Will Sonny-Bill Williams provide Toronto any value?

Nicholas Mew weighs in on the value of Sonny Bill Williams to the Toronto Wolfpack franchise.

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By now, you’ve likely seen an incredible number of stories examining in detail the signing of Sonny Bill Williams by the Toronto Wolfpack.  Or at least you’ve seen the headlines.  That, in itself, is a story: The unprecedented media coverage in print, online, on television, in blogs, on social media.  That this scrutiny is taking place in the rugby league strongholds of northern England and Australia is no great shock, but when one adds in the national sports broadcasters and print media of Canada it’s clearly a bigger deal.  And then you see it’s in New Zealand, the Pacific Island nations, France, Japan, the United States, in rugby union forums … and at that point you realise that the sheer number of stories, the total words written, the column inches devoted, the television screen minutes assigned, are beyond any previous attention given to a story in rugby league.

That’s the kind of coverage you simply couldn’t buy, even if you were to spend $10 million.  Buying that amount of attention still wouldn’t guarantee the excitement, surprise, or even anger that this event has generated.  Which is actually part of the reason why it’s been done.


On the surface, paying one player approximately 40 times the average Super League salary might seem foolish, a poor investment, but that’s only if one’s focus is on their playing contribution.  Without having even picked up a ball for the Wolfpack he’s provided the team with the type of media coverage that marketers and promoters salivate over.  Suddenly all eyes are on Toronto, for good or bad.  Even the people who think this is utter folly are watching, some hoping it fails, ironically helping prove that the Toronto management team were right.

…or maybe not

Now the club can pitch to advertisers, sponsors, and the all-important broadcasters that the number of eyes that will be on their brand are astronomical.  And contract terms will have to reflect that reality.  They might want to sign a deal soon, as other companies have noticed and begun to approach the Wolfpack with ideas.  When the team’s additional player signings are announced the line in front of the Toronto commercial manager’s door might get a bit longer still.

The long game

Shrewdly, connections with sports networks in multiple world markets were made in previous years.  People at the time scoffed at the very notion of making Championship level rugby league available to be seen in places as disparate as Canada and Southeast Asia.  It appears now that Toronto was playing the long game, planning several years ahead, something seemingly novel in certain rugby league areas.  Rather than merely fortuitous, it was prescient.

Get your tickets now. Seriously.

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Yet to be considered is the effect on attendance.  Unofficial sources state that season ticket sales have taken off drastically since the announcement.  Fans in the greater Toronto area are openly speaking of their concern in getting match day tickets unless they buy in advance.  Visiting supporters of UK teams have expressed worry regarding obtaining entry to Lamport Stadium, even going so far as to ponder buying Wolfpack season tickets and selling on the match tickets they don’t need to supporters of other visiting teams.  Whether or not the games will be sold out, the fact is that the hype has caused discussion, and spurred sales.  On the other side of the Atlantic, anecdotal evidence shows neutral supporters and curious observers expressing an interest in attending Wolfpack away matches.  For all the naysayers lamenting that Toronto “don’t bring any away supporters”, this is their golden opportunity to market those matches at the club level, and simply invite family, friends, and neighbours at the individual fan level.

Changed minds

On a personal note, it’s no great secret that I’ve encouraged a significant number of people to come to Toronto Wolfpack matches.  As I live more than 100 km north of Toronto, getting people to drive all the way down to see a sport they know nothing about has not always been an easy task.  Tickets, parking, food, and all the ancillary costs can make it an expensive proposition for a family.  Complimentary tickets from the team have been a godsend, with everyone who comes having a good time and most going back as paying customers later on.  But I got a lot more people saying ‘thanks, maybe one day’ (which obviously is a polite ‘no’) than I got a ‘yes’.  It appears that the Sonny Bill Williams signing has changed a few minds, however, judging by some of those same people asking me how to get tickets, and when the team will be playing.

Accolades and comparisons

That leads me to the reaction of the Canadian public to this news.  In the rugby league community, people were both shocked and thrilled.  Couldn’t believe it was true, but ecstatic that it was.  Among rugby union fans, this was a double-take moment.  They sat up and took notice.  The player, the size of the contract, and the fact that he’s coming to Toronto all factored in to that response.  With the general public who don’t follow rugby of any code at all, there was still excitement, despite not knowing the name of the player or anything about him.  Why?  Because people who DO know him were bandying about comparisons to David Beckham going to the L.A. Galaxy, Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors, even Wayne Gretzky to the Kings.  Not just what he’ll do for his team, but what he’ll do for the rugby itself in Toronto and elsewhere.  Sports announcers were declaring it a stunning development.  Played in several countries, represented the All Blacks, stellar in several sports, won world cups.  Those accolades and descriptions get attention, and garner instant respect. When the people around you are excited, you tend to want to find out more, and it builds additional interest.  That also feeds into the excitement, and you get an upward spiral.  So while Sonny Bill Williams doesn’t have name recognition, it’s obvious he’s a world class athlete who transcends sport.

Repeat business

The next Toronto Wolfpack player signing will undoubtedly refer back to Sonny Bill Williams, his contract, and his influence on the team.  That will give the story fresh legs and another mention in the media.  Player ‘X’ will be described as a great addition to go along with SBW, or not in the same category as SBW, or making a lot less money than SBW, or having signed with Toronto because he wanted to play with SBW, but the point is it will all refer back to this moment.  The gift that keeps on giving.

Dissent unlikely

Speculation that there will be jealousy in the dressing room leading to a fractured team has come up within the rugby league community, but that is more a reflection of the insular nature of those making the suggestion.  Looking outward, athletes in all professional sports do not receive the same wage, some getting significantly greater rewards.  You can always make yourself unhappy simply by comparing your circumstances to someone who has more, and concocting reasons as to why this is somehow unjust.  If you’re waiting for life to be fair, you’re going to be waiting a long time, and you’ll be miserable for every second of it.  As professional athletes, the Toronto Wolfpack team will concentrate on winning, not on ranking salaries.  It might even be an advantage to have so many eyes watching the team when a teammate seeks a new contract in the future.  How many times has a stellar world cup performance in a sport led to a professional contract, simply because people became aware of a player they’d never watched before?

So, is this contract worth it?

Look at it this way.  He’s not getting paid an alleged $5 million (Cdn) a year just for what he can do on the field.  As a marquee player, his contract only counts as about $300,000 against the salary cap so consider that amount his playing payment.  The remaining $4.7 million is for all the rest that he brings.  To his own team.  To other teams.  To the sport.  So far, he certainly seems worth it to this observer.

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