Rugby league: Sonny Bill Williams barely on the radar in sports-mad Toronto

Sonny Bill Williams in action at a recent All Blacks training
Sonny Bill Williams in action at a recent All Blacks training Photo credit: Getty

The rugby union and rugby league worlds were buzzing as talk intensified that Sonny Bill Williams was about to sign a record-breaking contract with Toronto Wolfpack.

At the same time, Canadians were asking Sonny who?

A vast majority of Torontonians know very little about or have little interest in either rugby code.

They know even less about a New Zealander named Sonny Bill Williams.

A dual international and two-time Rugby World Cup winner with the All Blacks, Williams is a superstar of the highest order in Australia and England where the codes are mainstream.

In Canada, he is a mystery man.

To be sure, 34-year-old Williams is a megastar performer, but the Toronto stage is a small one, an ageing neighbourhood stadium with artificial turf and a seating capacity of 9,000.

Rugby league's only trans-Atlantic club, the Wolfpack will make their Super League debut in England in February, having won promotion to the top tier last month by beating Featherstone Rovers in the Championship playoff final.

Founded in 2016, the team have a loyal hardcore fan base and Wolfpack games have developed a reputation as a fun, affordable sporting option in the city of 3.5 million.

But it's a bust sporting city that already had five major sporting franchises before the arrival of the Wolfpack. 

NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs, NBA's Toronto Raptors, MLB's Toronto Blue Jays, MLS' Toronto FC's and Canadian Football League Argonauts compete for attention.

Kawhi Leonard brought Toronto its first NBA title
Kawhi Leonard brought Toronto its first NBA title Photo credit: Getty
The Toronto Maple Leafs are the city's No.1 sporting franchise
The Toronto Maple Leafs are the city's No.1 sporting franchise

The Maple Leafs are Toronto's number one sporting obsession and the Raptors are reigning NBA champions. Toronto FC will play the Seattle Sounders on Sunday for what would be their second MLS title in three years.

To get noticed in such a competitive market would require a bold play and Wolfpack's majority owner, Australian mining tycoon David Argyle, has put his money on Williams.

While the Williams name may not get the immediate attention of potential new fans, the arrival of the codes' richest player of all-time will no doubt attract the curious.

At a reported NZ$5 million a season, Williams's pay packet almost doubles the salary cap Super League teams operate under.

Each team, however, is permitted to sign two marquee players whose salaries count only $250,000 against the cap.

"I think this is a bold move and the right move," Queen's University marketing professor Ken Wong told Reuters.

Williams is equal parts mercenary and missionary.

It took a lucrative cash carrot to lure him to a rugby backwater.

Once in Canada, he will be expected to perform well enough on the pitch to keep the Wolfpack in the spotlight, but more importantly, he will be counted on to preach the rugby gospel to the unconverted.

"I'm a firm believer in the marketing power of the superstar, and the investment --no matter how large--is usually worth it," said Bob Dorfman, sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising.

"Especially, for a league or team looking to build respectability or make a splash."

Bringing in a superstar player on the downside of his career is not revolutionary thinking.

Major League Soccer used it with great success when Los Angeles Galaxy recruited David Beckham in 2007, signing the ageing former England captain to a massive contract.

David Beckham's MLS signing was a major turning point for that league
David Beckham's MLS signing was a major turning point for that league Photo credit: Getty

That, however, is where the similarities between the Williams signing and Beckham deals end.

When Beckham landed in LA he was already a global brand having played for two of soccer's glamour clubs in Manchester United and Real Madrid.

While soccer's popularity at the professional level had yet to mature in the United States, the sport was widely understood and consumed, particularly the international variety.

Beckham was selling a league, a team.

In contrast, Williams plays a sport that is not familiar or widely played in Canada and his job will be to help grow the game.

"If you think about it what could you buy with advertising for $10 million?" said Wong.

"You could buy a campaign that might or might not work so if you think about him as part of your marketing budget and not just your team performance budget you can start to see some justification.

"It doesn't mean it is going to work, but it just means it's a good educated bet."