‘Pitch-side’ Interview with Rugby League World Cup 2021 CEO Jon Dutton
caytoo: In a nutshell, what is the Rugby League World Cup 2021?
Jon: The biggest single project rugby league in the UK has ever attempted to deliver: the men’s, women’s and wheelchair World Cups all in one go.
caytoo: What is the main purpose of your role?
Jon: It’s a six-year project for me: winning the bid, setting the company up, laying the foundation and delivering the tournament effectively.
caytoo: Just how big is the tournament?
Jon: It’s five weeks and six weekends of rugby league, with 65 games being staged in October and November 2021. The last time the world cup was staged here we set a world record crowd for an international game of rugby league – 74,000 people watched the Australia vs New Zealand final at Old Trafford. So that’s a really good benchmark for what we can achieve across bigger venues – and we have more teams and more games this time.
caytoo: What is the biggest challenge you face regarding the tournament?
Jon: This tournament has to transcend rugby league. That’s simply the most important point and area that we’re working on.
It’s got to attract a new audience, it’s got to be positioned along the lines of the World Athletics Championships, the Commonwealth Games. It’s got to be an event that people would want to attend not necessarily because they are fond of rugby league. It’s got to be something that there’s an urgency to buy.
“This tournament has to transcend rugby league. That’s simply the most important point.”
It’s an entertainment spectacle and one of the ways we believe we’ll achieve success is through digitally connecting with people, embracing new technology, being innovative and being really bold and brave, but it’s got to appeal to a much wider audience than the core rugby league supporter.
caytoo: What brands are currently involved?
Jon: We signed our first partner over four years out from the tournament – Eversheds Sutherland, a global legal practice. This was really significant as (a) it’s so far out from the tournament and (b) it’s a partner that historically the sport hasn’t associated with. Our strategy over the next 12 months is very much looking to the professional services space.
We’ve just announced a global charitable partnership with Unicef which we’ve entered into because it worked really well for both of us and we generally believe that we can help them make a difference and they can help us make a difference.
caytoo: Regarding rugby league, what brands are currently involved and have been in the past? What’s your fanbase/audience?
Jon: The sport has a history of partners that probably represent the demographics of the core fan. A really significant market segmentation piece of work that the sport commissioned Nielsen to do demonstrated the fanbase was slightly older and very much in the north. However, one really interesting bit about the sport is that if you were to look at the people that come through the turnstile, week-in, week-out, over 40% are female.
“over 40% of the people that come through the turnstile, week-in, week-out, are female”
If you look at the sport – not the tournament – two gambling organisations have been the predominant partners in recent history, Ladbrokes and BetFred, and there’s also been partnerships in the alcohol sector. But there’s also an excellent partnership with Dacia, an emerging brand in the automotive sector.
However, we are trying to speak to different people in a different way and position the tournament slightly differently to how rugby league has been positioned domestically. But it’s important for us to reach new brands that the sport hasn’t been associated with before.
caytoo: What does the RLWC 2021 offer sponsors in broad terms?
Jon: Firstly, we have secured a partnership with the BBC that they will cover every bit of the tournament – live and free-to-air – which will give it great visibility and profile and a significant national footprint.
Generally, I would call it a true partnership – certainly in some of the things we’ve done with Eversheds around business networking. We’ve brought along our trophies, some of our ambassadors, and we’ve hosted events for their clients which works both ways. They get a great experience and we get to talk to some different people.
We will soon be launching our legacy programme and that would be really significant because that allows partners to be associated with the tournament far in advance. This isn’t just simply about an association for five weeks – we believe its deep and meaningful. There is obviously a chance to activate in different ways.
“our legacy programme is really significant because it allows partners to be associated with the tournament far in advance”
Our legacy programme is authentic, it will make a difference to the sport and it’s quite innovative and it’s not about more people playing rugby league per se, it’s about a public health program. It’s about the very significant volunteer program.
We’re launching an international development program. We’re going to take the World Cup out to the world and run professional workshops. We’re liaising with the Department for Trade & Investment around trade missions and post-Brexit and a cultural program and so on. So, the legacy program is a really great opportunity for brands to have a good experience very early in our lifetime.
caytoo: In a nutshell, what’s your unique selling point to brands/sponsors?
Jon: This is the most ambitious project the sport in the UK has attempted in its 123-year history and brands would have an association with a ground breaking, fully inclusive tournament that aims to deliver significant social benefit.
“brands would have an association with a ground breaking, fully inclusive tournament that aims to deliver significant social benefit”
caytoo: Are there any particular examples of why certain brands got involved? What were their key objectives?
Jon: Dacia are a really good example. They’re in the third year of their association with rugby league. Dacia was born out of France and wanted to grow their footprint in the UK, so looked at the opportunities with rugby league. I think they’re about to renew the partnership because they had such a great experience.
Dacia recently sponsored the sport’s Magic Weekend where it takes a full round of Super League games on the road to a particular city – in this case, Newcastle. They did a really significant skills challenge as part of enhancing the fan experience of those spending the weekend in the city.
caytoo: What are the main challenges you face in attracting sponsorship?
Jon: From a tournament perspective, as I said earlier, we’ve got to convince people that this is about a long-term association. It’s not just a five week event where the flag goes up, everyone’s had a great time and walks away. We’ve got to show a demonstrable return on investment to brands.
We’re doing a piece of work on insight and customer understanding so that when we stand up and pitch to brands we can confidently describe our audience – what would attract them and how they would associate with the brands? This insight piece is really important and hopefully lays the groundwork for then being relentless in terms of going around and speaking to different people, speaking at conferences and events and positioning ourselves in a slightly different way.
caytoo: What do think about Eddie Hearn’s comments that the sport isn’t producing any stars, so it could kill it at grassroots level and turn off broadcasters?
Jon: I think the sport has got some talent, the likes of Sam Burgess, albeit playing 12,000 miles away, he’s someone that people associate with. We had a golden period in the eighties having household names such as Ellery Hanley, Sean Edwards and Martin Offiah. The next wave of players and the sport will have to work hard to make sure that they do become household names.
“The next wave of players and the sport will have to work hard to make sure that they do become household names.”
Quite simply the way to do that overnight would be for England to win the World Cup. That will be a transformational moment for the sport. In 2021 with having home advantage and having been so close in Brisbane last December, everything is in England’s favour. If England were to lift the World Cup on home soil in front of a BBC audience and a global audience, that will be transformational and would definitely create the household names that people crave.
caytoo: What do you think about Eddie Hearn/Matchroom potentially being involved in promoting the sport?
Jon: I know firsthand the sport is having an interesting conversation with Eddie and Barry. I think there’s a long way to go in that conversation. I think they’ve already done their homework and can appreciate it is not as easy as they may have first thought, but they’ve been incredibly successful in sports, mainly in an indoor environment that can be controlled such as snooker, darts and boxing. But I think it’s a really interesting conversation and who knows where it leads to. If you don’t try, you don’t get, so let’s see.
caytoo: What makes a good brand partner/sponsor in terms of the process?
Jon: Honesty – on both sides. If both a brand and a rights holders work really hard and do the due diligence than you would expect that the process to be really smooth. What you wouldn’t want is for either side – the rights holder as well as the brand – to string it along and waste people’s valuable time and energy.
If both parties go into it with a clear understanding of what both partners are trying to achieve, and everyone’s done their homework and you enter into negotiation and then a legal process, it really should be quite straightforward. What we would hope is that the process leads to something that is a genuine partnership and not just signing a contract.
caytoo: What other sports do you admire for their sponsorship partnerships?
Jon: This is a personal example as I’m a huge cycling fan. In 2014 I worked on the Tour de France and the Grand Depart (the early stages of the race) in Yorkshire. The Tour de France and the way that they stage and activate with the publicity caravan (a procession of sponsors vehicles that throw out free gifts) is just a fantastic example of how brands can get really good value.
“The way the Tour de France stage and activate with the publicity caravan is a fantastic example of how brands can get really good value”
caytoo: Do you have any thoughts on how sports sponsorship and partnerships between rights holders and brands will change going forward?
Jon: I genuinely think that sports sponsorship has changed and will change significantly in the years to come, in the same way that broadcast has changed how people are consuming sports. From a sponsorship perspective, sponsors, brands and rights holders want much more of a partnership. Having much more of an association allows proper activation and a very good conversation about data and customer understanding. That insight is so critical on both sides.
I think that’s already happening and the days of large title sponsorships – maybe other than the Premier League and FIFA – are changing. For example, we’re really interested in procurement. I have a budget to spend and I will have to buy flights and hotel rooms and various other things but if there is an opportunity instead of paying cash but have some value-in-kind for those assets, that’s actually as good as cash to me. So there’s real value in pursuing partners that want to come on board from a value-in-kind procurement perspective. I mean it’s been done a million times before but I think it’s quite a smart way to do business, particularly in a changing environment.
“rights holders have got to be full of energy, bold and brave and be storytellers as well”
Another aspect changing is that rights holders won’t just sit there waiting for brands to come to them. You’ve got to be full of energy, bold and brave and we’ve got to be storytellers as well. This is about spelling out our vision and you can only do that by getting out there and speaking to lots of people.
caytoo: The incident of the rugby league brothers’ drunken behaviour to bar staff that was caught on video has received a lot of coverage. To what degree do you think incidents like that damage the sport?
Jon: I think that the incident is incredibly disappointing. The sport has been affected by what’s happened but also I think the club reacted very quickly. What happened is not unique to rugby league and if you go back 12 months you’d find multiple different incidents, such as the Ben Stokes one in cricket. None of which are to be celebrated. It’s definitely not a proud moment for the sport of rugby league, neither was it in cricket and so on.
caytoo: Do you think that the way people jump on athletes behaviour is fair or too severe?
Jon: Obviously players and athletes now are being well remunerated and are well-looked after. They live in a pressured environment but they have signed a code of conduct and need to adhere to that. At the end of the day they are role models for people who pay the money and for children who want to grow up to be those players, so they do have a duty of care.
If you’re interested in partnership opportunities with the Rugby League World Cup 2021, contact Jon Neill at Jonathan.Neill@rlwc2021.com or 07759 163699.