What began as a thought bubble by Toronto Wolfpack founder Eric Perez to sign Sonny Bill Williams has developed into a bold recruitment strategy that could change the direction of rugby league forever.
Perez, who is now trying to establish a second Canadian club in Ottawa, first suggested the idea of signing Williams during a strategy meeting with Wolfpack majority owner David Argyle three years ago.
Argyle followed through with an approach after learning that Williams was likely to leave New Zealand rugby union after the World Cup and the 34-year-old superstar is now poised to sign with the ambitious Canadian club.
“I was reminded of this by David today,” Perez said. “We were talking about it and he [Argyle] said actually I got the idea from you [Perez] because you said if we can get to the Super League then one day we can bring in a huge star like Sonny Bill.
“We were brainstorming ideas and I said, ‘Sonny Bill Williams or Billy Slater’. Billy has since retired but Sonny Bill is the biggest rugby star in the world – union or league.”
The Wolfpack’s recruitment of Williams has been compared to LA Galaxy signing David Beckham from Read Madrid in 2007 – a move that ensured the ongoing success of Major League Soccer in the United States.
The impact that the dual international could have for the Wolfpack and the game in North America can already be seen with reports of his impending signing on the main BBC morning sports round-up and front page of the New Zealand Herald.
Once the lucrative two-year deal, reportedly worth up to $10 million, is finalised Williams will fly to London for his official unveiling in a Wolfpack jersey at Canada House next Thursday.
However, to lure a star of Williams' calibre to Toronto required an offer befitting his standing and he is set to become the first player with equity in a team he plays for.
“It has happened before in North American sports, with [Canadian NHL stars] Wayne Gretszky and Mario Lemieux being two examples,” Perez said.
“I think it is such a mark of respect to do something like that. Only the top-of the-top guys could get that, Sonny Bill or Johnathan Thurston.
“I’ll happily have my shares diluted for Sonny Bill. We have so much respect for him it is an essential piece to anything that would happen.”
Sonny Bill is the biggest rugby star in the world – union or league.Wolfpack founder Eric Perez
Williams isn’t a household name in North America but Perez said he may become one as the hype generated by his signing creates even more hype.
One of the first issues to address for Wolfpack management is how they can accommodate the number of fans wanting to watch the team play in Toronto next season as most home games are already sell-outs.
“If this deal goes through rugby league goes to the next stratosphere in North America,” Perez said.
“If it’s on the front page of the New Zealand Herald and the BBC are reporting on it, it will be covered here too and all of a sudden everyone will know about him.
“The hype train will be easy to translate over here, everyone will understand the significance of it.”
Perez said Toronto’s signing of Williams could be a defining moment for rugby league in North America, with the impact to felt in the United States as well as Canada.
“From the minute we started we have been the pacesetters and trendsetters on everything, doing things in a different way,” Perez said.
“Sonny Bill Williams is kind of like the David Beckham of MLS, he could be that pivotal for flicking the switch for the whole continent.
“I think a move like that helps to get to the States easier because in the States they really respect money and fame and razzamatazz, and that’s what this is. If we can pull this off the sport will never be the same.”