Monday, October 9, 2017

Rugby League in Canada: A Clash of Cultures

A Canadian Perspective on the Differences in How Professional Sport
is Seen Between the UK and Canada

I have spent the last several months immersing myself in what may be my new favourite sport: Rugby League. I live in Toronto, and we have had a new team debut here this spring and summer. The Toronto Wolfpack started off in the third tier of the mostly-English Rugby Football League (RFL), with all the other teams in our league based in the UK. It was an audacious experiment that seems to be working, though not everyone is happy about it. I bought season tickets and have watched all the games, live here in Toronto or on TV for most of the road games (one was only carried on the radio), and I have loved every minute of it. And along the way I have been learning that the business of sport, at least where rugby league is concerned, works very differently in the UK than what we are used to here in North America.

Language Barrier!

Yes, we all speak English, but that doesn't mean we speak the same language! There is a fair bit of terminology that differs between the UK and North America. The schedule is a list of "fixtures", the standings are the "table" (or in Australia, the "ladder"). The team uniform is the "kit". Out of bounds becomes "into touch". And that's all before we get into any details of the game itself, where there is a lot of new terminology (knock-on, offload, out on the full, 40-20, obstruction, ...). It hasn't been too hard to pick up on the different terms, but I have been a bit surprised how much there is to learn.

Promotion and Relegation

The next difference is the idea of promotion and relegation. In all the sports I had watched before, there is a league with a more or less fixed set of teams. Sometimes the league grows by expansion, by adding terrible new teams filled with other teams' cast-offs. Sometimes teams move from one city to another, usually because the new city will pay more to build them a shiny new arena or stadium. Occasionally a team will fold after years of financial failure.

In the promotion/relegation system used for soccer and rugby league in the UK, there is a hierarchy of leagues, and each season there is some movement of teams among them, with the top teams in lower leagues getting promoted to a higher level league, and the worst teams getting related to a lower league. Two seasons ago the Toronto Maple Leafs were rewarded for their last place finish with the best lottery odds for the first pick in the annual amateur draft, and did land that first pick. The result was Auston Matthews, a huge part of their ascension from the bottom to the middle of the league (and hopefully higher going forward!). Imagine if instead they had been relegated to the AHL, playing with the Albany River Rats and the Grand Rapids Griffins instead of the Montréal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins. With promotion and relegation, the end of the season becomes critical for those near the bottom as well as for those contending for the championship.

I don’t think one system is necessarily better than the other. Having one of my teams relegated would be a terrible thing to go through, but it sure makes the end of the season more meaningful for more teams, and exciting for the fans!

The Wolfpack joined the RFL in its third (bottom) tier: League 1. The team's goal was to get promoted quickly to the middle tier (The Championship), and within a few seasons make their way to the elite Super League. They stocked their team with players with Super League experience as well as some who had played in the Australian National Rugby League (NRL), and with the salary cap rules changed to allow teams in all three tiers to spend the same amount, the Wolfpack were able to field a very strong team that outclassed the rest of the teams in their league. It turned out that all the other teams in League 1 are semi-pro teams with small budgets and part-time players who have regular day jobs, and train only a few days a week. Unlike a North American expansion team expected to lose most of their games the first few years, the Wolfpack were expected to win quick promotion, and perhaps even go undefeated in their first year. They finished the season at 20-1-1, and have earned promotion to the middle tier: The Championship for 2018.

There were a few extra conditions placed on the Wolfpack. They agreed to pick up the tab for cross-Atlantic flights for all the other teams coming to play in Toronto, as well as local accommodations here. They were not to draw on any of the central funding provided by the league to help support the other clubs. These terms will continue until they gain promotion to Super League, where all the other teams are expected to be able to cover all their own expenses. On the other hand the Wolfpack were given some leniency with regards to the Sustainability Cap; teams are normally allowed to spend no more than 50% of their annual revenue, and the Wolfpack are being exempted from that rule at first, as they develop their new market.

More Than Just League Games

In addition to the regular games within each league, there is a separate, parallel competition called the Challenge Cup, involving both amateur and professional teams across many tiers of rugby league. This is an elimination tournament (one loss and you're out), with opening rounds pitting amateur teams against each other. Each round adds teams from a higher-level competition until round 6, when the last of the Super League teams have joined in, after which they whittle down the teams to the final 2. This year's Challenge Cup involved 72 teams competing through 9 rounds of competition, with the games inserted into open weeks in the league schedules. For each round there is a random draw to determine who play whom and which is the home team.The Wolfpack joined in at round 3, playing an amateur team called Siddal, beating them 14-6. In round 4 we were matched against the London Broncos, a team in the second-tier Championship, and we upset them 30-26. Round 5 saw us playing the Super League's Salford Red Devils, and we lost in a close match 29-22. The competition wrapped up in August at London's Wembley Stadium, where Hull FC defeated the Wigan Warriors 18-14 to win the cup. To many rugby league fans, the Challenge Cup is a more important competition than the Super League Championship. It's an interesting twist, and I'm looking forward to seeing how far the Wolfpack can progress next year.

The Schism

Before I go much further, I have to explain (for Canadian fans unfamiliar with the multiple codes of rugby) the split that occurred in the world of rugby in 1895. Up until then rugby was played as a hobby in one's spare time, but as the competition grew more serious, teams needed to put in more time and effort. For those in the industrial north of England, this was a problem, as players could not afford to take too much time off work, so they wanted players to receive payment for their talent and efforts. There was a dispute over these "broken time" payments, which led to a split. The northerners formed the Northern Rugby Union, which later became known as Rugby League, leaving the southerners with their original Rugby Union. In time both Rugby Union and Rugby League would embrace professionalism, but by then the rules of the game had diverged. There were many decades of conflict between the codes, and many examples of rugby union officials actively working to keep players from playing rugby league. This has led to many rugby league fans justifiably hating those who promote rugby union. The two codes of rugby have for some time been on separate and incompatible paths.

I played rugby in high school in Toronto (I like to tell people I used to be a hooker…), and until a few years ago had no idea there were two different codes of rugby. It turns out that what I played back then was Union, with tough scrums and line outs to toss in the ball when it went out of bounds. On a trip to Australia in 2014, I attended an NRL game in Sydney (the St George Illawarra Dragons vs the Parramatta Eels, the latter featuring a player named Fui Fui Moi Moi who would later turn up as part of the Wolfpack!), and I was confused by some of the differences in play. A friendly Aussie in the stands helped me understand what was going on. Rugby League is more free-flowing and continuous action than Rugby Union, with 6 tackles per possession to make your way down the field (similar to downs in gridiron football).

Most Canadians who like rugby embrace both codes and enjoy watching either one. In the Toronto Wolfpack Facebook fan group we sometimes discuss Union matches involving Canadian national teams. To some of the Wolfpack's UK fans who also participate in the group (many have adopted the Wolfpack as their second team), such talk is heresy, and not to be tolerated. I have put a fair bit of effort into trying to get them to understand that while we respect the history, and acknowledge that they may have good reasons to hold a deep grudge against Rugby Union for keeping their sport down, that split between the codes doesn't carry over to Canada, and we're going to keep on enjoying both, as well as Rugby Sevens, a derivative of Union with 7 players a side and short matches designed for weekend tournaments with many teams. Some of the responses have been very harsh and very rude.

Geography

There is a huge difference in how the UK and North America are settled, and this comes out dramatically when you compare the geographical distribution of teams between The RFL and North American Leagues. I'm used to teams being mostly based in major cities, with long road trips involving flights between cities as the norm. The teams are not uniformly distributed across North America by any means, and there are examples even here (mostly in baseball) with multiple clubs sharing a very large market: LA, the San Francisco Bay Area, Chicago, New York. There has been talk of a 2nd NHL team for Toronto, or one in Hamilton, and I do think either would work, because there really is a large enough group of hockey fans in Toronto to support more than one team. And when I say "support" I mean sell out a 20,000 seat arena 41 times a year + playoffs, and buy a ridiculous amount of merchandise.

The RFL is the opposite. The vast majority of their teams are concentrated along the "M62 corridor", following the major freeway between Hull and Liverpool. There are several clusters of teams only a handful of kilometers apart.
There are two big differences that emerge from the geography. First, with many UK teams located so close together, players will often stay wherever they originally lived, and travel a short distance to each game. This leads to many teams being composed largely of players from the local community. In North America players either move their families to a new city each time they change teams, or spend much of the season away from their families. Even when their family lives in their team’s city, the player will still be on the road for about half the season. This is part of the deal, and the players are generally paid well enough to be willing to put up with it. For the Wolfpack, this has been a new experience for most of the players, as is the stronger team bonding that comes with being together for extended periods away from home. Some in the UK deride the Wolfpack as not being a “real” team, because they are “a team of Englishmen in a TWP kit with a clever marketing operation” (kit = uniform). We’re used to our teams being made up mostly of foreigners (apart from hockey of course), and we don’t mind a bit.
Secondly, for the UK rugby league teams, “away fans” are an important part of the experience, and to some teams a vital part of their revenue. Hundreds of fans routinely travel to away games to support their team, and stadia often have designated areas for the away fans. This is not something we expect in North America. While some teams may have a fair bit of support on the road (most notable for a Toronto fan: the Maple Leafs when they play in Ottawa or the Blue Jays when they play in Seattle), Toronto fans do not routinely travel to support their teams each week. When they do travel to road games, it’s usually as part of a vacation or special trip once in a while. Obviously the distances involved make routine trips impossible.
As a result of this geographic and cultural difference, there are many in the UK who oppose the entry of the Wolfpack, as well as teams from France, because they do not routinely bring hundreds of away fans to each road game, and therefore “contribute nothing to the game”. In fact the Wolfpack have brought large crowds to most of their road games, breaking attendance records in some cases, as many UK fans have adopted them as their second team, and also because they are a novelty. Over time Toronto fans will start making the occasional trip away, but it’s true that we’re not going to bring hundreds of fans to every away game, at least not for years.
I think there is another issue to the differences in geography though. Having several teams clustered in one city means they are all fighting for attention and fan support. I think this is a big part of why Rugby League is to some extent struggling in England. As an example, let’s look at Leeds. Within about a 20km radius of Leeds I find the following 11 Rugby League Teams:
Super League:
  • Castleford Tigers
  • Wakefield Trinity
  •  Huddersfield Giants
Championship:
  • Bradford Bulls (relegated to League 1 for 2018)
  • Batley Bulldogs
  • Dewsbury Rams
  • Featherstone Rovers
  • Halifax RLFC
League 1:
  • Hunslet RFFC
  • Keighley Cougars
Average attendance is 10,000 per game or more for some of the Super League teams, and considerably lower for most of the others, dropping into the hundreds for many League 1 teams. Most of these teams have very long histories, with supporters who would not consider switching allegiance to another local team. 

It would make more sense to me to have one team at each level representing Leeds (and Manchester, Sheffield, Cumbria/Lake District, and London), with a far larger base of support available. That would result in teams that could really prosper, bring in larger crowds and more revenue, and therefore the best players with a higher salary cap. But a change like this would be absolute heresy to long-time supporters of Rugby League (I am sure to be the target of harsh invective for even thinking about it out loud), and is probably impossible to do proactively. I'm not really suggesting that these teams should all merge or shut down, just that there is only so much room in any community for a top-flight fully-professional team, and to try to cram too many of those into too small a market is not the best way to grow a world-class league.
Fully Professional vs Part Time Teams
I had thought the Wolfpack were joining a professional league, but it turns out that only at Super League level are all the teams fully professional. Most of the teams in the Championship and all except the Wolfpack in League 1 are made up mostly of part-time players who have day jobs. They train a few nights a week and in some cases are paid only a few hundred dollars or less per game. This has given the Wolfpack a big advantage in their first season, as their full-time players are able to do much more training and conditioning, and generally have worn down the opposition by the second half. It has also caused problems for teams visiting Toronto, as some players cannot afford to take the extra few days off work for a trip to Toronto (teams typically fly to Toronto on a Thursday, play on Saturday and return home on Sunday). Most teams have played in Toronto without a few of their regulars, in some cases significantly hampering their ability to compete to their usual potential. The sooner we get to Super League, the better.
Hostility Towards the Wolfpack and Its Fans
While many UK fans of rugby league have embraced the experiment of adding a North American team to their league and believe it will help grow the game they love, some have been less receptive to the Wolfpack. Some of the resistance is based on issues discussed above: challenges for part time teams to travel and compete fairly with a fully-professional team that can afford to outspend them. Some think the fact that Wolfpack fans won’t travel to every away game means they are hurting attendance at UK stadia. Much of it though seems to be based on misinformation. Some fans think the RFL has invested money in the Wolfpack that would be better spent on their local teams; in fact the RFL has given no money to the Wolfpack; the team paid a substantial fee to join the league, and are providing flights and accommodation to all visiting teams until they make it to Super League. Some think it is very wrong that the Wolfpack have little Canadian talent on their roster (two Australians with Canadian citizenship from their grandparents plus one BC kid who shows a lot of promise), while the Toronto fans are happy to have a team to cheer for, and like fans of the Blue Jays or Raptors accept that Canadian talent in this sport is going to be rare for a while at least. Some think the Wolfpack are being allowed to spend far more than other teams; the salary cap is the same for every team, but it’s true that a change was made when the Wolfpack were admitted (the lower tiers used to have a lower cap), and the Wolfpack can afford to spend far more than the semi-professional teams they have been playing so far.
There is also, as mentioned earlier, a lot of hostility that comes out when Canadian fans discuss anything about Rugby Union or sometimes Rugby Sevens. Some UK fans cannot understand that their 122-year old religious war between the codes of rugby is not a thing here, and that most Canadian fans enjoy all kinds of rugby, and think of it all as variations on a theme. The UK hardliners insist that the two codes are completely different sports, as different as baseball and basketball. I think league and union are only a little more different than CFL/NFL are.
The hostility brings with it some harsh language; it seems that the c-word is more commonly tossed around in the UK than it is here, and I (who swear a lot and enjoy liberal use of the f-word each day) have been shocked by it.
I have thoroughly enjoyed learning about Rugby League and following the Wolfpack through their first season. For the most part I have felt the fans in the UK have embraced the experiment and welcomed the new fans from Canada, but the experience has made me realize that we think very differently about our sports between the two countries. I‘m looking forward to next year, and to continuing to learn more. For starters, there are 10 new teams (almost all along the M62 corridor) to get to know in our new league!

Sunday, September 17, 2017

TIFF 2017: My Thoughts on Acknowledgements

There was something new before each film I saw at TIFF this year: an acknowledgement that the event was taking place on traditional native land:

"To begin with, we would like to acknowledge the Mississaugas of New Credit, the Haudenosaunee and the Huron-Wendat, the original keepers of this land, for hosting us today, and for hosting TIFF on their land every day."

I had heard similar acknowledgements at a few events recently, and now I have heard the one above 18 times in the last week or so. I have mixed feelings about this. Mostly I am happy that this is being publicly acknowledged, to help raise awareness, and in line wit the federal government's intention and efforts towards real reconciliation. But I worry about a few things:

  • That people will tire of hearing these, and tune out over time.
  • That some will hear these words as just another example of political correctness, and use that as a reason to shut out the message.
  • That these are just words, and some may be content with just saying the words, rather than continuing to work towards real reconciliation with our native peoples, and real improvements to their standard of living. When not everyone in our country has clean drinking water, and when youth in the northern communities are killing themselves at a massively disproportionate rate, there is still a long way to go.
Despite these worries I do think it is good that this is being done, and I plan to include this in some of the upcoming events that my business will be hosting, including a few climbing competitions and a film night. They may just be words, but words can help, as long as there is also action. I am reminded of Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's "Sorry Speech" from 2008 (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b3TZOGpG6cM); just words, but powerful words that could make a difference.

TIFF 2017: The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales



The Big Bad Fox and Other Tales (original French title: Le grand méchant renard et autres contes) is a series of 3 animated stories sharing common animal characters who live on a farm. Animator/cartoonist Benjamin Renner has adapted his own cartoons and the result is sort of a French version of some old Warner Brothers cartoons: fun, zany, with characters we love even when they are idiots. Follow the link above to learn more about each story; this was good fun, and a nice low-key finish to the festival for me this year.

TIFF 2017 Overview