By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) – Sonny Bill Williams, the world’s highest-paid rugby player and the sport’s biggest name, has in recent weeks visited Japan, New Zealand, Australia and England.
Williams has been seen in just about every corner of the globe where rugby is played with the exception of Canada and his newest team the Toronto Wolfpack, who have signed the hulking New Zealander to a reported two-year $9 million deal.
News that the All Blacks great had agreed to join the Wolfpack and lead the ambitious club into a first season playing in England’s top-tier Super League sent shockwaves through the sport.
Though Canadians have little interest in rugby and know even less about Williams, the signing sparked national headlines.
Toronto mayor John Tory rolled out the welcome mat.
“Sonny Bill Williams is one of the best rugby players in the world and we welcome him to Toronto,” Tory said.
The city, however, is still waiting to welcome its newest sporting celebrity.
In fact, it will be several months before Toronto rugby fans get a chance to chase Williams for an autograph or selfie.
A week after the 34-year-old’s signing was announced on Nov. 7 the twice World Cup winner was introduced at a news conference in London.
Immediately afterwards he flew to Australia without a paying a quick visit to the city he will represent for at least the next two years.
As the Super League’s only trans-Atlantic club, Toronto will play the early part of their schedule in England, Wolfpack CEO and chairman Robert Hunter telling Reuters that fans are unlikely to see Williams in the flesh until their first home game scheduled for April 11 against Hull FC.
“We talked about that (bringing him to Toronto) but it is just very difficult with his travel schedule,” Hunter told Reuters. “He just finished the World Cup in Japan, he had been away almost six weeks from his family.
“We talked about it and decided not to do it. We may not see him here until April.”
Founded in 2016 the team have a loyal hardcore fan base and Wolfpack games have developed a reputation as a fun and affordable sporting option in the city of 3.5 million where NHL Toronto Maple Leafs, NBA Raptors, MLB Toronto Blue Jays, MLS Toronto FC and Canadian Football League Argonauts vie for the sporting entertainment dollar.
To get noticed in such a competitive market Hunter says the Wolfpack had to go out and buy it.
Last season the Wolfpack, who play in a quaint but soulless venue in downtown Toronto that seats 10,000, averaged close to 7,500 fans a game.
As rumours of Williams signing intensified the club saw a spike in season-ticket sales and another when the deal was announced, leading Hunter to predict that all 11 home dates will be sellouts.
“It is certainly buying headlines,” said Hunter. “In this marketplace where a lot of our commercial business is driven by ticket sales and sponsorship you have to go big.
“One of the goals is to build a brand in this marketplace. You’ve got to invest.
“We’re a small guy and we are just trying to keep our hand up so people know that we are there.”
The buzz generated by the signing of Williams may have boosted ticket sales but the excitement has quickly vanished and the Wolfpack are again out of the minds of Toronto sports fans.
Hunter concedes that rugby is a niche sport in Canada and the real value in Williams signing will be felt at the grassroots level of sport.
But with him not arriving in Toronto until April and the club’s last regular season game on Aug. 29 it is difficult to estimate how much corporate schmoozing can be squeezed into a five-month window.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Hunter. “We are also a niche sport, not well known, not a lot of play at the youth level but that is all part of the challenge.
“Right now we are working with the rugby clubs to get them down to games and getting Sonny Bill out when he gets here.
“You’ve got to start at the grassroots.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond)