TORONTO — Professional rugby league in Canada lasted less than four seasons with the Toronto Wolfpack. The Ottawa Aces have yet to take the field.
But there are plans to kick-start the sport at the grassroots level in Canada, in the form of the Canada Co-Operative Championship Rugby League (CCCRL). Organizers hope to eventually establish a 12 -team league with both men's and women's teams with fans literally able to buy into the concept.
Sandy Domingos-Shipley, a Toronto native now based in Leeds, England, is looking to help get the project off the ground.
"I've got children born and raised here," the mother of three said in an interview. "And I've seen the impact of rugby league from a kid's point of view — how much they really do get involved in community and the good that comes out of the sport from the grassroots level.
"And I really want the people in Canada to have a bit of that. I want them to have more of it … We can make rugby league grow in Canada the right way."
The Canadian co-op league idea is the brainchild of 37-year-old Chris Coates, an English native who is the founding firector of CCCRL. He has been mulling over the concept for some years now.
Coates is coach of the Sheffield Forgers, who play in the Yorkshire Men's League. He also has a hand in the international game as coach of the Lithuania men's team, describing himself as a "diehard expansionist at heart."
"I believe that the game really should be for everybody," he said. "And I find it perplexing that so many people love the game but don't want to see it grow outside its (northern England) heartlands."
His day job is in the tech world. "I build super-computers for a living."
Looking to develop the sport, the league will feature rugby league nines which is akin to rugby union's sevens — a faster, condensed nine-a-side version of the rugby league game. They believe nines is an easier introduction to the game.
The idea is to start with a six-team league in 2023, with plans of increasing up to 12 teams — six men's and six women's — with representation from B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec.
Divisional competition will be followed by championship play.
Domingos-Shipley says the league will also serve as a home for members of the Canadian national teams: the Wolverines (men) and Ravens (women). Players will be paid on a pro-am model.
The Canadian Rugby League Association is on board, although not contributing financially.
" What's exciting from our point of view is that the initiative is based on the development of grassroots rugby league," said CRLA president Bob Jowett. "We certainly wish them al the best with it and are supportive of the initiative."
Domingos-Shipley says the plan calls for the governing body to benefit from some of the profits from the proposed league.
Coates says the league will be funded 40 per cent in the form of private equity and 60 per cent by fans. Investors would get an annual return. They have not yet disclosed the minimum investment but say the average fan will be able to afford to get involved.
"The thing with a co-operative is it effectively buys brand loyalty," said Coates. "People who invest in something are inclined to want to make that work."
"Fans want to be part of growing something and this is the way they can do that," added Domingos-Shipley, who moved to England in 2001.
Her passion for rugby league started four years ago when she started following the Wolfpack in England, becoming essentially a super-fan.
Coates applauded the expansion to Toronto although he says he saw "risks" with the Wolfpack agreeing to pay visiting teams' travel and accommodation costs.
Unable to play at home due to the pandemic, the Wolfpack stood down in July saying it could not afford to play out the remainder of the 2020 Super League season. The club's subsequent bid for reinstatement under new ownership in 2021 was voted down in November.
"As a business owner, I couldn't get my head around how we got to the place where we were," said Domingos-Shipley, who runs a consulting company.
Coates, meanwhile, was prompted to look for alternate ways to grow the game. In his words, "If you could do it completely differently, how would you do it?"
He started talking to other people about the Wolfpack, including Domingos-Shipley, sharing his idea for a co-op league.
"I was like 'Right I'm helping you do this. I want this to work,'" said Domingos-Shipley, who is billed as the CCCRL co-founder and director of governance and compliance.
Coates also watched tape of the East-West game played at Lamport Stadium in January 2020. "It was good quality stuff," he said.
He believes the talent and interest for a domestic league are both there.
"The Wolfpack have done fantastic job of growing that market, from nothing. To grow to 10,000 fans in four years from zero fans is a great achievement. But the problem is that it was done in an unsustainable way."
Organizers say they are working with "appropriate organizations" to ensure that all financial participation is in line with regulations and expectations.
Coates says his group already has some commercial partners "in the pipeline."
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 1, 2021