Jon Dutton, director of projects & people at the Rugby Football League, spoke to Sport Industry Group about securing the bid for a Rugby League World Cup on home soil and the commercial impact of a national footprint for the sport…
Tell us a bit about what you have coming up this weekend?
We’re in the middle of the Ladbrokes Four Nations right now, so it’s a really big deal for the sport in the country right now. It’s five years since we last held the tournament in the UK, and this Sunday will see England taking on Australia at the London Stadium. Obviously it’s a critical game for both teams, especially England. It’s three years since they played Australia at home - the opening ceremony of the 2013 Rugby League World Cup - but England vs Australia, no matter the sport, is always a huge occasion!
You mentioned being in London again, is there any special significance to you playing in South England, given the traditionally northern fanbase?
Yes of course. Although that’s not to say we’re never down this way. We stage our Challenge Cup Final every year at Wembley Stadium which is always an incredible day out, and we have a long history of key fixtures being hosted in the capital. Last year we came to the Olympic Stadium just after the Rugby World Cup and staged a test match against New Zealand, which was the first time we had used the stadium.
They were brilliant experiences and we wanted to build on that. We’ve done a lot of community work with Newham Council, we have a charitable foundation doing a lot of work in schools operating in London, as well as two professional teams, so we have a decent footprint in the city. Saying that, we don’t want to be complacent, so it’s important to us that we keep doing good work all around the country and make more progress.
Sam Burgess has been heavily featured in a lot of marketing and advertising since his return to the sport. Do you think his high-profile stint in rugby union, and subsequent return, has helped generate additional interest in the sport?
It’s great for the sport to have him back playing in the tournament, especially as he plays his club rugby in Australia. He will have no doubt picked up some additional fans from his time in union, so a chance to see him in person, captaining his country, is something that has clearly been very popular with a lot of fans! We have a new head coach in Wayne Bennett, who has taken most of the headlines, along with Sam, so the extra publicity will hopefully help expand the reach of what is looking set to be a really exciting tournament.
You’re heading to venues such as Anfield and the London Stadium during the series. Playing in these high-capacity grounds must, commercially, put you in a strong position with partners and potential partners?
Absolutely. When we first started planning the tournament about 18 months ago we had a number of objectives. We wanted to create a balance between games in the north and games in what we called ‘expansion areas’. So we have games in places likes Hull and Huddersfield, our traditional core markets, as well as a game in Liverpool at Anfield which should be an incredible experience. Liverpool is an area where we’ve not really had a great deal of success in. So from a commercial perspective everyone is very excited about heading to Anfield, with the new stand, and everything that offers.
Coventry was selected as an area we hoped to attract fans from both the north and the south, while London is a great opportunity to expand our footprint. Commercial considerations will naturally be at the forefront of our minds in venue-selection, and I think we’ve got a nice balance throughout the tournament.
Congratulations on leading the bid for the successful Rugby League World Cup bid. Following World Cup action on home shores in 2013, did you expect to see the Rugby League World Cup coming back so soon?
I think 2013 really changed the game for rugby league. The tournament’s had quite a chequered past since it was first played in 1954, and we think the most recent tournament really kicked off a new chapter. 2017 in Australia and New Zealand will no doubt build on that, and then 2021 gives us an amazing opportunity to deliver something really quite transformative.
So we have the Four Nations in England as we speak, a World Cup in England in 2021, what’s next?
Our next big aim is to try and fix the calendar for 2018-2020 so we can ensure we have some really compelling events booked in for the build up to the tournament in 2021. We know next year will be a quieter year, so we want to just turn our focus and ensure all roads lead to 2021.
The new Code of Sports Governance was unveiled in recent weeks, is it something that will challenge the RFL?
We’re certainly looking to build on the work we’ve done in the past. For example we were the first governing body to appear on the Stonewall Index, we’ve done a lot of work on diversity and equality across the organisation and within the sport, so we’re very proud of what we’ve done so far. Clearly, like the majority of governing bodies, government funding is key, especially with a huge tournament coming up in 2021, so we’ll certainly be working with that in mind. We’re in a good place, but there’s certainly more that can be done and we’ll continue to work hard at it.
Finally, should everything you mentioned previously come in to play and we have a fantastic build up to a brilliant Rugby League World Cup in 2021, what plans will you have in place to make the most of any boost in interest and participation across the country?
That was a key part of our bid, we want to leave a tangible legacy. One of the elements of the government funding - £25m, with £10m of that in a capital infrastructure programme, so that’ll deliver something that people can really experience. Added to that, we want to inspire people from all areas of the sport. We’ll be launching a volunteer programme, and have a few other ideas lined up, so when all the pieces of the pie are put into place we hope it will deliver a genuine, tangible impact.
England Rugby League return to London on Sunday 13th November (2.00pm) to take on World Cup holders Australia at London Stadium. Tickets are still available from rugby-league.com/tickets.