Culture, Money, Patience: Tim Egan of Toronto WolfPack's Last Tackle TV Talks the Rise of Professional Rugby
By Liam Madigan-Fried
For the last four and a half years (yeah, don’t change your major halfway through kids), I’ve had the pleasure of attending Lyndon State College in the North-East region of Vermont, as well as to play rugby here as a Hornet. On the off-chance you’ve heard of our school, it probably had something to with our fantastic Electronic Journalism Arts Department, which has turned out more small market anchors and television meteorologists than I can count.
Now, at this point you’re probably thinking- “Cool Liam, just use this article to hype up your own department some more.” Well, this might come as a surprise to some regular readers (or not surprising at all), but I’m not a Journalism Major of any kind. I’m a Film Studies Major who has had to watch more hours of Alfred Hitchcock than a Studio Censor screening Psycho in 1960.
That being said, yeah, I’m still kind of using this article to hype up my department, if not my school (please have your kids apply here, we seriously need them). Because, for the last few years and unbeknownst to me, Timothy Egan, a Sports Business and Cinema Production Professor at my school and an executive producer at Moody Street TV, was a man directly involved with Canada’s ascending League 1 Champions, The Toronto Wolfpack.
For those familiar with the world of Rugby League, you might know the Wolfpack as one of the most stable professional rugby organizations on the North American continent. Tim’s handwriting is visible on the walls of that success, with his work in producing the web-series Last Tackle: Inside the Toronto Wolfpack playing the part of catalyst in the team’s ever expanding exposure. So, taking my chance to get some real professional perspective, I contacted Tim through our school’s handy-dandy email directory to get his take on the direction of professional rugby here in the United States and in Canada.
Liam: Do you see the trajectory of professional rugby to be on an upward trend in the United States and North America?
Tim: I think it’s tremendously on an upward trend. It started for me four or five years ago when I had heard that the All Blacks played in Chicago against the US National Team, and I was amazed that that it had sold out a year in advance. Because I [had only known rugby previously] from friends that played rugby in college. But now, these college aged rugby players from the 1970’s and 1980’s are becoming aging baby boomers. [And as a result you see] Rugby having more youth leagues, which helps the sport become more like soccer in that it grows with [kids as they age].
Liam: The Toronto Wolfpack have experienced the developmental and marketing benefits of competing with teams from England and France, do you see the influx of foreign markets and their fans being something that can help grow professional rugby in North America?
Tim: I think it’s important that fan-bases in France and England… can draw foreign fans who love to travel to the United States and North America, and when they do they say “Oh, we can travel around the [United States and Canada] and tie it into when my team [is playing]… By tapping into foreign fans, it gives visibility, but it also gives legitimacy when fans in foreign countries where rugby is played at the top levels say “Wow, this is a team we have to pay attention to.” And that’s what any sports team wants. That the competition watches them.
Liam: Right now, the estimated salary cap of MLR is about 250k. How long do you think it’s going to be until North America has a professional league with a pay-scale competitive enough to bring in more elite talent?
Tim: That’s hard. That’s the model of MLS and (NWSL), which is “how much can we afford to pay the US players, and how little can we get away with playing the foreign players that are the marquee, and still make money running a franchise?” And I think it’s only going to happen over time with three things: If they can increase audience, and that puts more butts in seats and you can charge for sponsorship in the arena, if you create more success on the field just by pushing the squad, which will create more visibility on television because good teams will draw viewers, and then you can charge for advertisers.
But, I think at some point, the third one is sort of the cultural acceptance of the sport…and then financial supporters will want to be around it. That’s happened for Major League Soccer in the United States…Rugby has to get to the point where there’s enough national interest financially and enough interest globally that investors want to be a part of the team so they can afford big foreign contracts…so they can get a guy from New Zealand, or they can get a guy from Australia, and it makes their team have more marquee value, and as we saw with the Wolfpack, they built a team that won a championship. While they spent pocketbook wise more than they wanted to, they had to get out of the gate. So in the end, it’s going to take time, culture change, and money, just like we saw in this country with soccer.
Note: Not long after this interview was conducted, it was announced that the New Zealand-based Canterbury Rugby Union in conjunction with the Super Rugby team The Crusaders had purchased a minority ownership in the Seattle Seawolves.
Liam: So it seems like the Wolfpack’s plan is essentially “Spend the money to make the money”, signing players who are going to immediately affect the on-field level of play, whereas Major League Rugby clubs, who have signed a few big names here and there, are taking a more homegrown approach, holding combines all around the country in order to construct their rosters from more domestic talent rather than relying on signing a ton of foreign marquee players. Do you see one approach as being more beneficial than the other?
Tim: I almost want to say that the Major League Rugby plan is more beneficial. Because it’s the culture that I was talking about. They’re creating a mindset of the team as clumps, you know? It has a minor league team, U-23, U-17, they’re community active. That gets the culture changing. That means “Oh, I don’t have to play football I can play rugby, I don’t have to play soccer, I can play rugby.”
When it’s forced down from the top…it’s a little different in Toronto because it’s an international city and it was easily accepted, and culturally maybe a little bit more people knew what rugby was, so you kind of had to put a bunch of international stars on the field to get people to come out. Where in the U.S, you can put a bunch of stars on the field, but if people didn’t know who they are, or didn’t really know about the sport, then it’s not going to matter. They’re not going to know what a good try is and what isn’t. So I think what they wanted to do, smartly, is they’re creating a culture. And that’s actually going to help other leagues.
In [places like] St. Louis, Houston, and other smaller cities, it’s almost like why in small towns, college football or college basketball is so successful. Everybody loves the sport, and the collegiate level is the best level that shows up. If you can have a quality rugby squad in the city and the culture around it is rugby immersed, kids will go see ‘the pros’. That’s a little bit where the Major League Lacrosse model is now. There’s enough lacrosse now in high school leagues and in college leagues, and now, the league is small but people are coming to it. That’s what I see as having to be done [with rugby] in the U.S, which is build that youth culture that will want to go to games to see the pro’s.
Liam: So you touched on an important subject there, which is that not everyone lives in a place where getting to see a professional game live is feasible, especially with MLR not expanding to the East Coast until next season with RUNY. That being said, the MLR just secured a deal with CBS to broadcast at least one game a week along with playoffs and a championship, but in the short term do you see a potential rise in independent programming through platforms such as FLO Sports or your own Last Tackle TV?
Tim: Yeah, I think there has to be. Because, you’re not going to get big, major broadcast deals, so creating packaged programming that goes along with the game [is probably the best thing to do]. We started with the [Wolfpack’s live games] being on the CBC and GameTV in Canada. Moody Street helped them get on to Eleven Sports in the U.S and in some parts of England, and they also had a deal with Premier. Then, we helped them expand to FOX in Australia. So now, you have that network built. And we did that on the guise of the package show to promote the team. And every one of those stations said “Can we get their games too? Because we’re hoping the games are as good as the show.” So, what started out as games first then show, turned into the reverse, which is the show got them the games.
So the team’s been very happy with that, and I think a lot of teams will have to do that. Which is find ways to create YouTube web-series or one-off local cable specials. You know, most sports towns have a cable system, Chicago has one, New England Sports Network, pick a city, they all their own sort of home town channel. And I think that’s where someone’s going to have to invest in a half hour special or something in that market to promote that lower level of sport.
Liam: I see what you’re saying. Leagues like the NBA, NFL, NHL, have become 365-day-a-year sports based on media coverage alone.
Tim: Yeah, and with content. By 2020, 70% of traffic on the internet is going to be video based. So the best way to sort of sell a sport is to create content, even if it’s just player profiles that players do themselves. Things like “Here’s me at practice. Here’s how we screw around after a game, here’s what we do in the community.” All that little content online is cheap, easy, and free. When I say it’s cheap, easy, and free, is that in that it’s cheap to produce, it’s easy because you don’t have to tie in any sponsors, and the web gives you free distribution. Those three things allow a small market team to get the visibility they need to reach a wider audience. You know, a banner ad, or an ad in the program book, or signage, is really specified to that specific audience. You have to go to the games to see that dasher ad on the video screen. Or, you have to buy that program to see that ad, or go to the website to see the banner ad. But if it’s content out onto YouTube and distributed out to other blogs and websites that promote the sport, that video content then creates a viral image, and that’s where I think small teams can help themselves.
Liam: So, all in all, do you think the North American market is big enough or ready enough for both professional Rugby Union and Rugby League organizations?
Tim: I think it will be, like in Europe it is. I think we need to see it build here first. Just like how we see Sevens and Elevens, there’s different types of rugby, Union and League, and I think people have a predisposition to liking one or the other. Remember, the NFL [started out separately] as the AFL and the NFL, and then they merged. The AFL was more of a passing game, while the NFL was more of a ground game, but then the sport merged and that’s how the NFL [that we know today] came about. But I think rugby’s so unique with League and Union that you’ll have separates, but what you might end up with a championship where there’s a generic set of rules, and that’ll sort of be the pride point of what’s better. Rugby League or Union? It’s going to be hard. I think the sport has to build interest, and we’ll see how much stuff can survive…so I think it’s just a matter of time to see what can connect [with fans] and with the culture, is it Union or League? Maybe one leaves a certain impression on the audience over the other? Maybe that will be the decider.
After that, my time with Tim came to an end, as some other student was at that point patiently waiting outside his office door for their own chance to talke (about something much more mundane than rugby though, I’m sure). But, I came away from this interview having learned two key things.
1. Rugby has a long road ahead of it in terms of becoming part of American culture, but it’s definitely on the right track. In fact, rugby is at an advantage in that we are seeing our emergence in an age where gaining exposure is easier than ever thanks to the internet. ALL HAIL THE MIGHTY COMPUTER GNOMES BEHIND MY SCREEN!!!! (Prove to me that’s not how they work)
2. As with everything in this world nowadays, it’s going to take cold, hard cash to truly get the game off the ground. As more and more fans familiarize themselves with the game, they will expect a higher and higher level of on-field play. Which eventually, will necessitate the signing of more marquee players. Jamie Mackintosh round two anyone?
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Penguin Tundra Sports Blog was created in 2016 by a very bored college student who was obsessed with Rugby and Football. That same college student knew how to write pseudo-intelligently, so what better way to show off than to create a blog. Along your journey though the Tundra's domain, you may come across outlandish opinions, horrible spelling errors, and some shit that is just outright wrong. Well then, you should comment, give my blog more attention, and we will have our day in internet court. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy talking about sports as much as I do.
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