People always ask me what I think the sports world is lacking currently, and my answer never changes. I tell them that fan interaction amongst players is almost non-existent anymore. I understand that professional sports teams such as the Maple Leafs, Raptors and Jays have built up such an enormous brand that it becomes increasingly difficult for fans to interact with players. I find that out of the "big three", the Blue Jays do the best job of accomplishing this, with various outreach events, Jays Care auctions and charity functions. Not even the Blue Jays compares to the fan experience and interactivity that you can experience at the Toronto Wolfpack game.
What and who are the Toronto Wolfpack? Well, let me introduce you.
The Wolfpack are Canada's first professional rugby team and the first transatlantic professional sports team. Since they could not buy in to the top league, they must progress through the Rugby Football League (RFL) tiers to earn their way up to the top tier, or "Super League." In their first year, the Wolfpack are playing in the third tier, and are outclassing and manhandling every opponent. Scores of 80-0 for the Wolfpack have become commonplace throughout the season.
Yet even with the guaranteed wins and the 10-0 start that the Wolfpack have put together, the fans still find an allure and presence around the sport, the players and the atmosphere. Playing out of Lamport Stadium in the heart of Liberty Village in Toronto, the Wolfpack has an average attendance of approximately 7,000 fans per game. It was expected that fan attendance would drop off after the home opener, but it has remained steady. Why? Simple...the Wolfpack provides a fan experience like no other.
I can guarantee you that majority of the fans watching the game have little to no idea of what's going on or how the game is played. It's like a Homecoming game at a university. Most of the people aren't there to watch the game, but to drink and have a great time with friends. The Wolfpack understand that knowledge of the sport is quite minimal in Canada, so they have come up with some creative elements to entice fan interaction and rebuy.
One of the main elements that contributes to this success is the introduction of the beer garden. Located along the North end of the stadium, fans can walk to and from their seats, drink craft beer from various different tents and get to meet new friends or reconnect with old ones. When you look around at the crowd, it is impossible to find one face without a smile on it.
Oh, and did I mention that the beer garden stays open after the game too? The games have started at 4:30pm on Saturdays, and the tents stay open an hour or two after the conclusion of the game. They are the only venue that keeps alcohol concessions open once the game is over. This is important because this contributes to the second factor in the fan experience success.
Fans of sport are so accustomed to understanding that once the game is over, its time to leave. With the beer garden being open, fans stick around after the game and the players love this. After every home game, you will see Wolfpack players and even players of the opposing team come out from their locker rooms and share a few pints and pictures with the local fans. It's an experience that I have never seen before, and it was amazing to be able to witness it first hand.
I have had the pleasure of being able to work with the company that handles all the operations for the Wolfpack, and thus I have had access to players, coaches, behind the scenes dialogue and more. The players absolutely love the fans here. As you can tell by the above picture, these guys love the sport, love the team and love the fans. One player told me in a super thick British accent "I never expected the fans here to be this crazy about us and the game, mate."
But here we are, in a city that is learning all about rugby, the players and the team. The fans treat these player's like royalty. I think it's safe to say that this was beyond anybody's expectations.
There's always a moment in time that you can look back on and make the claim that it was that particular moment or event that inspired the growth of the game in a particular area. When Vince Carter was on the Raptors, it inspired millions of youth to pick up a basketball and fly like VC. When the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series titles, baseball registration skyrocketed across the nation. If and when rugby begins to grow as a sport in this great nation of ours, I will look back to this moment in time and say that the introduction of the Wolfpack started this great movement.
For more information on the team, its schedules and so much more head over to their website www.torontowolfpack.com.