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Rugby World Cup: More than just Rugby

As the Rugby League World Cup 2021 organising committee prepares to reveal the final venues for the tournament, Tom Walker speaks to chief executive Jon Dutton about the plans for the event

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management 2018 issue 4
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Dutton and UK Sport’s Esther Britten launch ‘Inspired by 2021’ in London
Dutton and UK Sport’s Esther Britten launch ‘Inspired by 2021’ in London

I see our task as being to create and host a sports and entertainment event – and not ‘just’ a rugby league tournament,” says Jon Dutton, chief executive of the Rugby League World Cup 2021. “We’ve received a large amount of public funding, so I think that alone means we have an obligation and a duty to go beyond the five or six weeks of competition of the tournament.

“So that’s exactly what we’re doing. We’re going to use rugby league to engage with a number of towns, cities and communities across the country.”

Dutton, who took up his role as CEO on 1 February 2018, says the tournament’s mix of sport, culture and entertainment will help achieve one of the organising committee’s primary objectives.

“We want to take the game to new audiences,” he says. “So the 2021 World Cup will be about much more than just the sport.”

England secured the right to host the 2021 World Cup following a keenly contested bidding process, which included a joint bid from the US and Canada. Announcing the winner, the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) said that the wide support for the sport in England – at both grassroots and government level – had ensured the bid’s success in the final assessments.

The tournament certainly has the support of the government, which has committed £25m to hosting the tournament. Of that total, £15m will be spent on the staging of the event, while £10m will be invested in improving rugby league’s facility infrastructure – in order to grow the game across the country.

The tournament has also featured heavily in the government’s Northern Powerhouse plans. While Brexit has meant the initiative, which aims to address the North-South economic imbalance, has had minimal media coverage lately, Dutton says the project is still very much alive – and plays a big part in planning for the Cup.

“Around 80 per cent of the tournament will be hosted within the designated Northern Powerhouse area,” he says. “So it’s very much at the heart of plans.”

The exact venues are yet to be decided – the final venue plan is due to be published in January 2019 – but Dutton says there has been plenty of interest to take part.

“We have 40 towns and cities that have expressed an interest in hosting games, training facilities or the teams during their stay here,” he says.

He adds that while the Northern Powerhouse region – where rugby league is already popular – will host most of the tournament, the selection process will focus on making the game available for potential new fans.

“One of our tournament values is to be authentic,” he says. “And we have to be authentic in our venue selection too. So it won’t be about simply taking a map and putting a lot of pins on it to ensure we have coverage in all the different regions.

“We have to make sure that we go to locations where we believe the best offer is. We want to use the tournament to take rugby league to new audiences, so we will be looking at locations where we can get new fans – rather than just existing ones – to come and watch the games.

“To be able to do that we need to select the right venues in the right locations and get the right games hosted in those venues, in order to attract interest and target those new audiences.”

England will host the World Cup for a record fifth time in 2021. The tournament was last held on these shores as recently as 2013. But while the previous tournament is still fresh in most rugby league fans’ minds, Dutton says the 2021 event will be fundamentally different.

“I was involved in 2013 and spent three years of my career working on that tournament – and I’m very proud of what we achieved,” says Dutton, who worked as operations director for the 2013 tournament.

“But I would suggest this tournament will be radically different. That’s not to say we didn’t do a great job in 2013 – because we absolutely did, and did so with really small resources.

“This time around we will be much more ambitious and the journey planning already began in 2015 when we went to the Treasury to talk about having a role in the Northern Powerhouse agenda and asked the government to support the bid in a significant way.

“We are also delivering the tournament in a completely different tech environment to last time. There has been significant growth in digital environments – which are still evolving – so the expectations of customers will be very different in 2021 than they were in 2013.”

Dutton adds that the 2021 edition will also be much larger in scale. In 2013, the men’s tournament included 14 teams, while a separate Women’s Rugby League World Cup, consisting of four teams, was held earlier in the year as a ‘pre-event’.

For 2021, the men’s tournament has been increased to host 16 teams and the women’s tournament will be held simultaneously. But that’s not all.

“2021 will mark the first time that the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments will be staged in the same place at the same time,” Dutton says. “It’s a brave decision but one we absolutely think is the way forward.

“Having all three formats, being played out on the same platform provides an unprecedented opportunity for us to build excitement around this great sport.”

A bigger tournament also means bigger venues. In 2013, just five of the 18 group stage stadiums had a capacity of more than 20,000 – with 11 only capable of housing 15,000 fans or less. The facility mix for 2021 will, according to Dutton, be different.

“We’re in talks with some Premier League and Football League venues,” he says. “In the main, we’ll move from small towns to large cities and from small to large stadia.”

This is reflected in the ambitious ticket sale targets.

“The 2013 tournament attracted a total of 458,000 spectators to go through the turnstiles,” Dutton adds. “For 2021 we’ve set ourselves the goal of growing that audience by about 50 per cent.

“That’s a sign of the scale of our ambition and what we are attempting to do. I know it’s a cliche, but the 2021 tournament will really be the biggest and best Rugby League World Cup ever.”

Jon Dutton: A career in rugby
Jon Dutton © shutterstock/DarshanaSri

A “life-long rugby league fan”, Dutton was named CE of the 2021 World Cup on 24 August 2017 and took on the role in 1 February 2018. The 46-year-old led the successful bidding process for the 2021 tournament as director of projects and people at the RFL and has previously worked for organisations that include the PGA European Tour and UEFA.

He was also the operations director for the Rugby League World Cup 2013 and more recently director of readiness for the Tour de France Grand Depart in 2014.


The World Cup’s legacy programme will look to use the tournament as a catalyst to develop the game and “engage with the widest possible audience”.

“Our programme will be far reaching as we aim to engage with people in different ways,” Dutton says. “Our aim is to transcend the sport and act as a springboard, not only for Rugby but also for the wider social benefit.

“The legacy plans can be divided into three strands. The first, ‘Empowered by’, is about sourcing our volunteer workforce from local communities during the tournament – and retaining them in the sport after the event.

“The second is ‘InspirationALL’ – our engagement programme – which ranges from public health initiatives and cultural projects (such as dance and singing) to international development programmes.

“The third one is ‘Created By’, which is all about improving and creating new facilities for the sport.”

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