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Toronto Wolfpack players lineup before a match. Twitter: @TOwolfpack.

From England to Ottawa: Pro rugby on its way to Lansdowne?

By Josh Lemoine on April 29, 2019

It’s not yet a done deal, but Ottawa could be getting a transatlantic rugby team as early as next year.

Eric Perez is the founder of the Toronto Wolfpack rugby league club, which has made headlines in the last three years by playing in UK-based competition, making Wolfpack the world’s first professional transatlantic sports team.

They play rugby league, a sport similar to the more widely played rugby union rules. Until now, rugby league has been most popular in northern England and in Australia. Now, Perez has his sights set on bringing a second transatlantic club to Canada, which would play in Ottawa at Lansdowne Park.

Instagram: @tdplace

“I discovered rugby league when I was in England,” says Perez, “and I was watching on television, and I went ‘why isn’t this in Canada?’ because it’s so Canadian. I couldn’t figure it out. I did my research, and I realized it’s because of socio-economic reasons from the turn of the last century, and Canada’s just not about those things. So I’m like ‘let me right the wrong and bring rugby league to Canada’ and one of my goals from day one was to start a professional team in Canada to play in the English leagues. Kind of like how the Blue Jays play in MLB. It’s an American league, but [the Blue Jays] are the only Canadian team.”

While the sport is relatively foreign to most sports fans in Canada, Perez believes rugby league could explode in popularity in this country. His experience at the helm of the Toronto Wolfpack has shown him the potential of the sport here.

“I was watching on television, and I went, ‘why isn’t this in Canada?’ because it’s so Canadian.”

“It taught me that… there’s a hunger for rugby league in Canada, and that it’s definitely suited for the Canadian population. The crowds have turned up, the merchandise that’s been sold, the television ratings, they all point to the fact that rugby league is an exciting sport. The media interest, the fan interest, it’s all been there.”

“It’s got all the elements that we love in sports. It’s fast, it’s got athleticism, it’s got physicality, toughness… You can show your finesse, but at the same time you’ve got to be tough to compete out there. When guys get hit, they don’t want to take the time to roll around on the ground, they just want to get up and get back out there. It’s that Canadian go-getting attitude that we find in hockey. It’s basically hockey on grass.”

“It’s basically hockey on grass.”

Rugby Football League (RFL) is the governing body for rugby league in the UK, and operates a three-tiered competition with a promotion-relegation system. Perez has assembled a consortium of 15 owners who have purchased a UK-based club, the Hemel Stags, and intend to relocate that club to Ottawa for the 2020 season.

The RFL convened a special meeting on April 11 to assess the mood of existing clubs regarding the new Ottawa bid, as well as one for a New York City-based club. Both bids received support from a comfortable majority of clubs, which brings them one step closer to being accepted into the league structure. Perez believes they should receive final approval in the next few weeks, and the Ottawa club can hit the ground running.

“We have the name picked out, the logo, it’s all done.”

Toronto Wolfpack players lineup before a match. Twitter: @TOwolfpack.

They’ll be working closely with Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG), although the owners of the Redblacks, Fury FC and 67’s won’t have an ownership stake in the rugby league club.

In a statement, OSEG CEO Mark Goudie says “TD Place, and more generally Lansdowne, are the proposed venue for Mr. Perez’s team. We at the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group have facilities and in-house expertise in ticketing, marketing, partnerships, game production, to only name a few, that can benefit this project, but Mr. Perez and his partners are the owners and leading the project. We’re excited by the possibility of hosting a Rugby League team and excited for sports fans in our city.”

Perez elaborated “we’re basically going to be working with [OSEG] and all of their infrastructure. It provides a turn-key operation for us, whereas in Toronto we had to do everything from scratch, including the stadium. We basically had to build the stadium from scratch. There was a stadium there but it required a lot of work to get where it needed to be.”

While no details of the ownership group will be made public until they’ve received final approval for the move, Perez stresses all 15 members of the consortium are Ontario businessmen, and all people Perez has known for more than 20 years. He recently stated that any one of the owners could bankroll the club on their own, indicating there is significant money behind this effort.

“We have the name picked out, the logo, it’s all done.”

If Perez has his way, it could be the start of something very big.

He envisions a competition that spans the northern hemisphere, much like how Super Rugby has teams across the southern hemisphere in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Argentina, and even Japan in the northern hemisphere. The distances travelled by some of those teams can dwarf the distance between Ottawa and England.

“I definitely pointed to [Super Rugby] back in 2014 when I was convincing the RFL to expand to Toronto,” Perez says. I pointed to the Super Rugby and said listen, they’re doing it down south already, so there’s no reason we can’t do this as well.”

“There should be a few more North American teams started up. What you’re going to see is the first northern hemisphere powerhouse league. That’s my dream for it. The league becomes a powerhouse in North America, not just in England.”

“It’s exciting, and honestly, Ottawa deserves to have a team like this,” Perez says. The city is just unbelievable. Sometimes the people who live there take it for granted. It’s an incredible place. The momentum is just up in Ottawa sports right now, so it’s the perfect time for this.”