TORONTO — The Toronto Wolfpack are currently a team without a league, an insolvent rugby league franchise whose missed payroll totals some 500,000 pounds ($854,620).
But where others see a sporting sinkhole, Carlo LiVolsi sees a business opportunity.
LiVolsi is bidding to take over the transatlantic franchise whose brief history is already fraught with drama, success and failure. The trailblazing team essentially went from a blank piece of paper in 2016 to a juggernaut that rose through the ranks in the lower leagues and won its way into the top-tier Super League last October.
But unable to play games in Canada because of the global pandemic, seeing its stars left in limbo in England because of visa issues and without the proper financial underpinning, the franchise drowned in a sea of red this summer.
LiVolsi, who says he can fix the finances, wonders why rugby league officials might say anything but yes to his ownership bid.
“You spend four years marketing this whole thing to get to Super League. It’s got tremendous fan base and notoriety and momentum from a club perspective. The financial side, that will take care of itself,” LiVolsi said Wednesday.
“I think people will forget about the past, the sins of the past ownership if you have the right people involved. And we’re that group.”
A native of Woodbridge just north of Toronto, LiVolsi has spent the last 18 years in the beauty products distribution business. The father of three, who says he is in his 40s, owns 12 to 13 businesses, most in the beauty industry.
“Predominantly I hang my hat selling (to) major Fortune 500 retailers around the world,” he said. “Service retailers like Woolworths in Australia, I do business with Boots in the U.K., Walmart — which is our largest customer — etcera.”
The Wolfpack stood down July 20, saying they could not afford to complete the rest of its debut season in Super League. Unable to continue funding the team, majority owner David Argyle is stepping away to make room for new ownership.
That is LiVolsi, who made his case to take over the team to Super League and Rugby Football League officials last week. The Wolfpack also delivered an 80-page submission to the sport’s authorities.
The hope is the Wolfpack can return to action next season, although LiVolsi made it clear he is not interested in taking over a team demoted back to the lower divisions.
“It’s Super League or bust … I’m not interested in anything else other than that,” LiVolsi said in his first public comments on the Wolfpack.
LiVolsi was a founding shareholder of the franchise, which first took the field in 2017 — winning promotion first from the second-tier League 1 and then the second-tier Championship.
The Wolfpack were 0-6-0 in their debut season in the elite Super League before the campaign was halted by COVID-19. The league is back playing, with the remaining 11 teams competing in front of empty stands.
LiVolsi believes while the ownership group under Argyle put a good product on the field, it was “devoid of (the) basic structure that you need to run a business.”
He says he has the business acumen and experience to change that.
Job 1 will be paying the players what they are owed. LiVolsi said the fact that they have gone without a paycheque since June 10 is “disgusting.”
“I think that’s dishonest,” he said. “And it’s not the way you run a business. Nor is it the way you live your life.”
“From a personal perspective, I feel for all the players,” he added. “I can only say if we’re given the opportunity, things are going to be much different. They’re going to prosper under us. They’re going to make more money and be treated like family — versus outcasts, (like) how they were treated before.
“There’s no excuse for not paying your bills, you don’t go into an agreement and then not pay the people who help you.”
LiVolsi, who says he too is owed money by the club, committed to meeting all obligations to the players if he takes over the team. Other outstanding bills will then have to be negotiated “because I don’t even know what is owed specifically.”
Some players have left the club. Others are playing for other teams on short-term loans.
LiVolsi said he would “absolutely” love to have Wolfpack star Sonny Bill Williams back next year, calling the signing of the former All Black “a smart deal to be had if you have the money to be able to do it” from a marketing perspective
But that endorsement came with a caveat.
“Right now, if I could be honest, I’m so far revolved from where the club needs to be from a team perspective. And I want to make sure it’s on solid ground financially first.”
The 35-year-old Williams is currently finishing out the 2020 season with the Sydney Roosters.
Part of LiVolsi’s plan involves Wolf Grooming, a sustainably-made men’s line to be launched next year in the U.K, which he says can help monetize both the Toronto franchise and Super League.
“This brand itself will help catapult the league into a marketing machine,” he promised.
He also plans a high-end “CBD-enhanced line … almost like James Bond meets Tom Ford.”
In addition to the synergy with the grooming line, LiVolsi said he is able to deliver sponsorships for the club.
“Those two things are why I’m confident that I can succeed,” he said.
The Wolfpack have faced extra costs given their geography — and have not received a share of the central funding that includes a cut of the Sky TV broadcast deal.
‘My opinion is we should be treated equally and as fairly as all the other 11 clubs,” LiVolsi said.
He says it’s unfair the Wolfpack have to pay for the travel costs for visiting teams, arguing the transatlantic team has attracted more fans to the sport.
“When you look at that, why should the club have to pay twice the amount as every other club to be able to participate in this league? It’s not fair.”
If the club has to pay for everyone’s travel, “we should be compensated accordingly on the other side. That to me is important.”
LiVolsi’s intention is to become the team’s sole owner, possibly bringing in a minority shareholder at a later date as a “strategic branding partner.”
LiVolsi says rather than out of a love for rugby, he got involved with the franchise because of his friendship and past business dealings with Argyle, a Toronto-based Australian who works in the natural resources and mining sectors.
He is assuming his original investment is lost because the franchise is insolvent. “There’s debt, so there’s nothing there. The team, from that perspective, is basically worthless and you’re assuming the debt.”
LiVolsi said he stopped talking to Argyle months ago “because I didn’t like some of the things that he did.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 9, 2020.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press