The Rugby League World Cup has a “chequered history,” by Jon Dutton’s own admission, after 15 editions held at intervals varying from two to eight years, and in various formats. So the chief executive of RLWC 2021, the organising committee for the next edition of the tournament, to be hosted by England, is well aware of the importance of staging an event that will finally cement its place in the international sports calendar.

“We started incredibly early, in 2015, so we’ve had almost
three years of planning already,” he tells Sportcal Insight in an exclusive
interview shortly after unveiling a legacy programme, ‘Inspired by 2021’, that
aims to “use the tournament as a catalyst to develop the game of Rugby League
and engage with the widest possible audience.”

“I describe it as the single biggest project in the sport in
UK history,” he continues. “It has to transcend sport, and reach a new
audience. It has to be spectacular entertainment as much as rugby league. It’s
all about engagement. We’re aware that rugby league is a tough game that not
everyone wants to play or watch, so the legacy programme is important.

“The benefit to the UK is that it’s another mega sporting
event that the country can be proud of; it transcends rugby league.”

This is in line with the tournament’s ‘strategic goals’, which are set out as follows:

• To be the most attended and viewed World Cup ever
• To deliver a profitable tournament 
• To leave a long-lasting legacy
• To increase profile and visibility for Rugby League
• To be the most digitally connected entertainment event of 2021.

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The first-ever edition of the Rugby League World Cup was held in France in 1954, long before the 1987 debut of the Rugby World Cup of the rival rugby union code, but while the Rugby World Cup has grown steadily since that first edition, underpinned by a stable quadrennial schedule, the Rugby League World Cup has been held quadrennially only since 2013, the edition staged by England and Wales, which Dutton regards as having set the blueprint for the modern tournament.

As if to underline the perennially unsettled nature of the
international rugby league calendar, the Rugby League International Federation
last week delivered a rap on the knuckles to the Australian Rugby League
Commission for unilaterally issuing a press release proposing radical changes
to the calendar, in defiance of what the RLIF described as “the position it had
previously committed to as part of the RLIF Board in May 2017.”

The proposal includes the first tour of Great Britain by Australia’s
Kangaroos since 2003 next year and the introduction of a new Oceania Cup
between New Zealand, Tonga, Samoa and Fiji, with ARLC chairman Peter Beattie
saying: “We are presenting a four-year calendar which can be repeated and
replicated in future cycles to give the international game more certainty and

“Those tournaments and events will be book-ended by a World
Cup every four years.”

England will tackle hosting RLWC 2021 after losing to Australia in the 2017 final

The 2013 edition of the Rugby League World Cup was a “game-changer,” Dutton insists, putting the tournament on the map after London’s successful hosting of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. He adds: “When we went to speak to the government in 2013 [about a bid for the 2021 edition], we could promise a tournament that was bigger and better than before. Only by getting government support were we ready to succeed.”

That government support amounts to a contribution of £15 million ($19.9 million) towards the overall hosting budget of £40 million. The “lion’s share” of the remaining £25 million will come from gate receipts, sponsorship, merchandising and hospitality, Dutton says, with the RLIF responsible for distributing broadcast rights, and retaining those revenues.

Domestic broadcast rights have already been acquired by the BBC, but with respect to the international rights, Dutton says that the organising committee is in conversation with the RLIF about “being innovative,” saying: “Come 2021, people will be consuming sport in a different way and we want to help the international federation to be contemporary, to do something different, albeit the broadcast rights don’t sit with us.”

Conversely, sponsorship rights are 100 per cent under the
control of RLWC 2021, and Dutton says: “We began the commercial journey early by
signing Evershed’s [the UK law firm] and we hope to make more announcements
before the end of the year. We’re in talks with three or four companies, mainly
in professional services.”

In June, RLWC 2021 also announced a partnership with Unicef
UK, which has become the official charity of the tournament, saying: “The
partnership will use the power of sport to raise awareness and funds for
Unicef’s work protecting children in danger around the world.”

” We’ve got time on our side and we’ve been doing a lot of business networking. We’re very mindful that the sponsorship environment is changing “

Jon Dutton, chief executive, RLWC 2021  

Admitting that the present sponsorship environment is “difficult,”
Dutton argues: “We’ve got time on our side and we’ve been doing a lot of business
networking. We’re very mindful that the sponsorship environment is changing,
and this is an opportunity to be aligned to the legacy programme, working in
schools and local communities.”

The organising committee is not using an agency to sell
sponsorship rights at present, Dutton adds, but has “engaged commercial consultants
who are looking at it from a brand perspective.” It is “unlikely” to seek a
title sponsor for the event, and is set to seek “a tiered number of key
partners, sponsors and suppliers.”

Dutton adds that, as in broadcasting, the organising
committee wants to be “open-minded” in relation to commercial opportunities,
saying: “We’re looking at LED, virtual advertising and other ‘non-traditional’
solutions. We want to be the best for merchandising, hospitality, overseas
travel…, things the sport could have done better [in past tournaments].”

The tournament will expand to 16 teams in 2021, having comprised 14 for the first time in 2013, and organisers believe they will be able to attract 1 million spectators, double the number achieved in 2013.

Likely venues include soccer stadia such as Manchester’s Old Trafford, host of the 2013 final, Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, St James’ Park in Newcastle and Wembley in London.

The process to identify host cities is presently under way, with organisers asking cities for a hosting fee of £250,000 for “premier properties” (top matches), according to Dutton. Stadia are being sought ranging from a minimum capacity of 12,000 up to the likes of Old Trafford’s 75,000 and Wembley’s 90,000.

RLWC 2021’s Dutton (l) with Mark Devlin, Unicef’s chief operating officer

“Rugby league is a nomadic sport,” says Dutton. “We’re adept at working with the Premier League and Football League, and stadia such as [Liverpool FC’s] Anfield, [Leeds United’s] Elland Rd and the KCom stadium in Hull. Also, Premiership rugby union stadia, similar to the Rugby World Cup.”

The aim is to make a total of 1 million tickets available, with
a target of achieving overall seat occupancy of 70 to 75 per cent.

In the guide sent to potential host cities, RLWC 2021 claims: “Bringing our three events [the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments] together has created a new match schedule that can accommodate stadiums of every size, including an indoor opportunity for the wheelchair event. In addition, team base camp hosts will gain worldwide media exposure for their hotel and leisure facilities. Venues acting as team training centres will build their reputations as elite sporting facilities and become a magnet for Rugby League and other sports.”

The tournament will be supported by a ‘Festival of Rugby League’, a series of community and amateur competitions staged across the country in July 2021 as part of the build-up to the main event, aiming to “bring together all branches of the sport and reward the best teams from around the world with their own showpiece Finals Day.”

The potential economic impact for England of hosting the tournament is £78 million, according to a study carried out for the bid, not counting what Dutton calls the effect on civic pride and the social impact of the event, such as the growth of a volunteering culture in the host cities, the public health benefits and plans to create new rugby league pitches and clubhouses. 

The quadrennial RLWC schedule is guaranteed for at least a
further four years, after North America was chosen by the RLIF’s member nations
for the first time to host the 2025 edition, following a recommendation of the
board to stage the tournament in USA and Canada. USA/Canada had bid
unsuccessfully against England for the 2021 event.

Despite losing out, the USA/Canada Bid had scored impressively in many areas such as marketing, commercial support and innovation, and resonated strongly with the RLIF’s desire to expand the sport’s global reach.

“It’s got to be staged every four years, as part of an international
calendar that people can associate with,” concludes Dutton. “Every four years is
a stake in the ground. It was a great decision to not only award 2021 to England,
but 2025 to North America, and it breaks the cycle of England-Australia-New Zealand.
I hope that [calendar] will continue to be used, and that we can invest in even
more nations applying.”