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Infrastructure: How rugby league finds itself at the centre of the government Northern Powerhouse initiative

Rugby league forms part of the government’s blueprint to stimulate investment in the north. Matthew Campelli finds out about its £10m infrastructure project

by Matthew Campelli, Sports Management | Published in Sports Management Aug 2016 issue 125
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Building a 
Northern Powerhouse
Building a Northern Powerhouse

In November last year the former chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne, produced the last Autumn Statement and Comprehensive Spending Review of his tenure. While his ‘u-turn’ on tax credit cuts and the protection of policing, health, education and defence budgets grabbed most of the headlines, buried deep in the report were insights into the government’s ambition for England to host the Rugby League World Cup in 2021.

Although nothing out of the ordinary – England or Great Britain has hosted the event four times since its inception in 1954, most recently in 2013 – the fact that it was referenced in one of the most important Treasury documents of the year, in relation to Osborne’s flagship Northern Powerhouse strategy, gave it a much more significant feel.

However, things move quickly in politics, and following the seismic EU referendum result Osborne became one of the more high profile casualties as Theresa May replaced David Cameron as prime minister.

Also on the way out was culture secretary John Whittingdale – who “championed” the World Cup bid, according to Rugby Football League (RFL) director of projects and planning Jon Dutton. But before leaving office, the outgoing minister left a £10m parting gift for rugby league infrastructure to go along with a £15m pot to coordinate the bid.

Despite the shifting sands at the top of government, Dutton is optimistic that there will be “no change in the relationship and support the government has provided the sport of rugby league” and is keen to see the Northern Powerhouse initiative – which aims to address the North-South economic imbalance by attracting investment – continue.

“We went to speak with the Treasury last year, very much predicated on the Northern Powerhouse and the contribution we felt the sport could play for that agenda,” he tells Sports Management. “We had a two-fold plan: to bring the World Cup here in 2021 and to host a really transformative tournament, with the majority of the games staged in the Northern Powerhouse.”

“Intrinsically linked” to the bid is the ambitious infrastructure project in which money will be ploughed into the community game and talent pathways. While the full £10m will only be granted by the government if the bid is successful, Dutton reveals that the RFL is working with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to “work up a proposal of how it is going to be invested”.

Lack of investment
Dutton ruled out the possibility of building a new national stadium for the sport – which would cost substantially more than the fund being granted – but has given thought to the idea of establishing a national centre of excellence for rugby league.

“We have to make sure whatever we do has a real benefit for the grassroots of the game,” he adds. “We know the community game has suffered from lack of investment in terms of facility improvements, so work over the next few months is to make sure the money is going to be of benefit to our sport.”

Dutton and his colleagues at the RFL will now set out to “build stakeholder relationships” with incoming culture secretary Karen Bradley with a view to getting a plan signed off towards the end of the year. Projects will then be rolled out over 2017 and 2018 in advance of the World Cup in 2021.

Among the RFL’s priorities, says Dutton, is the rolling out of artificial turf pitches for community clubs, in a similar fashion to the Football Association and Rugby Football Union, so that games won’t be cancelled and facility operators won’t lose revenue.

“We would be keen to talk to other sports to see if there’s an ability to share facilities – that’s something we’d definitely look at,” he explains.

Using the money to create “welcoming environments” in the clubhouse is also a priority.

Dutton says: “We know there are a lot of competitions and sport for children. What we need to ensure is when parents have the choice of where to send their children in their spare time, they see the rugby league environment as being welcoming and full of benefits for their health, wellbeing and development.”

Last February the governing body launched its Sky Try programme with the pay-TV broadcaster as part of the deal for Superleague rights. The initiative has the goal of reaching 100,000 people every year with a huge emphasis on primary school pupils. The seven-year programme is for both males and females, and Dutton is keen to get across that the sport wants to be as inclusive as possible in the way it operates.

Creating national reach
As part of the World Cup bid, the RFL has committed to establishing a Festival of Rugby League, which included female and disabled competitions.

“Part of our overall strategy is to have more people playing the game in various formats,” he says.

“We are sowing the seeds at the moment and we hope to have some green shoots in the next couple of years, certainly by 2021. We would hope that the programmes would result in more sustainable clubs, more players and more opportunities to play.”

Once the RFL secures the money, it will then launch a bidding process for community clubs to apply, demonstrating their need for a cash injection towards facilities and operations. While the Northern Powerhouse theme runs through the World Cup bid – with the majority of the games earmarked for northern stadiums – Dutton stresses that the RFL will take a nationwide approach to the funding programme and “spread it geographically far and wide”.

“We have a national footprint,” he adds. “If you look at League One clubs, which is the third tier, we have clubs playing in London, Oxford, Gloucestershire and Coventry. We’re taking our Four Nations Double Header to the Ricoh Arena in Coventry.

“While we have national reach in terms of the clubs playing in our professional structure it has to be underpinned by community growth. To have community growth we need to have good facilities for people to play at. It’s part of a much bigger plan and we believe the World Cup is the pinnacle of the sport – we want it to be seen by as many people as possible and we hope it will result in growing participation and new facilities.”

The challenge, Dutton explains, is making the £10m stretch as far as possible and using the government funding to leverage money from elsewhere.

“It’s about getting the best value for the sport. £10m might sound like a lot of money, but we want to make sure we create maximum impact and we’ll only do that by leveraging other funding – through local public funding or private investment – working in partnership and being really strategic. It’s about getting great value for money for the sport and setting ourselves up for the future”

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