Monday 10 February 2020

Running with the pack

Over the last few years Jon Pallett (MBA 2011) has been instrumental in helping to create a rugby revolution in Toronto. Sporting history was made on 2 February as Toronto Wolfpack became the first ever North American club to play in the top flight of a European sports league. 

Jon, Commercial Vice President for the Toronto Wolfpack, joined the club two and a half years ago after spending a decade working in professional sport and has responsibility for all commercial aspects of the transatlantic franchise.

The story so far

Toronto Wolfpack are the first professional rugby league team outside Europe to play in the Super League, the northern hemisphere’s premier rugby league competition.

Formed only in 2017, the club began in the third tier, before earning promotion to the Championship in their inaugural season. In 2019 they gained promotion to the Super League after finishing the regular season with a record of 26 wins and a single defeat. For their inaugural Super League season, the Wolfpack recently announced the signing of global sporting superstar Sonny Bill Williams, who has enjoyed a stellar career in both rugby league and union.

From London 2012 to joining the Wolfpack

After completing an undergraduate degree in sports science, Jon Pallett set up a sports coaching business and taught sport programs in further education before deciding to transition into the commercial side of professional sport.

As Jon explained: “I wanted to combine my clear passion for sport from studying and working with my desire to break into the commercial side of professional sport and for me this meant studying for an MBA.

“I chose the course at Leeds as it is globally ranked and has an excellent reputation, although I was the only one in my cohort with a sport background. Timing was really important for me in terms of choosing Leeds, as the London 2012 Olympic Games were to be held a year after I was due to finish the course. I knew the Games would present a host of opportunities for me to land my first role in professional sport.”

Speaking about studying at Leeds, Jon said: “Completing the MBA was really full on and I was able to totally immerse myself in the programme. The standard of the lectures was exceptional with just the right blend of academic and practical application. Completing the course really legitamised what I had done up to that point and has stood me in such good stead for my career. In my current role I’m using almost all of the elements I studied during my MBA and the relationships I forged with my classmates have continued to be invaluable to me as I’ve progressed in my career.”

Following graduation Jon fulfilled his dream of working at the London 2012 Olympics and was part of a grassroots marketing team focused on getting people to celebrate the impact of the Games in their own communities. He then moved to Australia on a working visa and worked for a professional T20 cricket franchise, before returning to the UK for spells in cricket and then rugby union. Three and a half years ago he applied for a Canadian Residency, eventually moving to Toronto in September 2017. Thanks to an introduction from a mutual friend to the team’s ownership, he joined Toronto Wolfpack almost immediately on arrival in “the 6ix”.

Growing global brand

In Jon’s current role as Commercial Vice President for the Wolfpack, he is responsible for bringing revenue into the organisation through three key revenue streams – tickets, merchandise and sponsorship.

“As the organisation has grown, so has the potential for us to explore further revenue streams and make the most of our growing global reach.” Jon explained. “In terms of sponsorship” he continued: “We work with brands that want to associate themselves with our team, particularly those that are active in both the North American and UK markets.

“In the UK shirt sponsors are given more prominence, however this model doesn’t exist in the same way in North America and we are working with big name brands on sponsoring our fan zone, our half time show, VIP areas and even the stadium naming rights.

“We’ve also been able to generate additional revenue through partnering with organisations to launch products such as our pioneering CBD topical cream ‘Rugby Strength’ and our official hair product Wolf Grooming.”

Clearly the logistics of managing and marketing a team based 3,000 miles away from the rest of the teams competing in league presents significant challenges, but as Jon explained, the Wolfpack are uniquely placed to make it a success: “The club have always covered the airline and accommodation costs of all teams making the 6,000+ mile round trip from Europe, and we benefit from a partnership with Air Transat which supports the 550 flights we make each season to move our team and our opposition.”

Toronto are able to negotiate their own television and sponsorship deals within North America and additionally have signed a deal with Sky to show 14 of their fixtures this season, including 8 of their 11 games at the Lamport Stadium.

“We have a party and a game of rugby league breaks out.”

Jon Pallett (MBA 2011)
Vice President, Commercial Toronto Wolfpack

The Lamport experience

The Wolfpack play their home games at the 10,000 capacity Lamport Stadium, but the cold temperatures in Toronto mean their first fixture in Toronto won’t be until April 18 when the stadium opens to the public.

Given many Toronto locals won’t have encountered rugby in any form, creating a memorable fan experience is vital, as Jon explained: “For our home games in Toronto essentially we have a party and a game of rugby league breaks out! Each fixture is themed and work hard to make it an immersive experience for the fans. As a new challenger brand we are able to be playful and our match day experience reflects this – from having fans invited to take part in bubble soccer at half time to Jefferson and Gordo our mascot and ‘anti-mascot’ – we want our fixtures to be full of fun and accessible to all.

Toronto Wolfpack mascot

“For a few years we’ve been able to build a cult following as ‘Toronto’s best kept secret’, but now we are in Super League we’ll be continuing to ramp up our efforts. Our pricing is really competitive as well in comparison to Toronto’s other professional sports teams and we are lucky to be able to host ‘Toronto’s biggest beer garden’ after the match to extend the fans opportunities to enjoy their day.”

Signing Sonny Bill

Toronto stated their on field aspirations before the start of the Super League season, capturing the signature of New Zealand-born sports superstar Sonny Bill Williams, who has enjoyed a stellar career in both rugby league and union.

But it’s from a commercial perspective that Jon is most excited about the opportunities having ‘SBW’ as part of the Wolfpack will bring. “We are hugely excited because Sonny Bill offers what no other player on the planet offers at this time, he transcends the sport of rugby and indeed all sports, undoubtedly we’ve got a global superstar on our hands. We know that he will inspire fans to watch rugby and kids to play rugby

“In Sonny Bill, we've got an iconic player that speaks so well and represents himself and the team so well. When we get him to Toronto later this season we have someone who is recognised if he walks down the street and will open up massive doors for us. He can go to a Raptors game and be interviewed on court at half time, walk into any TV studio in the city, and even go and meet Justin Bieber and Drake (if indeed he wants to)!”

The future for Jon and the Wolfpack

After just two games in the Super League it’s difficult to make a judgement on the impact Toronto will have on the competition, however their aspiration is to create a global centre for rugby excellence in their home city.

For Jon, this means continuing to grow the club commercially, building a portfolio of big brand sponsors to drive revenue and amplify the Wolfpack’s reach globally.

He said: “Most of all this season we want competitive rugby league at Lamport stadium with sell-out crowds. This is a season of consolidation for us in the Super League and of focusing on all the opportunities we have both on and off the field, but once we are established the next step is to see if we can compete for silverware!”

Stepping back to reflect on the journey both he and the team have made, Jon said: “Since our promotion I’ve had chance to consider how crazy the journey has been! It’s incredible to see how far the club has come in such a short space of time and I’m excited to grasp hold of all the opportunities the future will bring.”