Webb and Winokur Provide Insight on the Business Side of MLR
Source: The Canadian Press
Prior to the beginning of MLR’s 2nd season, the league announced that they would be expanding from 7 to 9 teams. Joining the San Diego Legion, Seattle Seawolves, NOLA Gold, Glendale Raptors, Houston SaberCats, Austin Elite Rugby, and Utah Warriors would be Rugby United New York and the Toronto Arrows. The Arrows would become the MLR’s first Canadian team and the first professional rugby union team in Canada. The club opened the door for many Canadians to get the opportunity to play professional rugby at home for the first time. Bill Webb is the Arrows’ President and Mark Winokur is the Vice President and General Manager of the club. Both of them were kind enough to sit down and offer some insight to what it is like to operate a Major League Rugby franchise.
Major League Rugby operates as a single entity league. The biggest example of a single-entity league in North America is Major League Soccer. MLR looks to be following a very similar model to the league that began play in 1996. Since then, MLS has dramatically grown the game of soccer in North America. MLS now has the 4th highest average game attendance in North American sports behind the NFL, MLB, and CFL. Single entity league means that every team owns a piece of the league. Each club is classified as a member and has a stake in the ownership of the league as a whole. “We are a member, along with all of the other teams, in owning an equal stake of Major League Rugby. We are currently a 1/14 owner of Major League Rugby” said Webb. In 2020, MLR will expand from 9 teams to 12 teams and then to 14 teams for the 2021 season. The addition of the New England Free Jacks, Old Glory DC, and Rugby ATL will put enough teams on the East coast to allow MLR to go to conferences for the first time. 2021 will see the addition of an unnamed Dallas club and another team that Webb describes as being located in a “major US market”, but is unable to be more specific at this time. Canadian fans may be disappointed to hear that the 14th team will be American, but Webb and Winokur wanted to be clear that “there is currently no Canadian groups engaged in exclusive formal negotiations with Major League Rugby”. Their clarification that a 2nd Canadian MLR team is not on the horizon may be disappointing to some, but it leaves the Arrows in unique situation as they will continue to operate as the only Canadian member of MLR.
As the President and Vice-President of the Arrows Webb and Winokur handle most of the day-to-day operations of the club. Webb handles most of the investment and financial side of the team and Winokur handles most of the rugby operations. Both Webb and Winokur also handle sponsorships. The Arrows have a small staff and when asked what their day to day jobs consist of Webb responded with “It’s whatever needs to get done”. This also extends to everyone in the organization. Attack coach Peter Smith has a ticketing background so he also has a small role in the Arrows ticketing department. With that role, Smith still primarily focuses on rugby which is what Webb wants. “Players are here to play rugby; coaches are here to coach rugby” said Webb. However, both Webb and Winokur recognize an important job that the Arrows players have off of the pitch as well. “If we have an event, players need to serve as goodwill ambassadors and that becomes part of their job”. The Arrows pride themselves on making all of their players, coaches and other staff incredibly approachable. I have experienced this first hand as throughout the year no player or coach ever turned down an interview request and were all incredibly helpful. This approachability extends to the fans as well. After every Arrows’ game, fans are invited onto the pitch to meet with players, get photos and autographs, and toss a rugby ball around. Those players will also head over to the bar after the game (either Shopsy’s or William’s Landing depending on the stadium) to eat and have a pint. The players and coaches once again make themselves available to any fan that wants to talk or take a selfie.
This tight-knit fan experience that gives all fans up close access to the team is a way the Arrows look to distinguish themselves in the chaotic Toronto sports market. “Everybody on our team (staff and players) all realize that ultimately it’s the fans who pay the bills and everybody on our team are great ambassadors” said Webb. He would go on to add that “to me that is our most important marketing. The post match stuff and then the social afterwards. The mileage you get out of that is huge”. Winokur also touched on how important that fan interaction is to the atmosphere of an Arrows game. “When you come to a rugby game you feel like you are a part of it. You don’t feel like you are just spectating it”. The Arrows players and coaching staff routinely spend hours postgame directly interacting with their fans to create a unique, and inclusive atmosphere as they try to distinguish themselves in the very competitive Toronto sports market.
One of the most important elements of any professional sports team is the brand itself. The Toronto Arrows were first introduced in 2017 as the Ontario Arrows. As Ontario, they had their first match on September 9, 2017 at Infinity Park against the Glendale Merlins. The Arrows would play an exhibition season in 2018 as Ontario and played in blue, gold, and grey kits. With the announcement of the Arrows inclusion in the MLR, came the announcement of a new brand as well. “Ontario” was dropped in favour of “Toronto” and a new logo that was accompanied by a new blue and white colour scheme. In order to create the brand, Webb consulted Doubleday & Cartwright, a design firm based in Brooklyn. Doubleday & Cartwright’s other clients include the Milwaukee Bucks, Red Bull (including the New York Red Bulls), Nike, Jordan Brand, and J. Cole. Webb also directly asked the fans and the other members of MLR for their opinions on the name. Many (but not all) fans were in favour of using Toronto and according to Webb “the other members of MLR thought it would be better for competitive rivalries to be named Toronto other than Ontario”. The decision also goes along with an established precedent of every other Toronto sports team is named “Toronto”. As for the logo and colours Webb “wanted it to be a really simple and classic logo that would stand the test of time and not have to be changed every 5 years”. The colours of blue and white are associated with many Toronto sport teams such as the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays, Argos and now the Arrows carry on that Toronto tradition as well. The reception of the new logo, kits, and merchandise has been incredible positive form the fans. “People love it! The hats look really sharp. A lot of people have commented that they thought our jerseys were the most classic in the league. And that’s what we wanted”. The Arrows will continue to work with Doubleday & Cartwright going forward and the firm is now part of the Arrows investment group. This makes the Arrows the first professional sports team that Doubleday & Cartwright have ever invested in.
The up close and personal feel of the home games as well as excellent branding and merchandise has helped the Arrows fanbase grow exponentially. Webb says that the ticket sales and attendance met their expectations for the inaugural season. However, more importantly “there were not a lot of comped tickets. People were paying for their tickets. Which is what we wanted because this is a professional game. We want people to get used to paying for high quality rugby and they did. They gladly did,” said Webb. The build up to the Arrows season was very short. The club officially joined MLR on November 3, 2018 and played their first game on January 26, 2019. This left very little time for the Arrows to sell tickets, work out tv contracts, create merchandise, find a stadium, and all of the other things a sports franchise needs to do ahead of a season. However, the Arrows used that season to grow a fanbase of dedicated supporters. The Arrows introduced The Founders Club which allows fans to lock in their season tickets for 3 years (2020, 2021, 2022) as well as plenty of other additional perks the Arrows plan on surprising Founders Club members with. The sales of Founders Club memberships have been outstanding so far. “The number [of Founders Club memberships] already exceeds what we had for season ticket sales for last year” said Webb. Again, the Founders Club is a 3-year membership so the fact that that number already exceeds last year’s season ticket sales is a remarkable sign for the Arrows especially since the single season tickets are not even on sale yet. When asked why the Arrows wanted to sell a 3-season ticket package, Webb responded “we wanted to build a solid base and identify who our hardcore fans are who will also be influencers in the years to come.” Webb continued say the hardcore fans “are people who are going to come come hell or high water. They love it.” The Founders Club is a way for the Arrows to award their most die-hard and passionate fans. Many of the perks will be announced as the 2020 season approaches and “it will make an impression when we announce that,” Webb declared.
The fans at the stadium were not the only ones pleased with the Arrows performance this year and looking forward to the years to come. Sixteen Arrows games were broadcasted on Game TV and averaged between 7-8000 viewers per game. Webb is also pleased to say that he has received plenty of positive feedback from the Arrows sponsors. Prior to the season, the Arrows did face some challenges in regards to sponsorship that were linked to the short turnaround between having a team officially announced and the beginning of the season. “We missed the window last year. Big sponsorship deals are cut in the fall and we didn’t even get in the league until November,” said Webb who is already engaging in talks with potential sponsors both big and small for the 2020 season. Despite the limited time, the Arrows did lock in some big sponsors for their inaugural season. The coveted front of the kit sponsor for the inaugural season was Honda. “Of all the teams in the league, I think we had the most significant sponsor on the front of our jersey,” stated Webb. For Comparisons, the other jersey sponsors in MLR include Louisiana Tourism (NOLA), Aveva (Houston), Nui (Utah), MKG (New York), Cuisine Solutions (DC), and a handful of teams with none. Honda was a very active and visible sponsor for the Arrows this season. At York Alumni Stadium, they set up an area for kids to ride dirt bikes. The game ball was always delivered by a kid on a Honda dirt bike prior to the opening kick-off. Honda also produced a few videos promoting the Arrows on their social media channels. The videos featured Cole Keith, Dan Moor, Bill Webb, and a handful of other contests. The full-offseason also gives the Arrows a chance to build towards more partnerships within the Toronto rugby community. After the success of the Ruck Cancer game, the Arrows will be holding more theme nights next season and Ruck Cancer is set to become an annual tradition for the Arrows. Shortly after conducting the interview with myself for this article, Webb met with the Oshawa Vikings and Muddy York RFC (an LGBT rugby club) and will continue to work with them next season.
On the pitch itself, there will be some changes to the MLR next year. With the addition of Rugby ATL, New England Free Jacks, and Old Glory DC, MLR will become a 2-conference league. Winokur believe that the decision to do so was an easy one for the league’s members. “The goal was always to go to conferences based on geographical alignment,” said Winokur. He also mentioned two major reasons that the league made this decision. “There’s a bunch of reasons. One of them is cost. Obviously, Toronto to New York, Toronto to Washington, Toronto to Boston, Boston to New York etc. are much cheaper and more efficient trips than Toronto to Seattle or Boston to San Diego. And you have the natural rivalries. Boston and New York are a huge rivalry. We think we can have a rivalry with both of them,” said Winokur. Travel costs seems to be the biggest incentive to use a conference system. A reduction in cost is incredibly important to a brand-new professional sports league and building rivalries creates a more exciting on field product for the fans.
In addition to serving as the Arrows Vice President, Winokur is the club’s general manager. In 2020 the MLR salary cap will increase from $450,000 USD to $500,000 USD which will also allow the max salary a player can make to grow and remain the same percentage of the cap. With an extra $50,000, Winokur is tasked with resigning many of the Arrows players for the club’s 2nd season. “I would anticipate that at least 75-80% of last years’ roster will be back,” said Winokur. A large part of that is because the Arrows have the chance to retain all of their players even if another club offers them a contract. The shortest contract an MLR player can sign is 1-year with a club/player option. “We have options on all the players,” said Winokur. Webb then built on Winokur’s statement by further explaining the option, “Essentially what it means is that we have the right of first negotiation and the right to match any offer they might get elsewhere.” The clause in the contract that allows the Arrows to match any deal put forward by another club will allow them to retain the majority of the team. In doing so, it allows them to retain the majority of the Canadian talent in MLR, which is an important goal of the Arrows. “Right or wrong, we consciously want to support and develop Canadian rugby. We want to earn the right to be the choice of destination for the very best players in Canada,” said Webb. The Arrows believe that their strong culture and word of mouth from current players will help the Arrows become the preferred professional option amongst Canadian players.
With a full offseason, the Arrows will also have more time to determine their stadium. In 2019, the Arrows split their 8 games between York Alumni Stadium and Lamport Stadium simply because, as Webb would put it, “we had to”. Webb would add “the dome at Lamport doesn’t come down until the end of April. That may change going forward.” However, playing the season in two separate stadiums did allow the Arrows to gauge their fanbases’ reaction to each venue. Each stadium has some pros and cons, but last year it was the only option for the Arrows. Now, they get the chance to weigh their options and figure out the best plan going forward. “We have some runway now to work on this issue”, said Winokur. At this moment, the Arrows are gathering information and working to determine is best for the team and the fans. York Alumni and Lamport are still on the table, but there are also other emerging options. “They are redoing the surface at York Lions Stadium. The grass is coming up and they are putting in a state-of-the-art multipurpose pitch,” said Webb who highlighted some amenities that neither York Alumni or Lamport Stadium have such as seats instead of bleachers and corporate boxes. However, it is unclear when that renovation will be completed. The Arrows will need to take into consideration all aspects of each stadium including fan experience and construction in order to arrive at their decision.
Bill Webb and Mark Winokur are focused on using their platform as the first professional rugby union team in Canada to not only grow their team’s brand, but to grow the Canadian rugby as a whole. The Arrows have provided an opportunity for Canadians to play rugby at home for the first time. Ultimately, there were 13 Arrows named to the longlist for the Pacific Nations Cup. Of those, 8 made the final 31-man roster for the tournament. The Arrows’ impact on Canadian rugby is already being felt. Though the work of Webb, Winokur, and everyone else behind the scenes, the Arrows are well on their way to becoming the choice destination for Canadian rugby players and fans.