Toronto Wolfpack’s play for attracting fans

From the C-Suite newsletter: The team has piqued fan interest by offering "a party with a rugby game in the background."

Wolfpack-crowd

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As the world’s first “transatlantic sports team” and the only North American rugby team in the U.K.’s Rugby Football League (RFL) Super League division, the Toronto Wolfpack have helped put rugby on the map in Canada, explains head of marketing Jeff Aylen.

Established in 2017, and with attendance hovering at 7,000 to 8,000 spectators per home game, it’s still leagues away from drawing Maple Leafs- or Raptors-sized crowds. But the team is entering 2020 with wind in its sails. Having been promoted into the RFL’s first-tier Super League and having signed rugby superstar Sonny Bill Williams, the Wolfpack are poised to garner more local and international attention in 2020 than any other year in its short history.

To capitalize on that momentum, it recently named Toronto-based LP/AD as AOR, to help drive revenue from ticket sales and merchandise, as well as consideration for the sport of rugby.

But without the marketing budgets of other professional teams, and with Toronto’s aging Lamport Stadium as its home base, the Wolfpack doesn’t intend to compete with the TFCs and Blue Jays of the world. Rather, it plans to continue positioning itself as an entertainment option for fans and non-fans alike, as “a party with a rugby game in the background,” as Aylen puts it.

Knowing Canadians are still warming up to the game, it offers prospective fans other reasons to attend a match: in the stadium’s Beer Garden, fans can drink local craft brews while mingling with players. The space doubles as a live music venue that hosted a Jimi Hendrix impersonator who ripped a solo after every “try” (the rugby equivalent of a touchdown). Once, the venue hosted a carnival-style dunking machine that would dunk fans during celebratory moments.

At the end of the day, Aylen says it’s about “bringing people in, educating them about the game once they’re there, and primarily drawing them in with fun and kind of crazy ideas.”

As such, it considers all summer entertainment options potential competitors, from the Canadian National Exhibition in August to cottage getaways on the weekend.

Wolfpack mascot

For now, the Canadian rugby following remains relatively small, consisting primarily of men over the age of 45 who encountered the sport in high school or university, according to Aylen. But the Wolfpack’s success has given the sport more exposure, and its marketing strategy has helped draw in millennials from across the GTA (primarily along the Hamilton to Pickering corridor) who hear about the experience online or through friends, he says.

The team has also leaned into its positioning as one of the more affordable options around. Through a partnership with Metrolinx, last year it offered ticket buyers free GO transportation to the game. That, coupled with lower-than-average ticket prices, Aylen says, has helped draw spectators who can’t afford to see Toronto’s most popular sports teams play.

The strategy appears to be paying off. The number of Wolfpack season-ticket holders has jumped 35% for 2020 over the last year, though the majority of fans remain single-ticket purchasers. Part of that increase can be attributed to the signing of Sonny Bill Williams, Rugby’s equivalent of David Beckham, who joined Major League Soccer in the U.S. in the latter stages of his career and helped bring a degree of legitimacy to the league. Within 24 hours of signing him, the Wolfpack earned 15,000 new followers on Instagram and 10,000 on Facebook.

As rugby grows in popularity, there are talks of adding new professional teams in Ottawa and New York. “A lot of it has to do with how the Toronto project has done and will do,” Aylen says. “It’s such a crazy concept in general, to think that Toronto would have a professional rugby team that plays in a U.K. league. In theory, it’s probably a concept that shouldn’t work. But, I think we’ve really found a unique way to position it within the city that has brought a lot of strength to the project.”

Photos by Mathew Tsang, courtesy of Toronto Wolfpack.