Jon Dutton on making the 2021 Rugby League World Cup the best yet

Jon Dutton, chief executive of the 2021 Rugby League World Cup, speaks exclusively to SportsPro on why the sixth edition of the tournament in England will be the most watched ever, and how it can alter the perception of the sport in the country.

Jon Dutton on making the 2021 Rugby League World Cup the best yet

It might still be over three years until the 2021 Rugby League World Cup (RLWC2021) comes to England, but the tournament’s organisers are wasting no time in setting their plans in motion.

Since being awarded the 16th edition of the sport’s quadrennial showpiece in 2016, the tournament’s organisers have affirmed that they want the event to be the ‘biggest and best ever’, with RLWC2021 chief executive Jon Dutton hoping to draw 750,000 spectators over the course of the five-week competition, nearly 50 per cent more than when England last welcomed the tournament back in 2013.

The key to achieving that, says Dutton (right), is to be bold and brave, and both he and his peers have set themselves demanding targets, not least that they also want the tournament to be the most digitally engaging event of 2021.

The event does, however, have UK£15 million worth of government funding behind it, and 40 towns and cities have already expressed interest in getting involved - although the 14 chosen venues are not due to be announced until January.

RLWC2021 will also mark the first time that the men’s, women’s and wheelchair competitions have been staged in the same place at the same time, providing an unprecedented opportunity to build excitement around a sport which normally struggles to resonate beyond England’s northern borders.

The organisers of this tournament, however, are adamant that 2021 can change that. A manifestation of that came last month, when RLWC2021 launched its ‘Inspired by 2021’ legacy programme, which aims to use the event as a catalyst to develop rugby league and engage with the widest possible audience.

That announcement, made at Mansion House in London, was accompanied by the news that Unicef UK has become the official charity of the tournament, which will focus on helping the organising committee find ways to make a positive impact on the local community.

In the wake of those announcements, Dutton spoke to SportsPro to explain why RLWC2021 can be the most inspiring international tournament in the sport’s history, how he and the organising committee are going about ensuring that success, and why the event’s sponsorship model makes it an attractive proposition for potential partners.        

What do you want the legacy of this tournament to be?

Essentially that we’ve inspired people to be engaged with rugby league. We want there to be loads more people playing the game after 2021, we’ve just got to be authentic and think: ‘not everyone wants to play rugby league’, and so we need to engage with them in different ways. Whether that’s with dance or choir or heritage or culture, we want to engage with people, and hopefully our partnership with Unicef - particularly with their footprint in the UK - will allow us to do that in schools.

This will be the sixth RLWC to take place in the UK. What makes it a particularly good destination for the tournament?

The UK is just a wonderful destination to stage a major sporting event. I remember living in Manchester during the Commonwealth Games in 2002 and just how inspirational and transformative that was. More recently, we’ve had the Olympics and Paralympics in London in 2012, the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, the Rugby World Cup in 2015 and the World Athletics Championships last year. These were all different events that people just wanted to see. Whether you’re a rugby union fan or an athletics fan, largely I don’t think that mattered, because people just wanted to be involved in the tournament.

Are there any other events you’re tapping into and learning from?

We know we don’t have all the answers and that we can’t do it all on our own, so our thirst to learn is really significant. We’re talking to Netball World Cup 2019, Cricket World Cup 2019, the World Road Race Championships, and the people that are going to host games for the 2020 Uefa European Championships. We’re also sending our programme director to San Francisco to a World Rugby observer programme, so our thirst to learn from others is really key to this.

England will he hoping to avenge last year's defeat to Australia in the final of the 2017 Rugby League World Cup when the tournament takes place on home soil in 2021

What’s the opportunity for brands looking to get involved in the tournament?

I think it’s significant, and hopefully we’ve set a solid foundation and a really clear vision so that people can get involved early. This isn’t just about staging five weeks of rugby league in October and November in 2021 and brands coming in and activating at that time – it’s going to be a long and deep and meaningful relationship.

The legacy programme we’ve already started, and there are going to be a number of other opportunities. A brand is going to be associated with something that’s going to be bold and brave, that’s going to deliver something really significant, and that’s not going to be rugby league as we know it: it’s going to be a sport that engages a brand new audience. 

You’ve said that you want to make this the most watched and attended RLWC ever. How do you plan on doing that?

We have received a significant amount of funding from the government and are really privileged to be in that position, but with that comes challenge and rigour. We’ve set out our vision and we’ll make sure we work really hard to deliver that, and that’s absolutely right. The only way to do it is to be different, be credible, start early, learn lessons from people and seize every opportunity.

This isn’t just about staging five weeks of rugby league in October and November in 2021 and brands coming in and activating at that time – it’s going to be a long and deep and meaningful relationship.

We know that over the next 1,200 days we’re going to have to work really hard, but it’s not necessarily in the way that we would normally talk to a purely rugby league audience; we want to talk to the widest possible audience, and that’s what we think will achieve success.

You also mentioned that you want the RLWC to be the most digitally engaging sporting event of 2021. Do you have any plans in place to achieve that?

We have to be contemporary. It would be really easy for us to get excited and jump into machine learning or augmented reality and think: ‘well, is that going to be contemporary in 2021 when we deliver our tournament?’, but we know that we’re going to have to build a technology ecosystem. We want to be a ticketless tournament, we know that our engagement digitally has to be absolutely world class, and we’re going to need some help doing that, so our search for technology partners has started.

We’ve got a really clear idea of what we want to deliver, obviously we just need to make sure we move with the times and come 2021 are delivering something of the highest order.

Last month saw RLWC2021 name Unicef UK as its official charity partner

Is your partnership with Unicef indicative of the calibre of partner you’re looking to attract?

It’s a fantastic start, and it’s early in our journey, so it allows both parties the opportunity to really work together.

And I think what’s most significant is that they have such a strong footprint in the UK – 1.6 million children are reached by Unicef here. So it’s a global brand, but also with a footprint in the UK, and that’s exactly what our tournament is, so the synergy is perfect.

What would represent a successful tournament in 2021?

To sum it up, we’d have full, vibrant stadia where people are coming along and getting a world class experience, we’d deliver a fully inclusive tournament, and I’m sure if Kevin Sinfield [former England captain] was sat here he’d say success if lifting three World Cups – the men’s, the women’s and the wheelchair World Cups.