts to fail.
Toronto FC focused a lot on Canadian players and had an academy early on in their history. The Toronto Wolfpack does not have that. Furthermore, the Raptors did not have a farm team until getting a D-League team in 2015. Lastly, soccer is a very popular youth sport in Canada. This is not the case with basketball in 1995 and rugby league in 2017.
Toronto Wolfpack and Toronto Raptors comparison
(a) – Similarities
Lack of Canadian Players
When the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies came in 1995, there were only two NBA players in Canada. Rick Fox of the Los Angeles Lakers and Bill Wennington of the Chicago Bulls. Of these two NBA players, only one was from Toronto.
This is marginally better than the number of Canadian players currently playing professionally in rugby league. Australian-born Canadian international player Ryley Jacks started his first season in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) in 2017.
The biggest similarity though is a lack of a farm or academy team in both cities. In the Raptors’ early years, they had no farm team or academy on the roster. They had to depend on the NBA draft of mainly American players from the NCAA. They then got Vince Carter through a trade in the 1998 Draft.
This transaction led Vince Carter to revolutionize the sport in Canada. This was done despite the Vancouver Grizzlies relocating to Memphis in 2001. This made the Toronto Raptors the only team in Canada.
Sonny Bill Williams may or may not change the game in Canada as Vince Carter did. It could also be someone else entirely who changes the landscape of the rugby league in Canada. Whatever the case growing the game with a superstar player helps. However, teaching people what the sport is about is also important.
Each franchise – assisting in Growing the Game
When the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies played their first-ever NBA game in 1995, basketball was not a very popular sport. In Canada, basketball was considered the least popular of the ‘four sports’.
This was especially the case when compared to baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays won two World Series trophies in 1992 and 1993. This was followed by the Montreal Expos season’s success in 1994 before the MLB season was halted abruptly. It is fair to say that baseball was a much more popular sport in 1995 than basketball.
Isiah Thomas talked about where the Toronto Raptors ranked in their early years according to The Undefeated:
“You know where we stood just by turning on the news,” Thomas said. “The order of the highlights would be hockey, hockey, hockey, the Blue Jays, the Argonauts, tennis and curling.”
“After curling,” Thomas added, laughing, “Then you’d get to the Raptors.”
This is very similar to Toronto Wolfpack’s current situation. They are sometimes overlooked by Canadian sports media outlets. Also, a lot of people in Canada did not know about rugby league. If they knew something about rugby it was rugby union, not rugby league.
Thanks largely to Eric Perez, David Argyle, and the Canada Wolverines success at Lamport Stadium, the Toronto Wolfpack was born. The team became Canada’s most popular pro rugby team in 2017. Something nobody could have predicted in Toronto, as rugby union is traditionally considered the more popular code of rugby in Canada.
(b) – Wolfpack/Raptors differences
Basketball is a more ‘accessible sport’ in Canada
This is nothing against rugby league, but league and basketball are very different sports. Rugby league can be a very dangerous contact sport to participate in. According to Sporting News, well-known NRL player Josh McGuire lost his left eye and almost retired six years ago. It is not a sport that should be left unattended without a supervisor.
Basketball, on the other hand, is a very easy sport to play. All one needs is a basketball and a net. Even then, some kids play without a net in the school playgrounds. They aim to hit an area of the school building outside in the playgrounds. This can also be done with or without someone on the playground. One cannot do that with rugby league as the game is too violent. Rugby league fans might be disappointed with that. However, the health of the child must come first in these situations.
That is not to say that rugby league cannot be a popular sport in Canada. Many contact sports have become popular in Canada. This includes ice hockey and ‘gridiron’. Also, unlike the Toronto Raptors, the Wolfpack will get help in developing top-class rugby league players in Canada.
Regular season game #58 in the books. pic.twitter.com/B8EJvxqUvF
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 26, 2020
Toronto Wolfpack will get more help Developing Players
There has been a huge increase in Canadian NBA players. However, most of the Canadians are coming from the Golden Horseshoe of Toronto. The only other region producing several players is within the Greater Montreal Area, which currently has three players in the NBA.
This is because, since the 2001-02 NBA Season, the Toronto Raptors have been the lone Canadian team in the NBA. Vancouver lost its team after the 2000-01 NBA season as they relocated to Memphis. This will not be the case for rugby league. On Twitter, a reliable source came from the twitter account called the “Mole” reported this:
According to Mick Gledhill, a digital media broadcast journalist, a decision on both Ottawa and New York City will be made official next week. It is widely expected though that Ottawa will have a professional rugby league team in 2021.
Expansion: New Ottawa rugby league team
The team will not be called the Ottawa Stags. Eric Perez revealed that in the Howlin Hour Podcast. The Twitter account listed above is an Ottawa rugby league fan account and not an official Ottawa RFL account. Eric Perez, founder of both the Toronto Wolfpack and the new Ottawa team revealed news about a new “Canada Cup” in the Howlin Hour Podcast:
“A home and away series every year with the Wolfpack.” “It is our own Challenge Cup between us.”
This initially might be similar to the Naismith Cup in the NBA. This Cup was a pre-season series between the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies. However, the similarities stop there. Most importantly, the “Canada Cup” would be a permanent fixture for decades to come. This was not the case with the Naismith Cup.
Lastly, it is reasonable to expect this Cup to grow with more professional rugby league teams in Canada. Perez revealed that the growth of rugby league will not stop with Ottawa in Canada. “There will be four-to-five professional teams”
In a CBC Neil Davidson article last year, Perez said there is interest from Montreal and Vancouver. They are both hoping to follow in the footsteps of the Wolfpack.
Unfortunately, in basketball, the Raptors did not have much help. British Columbia, former home of the Vancouver Grizzlies relocated to Memphis after six seasons. However, there are two new pro basketball leagues in Canada. This includes the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL), which started last year.
— Toronto Wolfpack (@TOwolfpack) February 26, 2020
Overview of the state of Rugby League and Basketball
According to Joseph Quigley of CBC News, 16% of youth from ages five to 14 are playing basketball in 2010. This was before the Raptors championship and the two pro basketball leagues in Canada. The Raptors now have the help they need to bring even more NBA players from Canada.
However, it is important to note that the Toronto Raptors had some setbacks. This includes making it to the NBA playoffs only five times before the 2013-14 NBA Season. What this article is saying is that success does not come overnight. A lot of the Canadian NBA players today have come in the last 10 years. Fortunately, in Canada, the Toronto Wolfpack will get help from Ottawa and possibly other cities.
Basketball in 1995 is very similar to the rugby league in 2017. It is a sport trying to find ground in the mainstream sports media in Canada. Rugby league can learn a lot about how popular basketball has become in Canada. To learn about the birth of the Toronto Wolfpack read this previous article.
“Main photo credit”