TORONTO — The Toronto Arrows, the lone Canadian entry in Major League Rugby, are closing shop.
Major League Rugby said in a statement Monday night that the Arrows "will cease operations, effectively immediately, and not compete in the 2024 MLR season."
The league said it and the Arrows "explored all avenues in an effort to maintain the club’s presence in the league. Unfortunately, after exhausting all options, Toronto was left with no choice but to voluntarily withdraw from the league."
Arrows co-founder Mark Winokur called it "a very sad day."
"A lot of people put a lot of work into this. It's extremely disappointing," said Winokur, the team's former GM who still has an ownership stake in the franchise.
The Arrows, who joined the league in 2019, have endured tough times of late. The team finished last in the 12-team league at 1-13-2 after an injury-plagued 2023 season.
In August, the franchise was rocked by the death of Bill Webb, the club's president and general partner, from prostate cancer. He was 59.
While Webb was the majority owner, there were seven other co-owners.
At the time, the club said Webb's family wanted the Arrows to continue and that "the entire organization will work to honour that wish and continue Bill’s indelible legacy."
But that proved not possible.
“Despite extensive efforts, carrying on following the passing of Bill Webb was simply too great a challenge for the club to overcome," Arrows GM Tim Matthews said in a statement.
The team finished the season on a 13-game losing streak with its lone win coming March 11, a 27-26 decision at the expansion Chicago Hounds. Ravaged by injuries, the Arrows were missing 14 players in their season-ending 26-24 loss to the visiting NOLA Gold on June 17.
Coach Peter Smith left the franchise in July. Australian Stephen Meehan was hired as Arrows coach in late October with the club continuing to make player signings.
Players were informed of the decision to wind up the franchise in a call with the team Monday.
They were told "funding was not there this year. Some things fell through and they're not going to be able to go ahead with the 2024 season," said a source who was on the call and granted anonymity because the decision had not been announced officially.
MLR CEO Nic Benson said an announcement about "player disbursement processes" would come later.
“While this news is unfortunate, and we feel for all individuals associated with the Arrows organization, the health of MLR remains strong and we look forward to exploring options to bring a team back to Canada in the future,” he added.
News of the team's demise is a blow to Rugby Canada. The Arrows served both as a pipeline to and home for Canadian talent on the national team with seven Toronto players named to Canada’s 32-man tour squad for the La Vila International Rugby Cup earlier this month in Spain.
The Toronto club is home to Canada captain Lucas Rumball, among others.
In 2020, Rugby Canada hired former British Lion Rob Howley as senior assistant coach under Canada coach Kingsley Jones. As part of the signing, Howley worked as a consultant with the Arrows.
The Arrows' record over five seasons was 29-38-2. Toronto finished third overall at 11-5-0 in its 2019 debut season and topped the East at 4-1-0 when the 2020 season was called due to the pandemic.
Because of COVID-related travel restrictions, the team moved south of the border in 2021 and played the entire season based out of Rugby ATL's facility in Georgia. In 2022, the team returned to Canada, playing its home games at York Lions Stadium.
In August, the MLR announced the Atlanta franchise is moving to Los Angeles, upon closing of the team's acquisition by the new ownership group. Atlanta and Toronto contested the Fire and Ice Cup annually because of their close ties.
The Atlanta franchise move will fill the void left by the Los Angeles Giltinis, who folded before the 2023 season along with the Austin Gilgronis.
The league cited uncertainties surrounding the Austin and Los Angeles team ownership in suspending operations of the two sides. Australian entrepreneur Adam Gilchrist owned both franchises, named after cocktails.
MLR, North America's only pro rugby league, started with seven teams in 2018. The Arrows played an exhibition season before coming on board in 2019.
The league operated with 12 teams in 2023 with the expansion Miami Sharks slated to join the fold next season.
The Arrows join rugby league's Toronto Wolfpack on the sporting sidelines. The transatlantic Wolfpack, who played the sport's 13-man code, lost its November 2020 bid for reinstatement to England's Super League.
The Wolfpack had been in limbo since standing down July 20, 2020, saying it could not afford to play the remainder of the season with the pandemic preventing games from being played in Canada. Majority owner David Argyle, unable to fund the club, stepped away.
The Wolfpack has resurfaced but in limited fashion, playing in only a handful of friendly matches.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 27, 2023.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press