When the Toronto Wolfpack take to the field against an as yet unknown English amateur side in the third round of Rugby League’s Challenge Cup later this month, it could be the first shot fired in a global sporting revolution.
The villages of Egremont, Fryston and Thatto Heath are not usually the centres of sporting attention, yet any could be the place where it changes forever.
Let me explain.
This season the Wolfpack are set to become the first transatlantic professional sports team, and eyes will surely be watching from those with far deeper pockets, and the aspiration to line them, than the head honchos at the RFL.
A transatlantic team has been on the cards now for several years. When the NFL’s International Series first came to Wembley in 2007 there were whispers of a London franchise. Now, it seems, the UK capital has taken a ticket and is waiting for its number to be called.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is that a North American team was chosen to compete in a European league, rather than vice versa. The franchise model adopted across the Atlantic, with fans who are resigned to teams changing venue, seemed far better suited to exploring new markets than the conservative and nationalistic European model so heavily inspired by the traditions of football.
Should the Wolfpack have success, be it on the field or commercially, it will not be long before those waiting for a pioneer will follow suit. The NFL, as so often is the case, is the loudest and most auspicious suitor of a transatlantic market, but there are already talks of two North American teams joining Rugby Union’s Pro-12 and even suggestion of a London NHL franchise – a ludicrous proposal given that the city can’t currently support a side in Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League.
It is football, so ingrained in European culture, that will likely be the most resistant to change. The big four European leagues and UEFA’s Champions League will in all likelihood not bend until transatlantic sport becomes an inevitable reality, such is the resistance to change within its members and fans. It says a lot about this stubbornness that the frequently mooted ‘European Super League’ has not transpired despite the football hierarchy’s seemingly limitless lust for cash.
This resistance is somewhat ironic given that it is the sport most well acquainted with regular scheduled travelling. The 3,335 miles from Toronto to Whitehaven in Cumbria is an almost identical distance to that travelled by fans of Ireland’s St Pat’s Athletic when they faced Kazakhstan’s Shakhter Karagandy in their 2011 Europa League qualifying glamour tie. And even this is 900 miles less than the distance between Spartak Nalchik and Luch-Energiya Vladivostok who clashed in the 2008 Russian Premier League.
Football might resist for a time, but an already bulging global market for European football will surely be straining at the leash to marry UCL to Copa Libertadores or the MLS in something far more grandiose than the currently irrelevant World Club Challenge.
It might yet fail. The issues of constant jet lag, changes in climate, reduced preparation time and sheer strain of travelling might have the effect that doomsayers are predicting. Vladivostok only achieved one top half finish in their three seasons in the Russian Premier League, perhaps for this reason.
But if it doesn’t, Toronto Wolfpack’s game at the likes of Myton Warriors on the 26th February will be remembered for years to come for the precedent it established.
And either way, the Canadian side are going to be a great pub quiz answer in thirty years’ time.