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Rugby League World Cup looks to expand game beyond its traditional heartlands

Photo Credit; Rugby League World Cup 2021/Hatch PR

  • Organisers aiming to transcend the sport and reach new audiences through digitally-led strategy
  • Semi-final at Emirates stadium could be key to making inroads in London market
  • England player and community engagement lead Jodie Cunningham encouraged by development of women’s game.

Comprising 61 games, 32 teams and 21 venues taking in men’s, women’s and wheelchair variants of the game, the 2021 Rugby League World Cup will be the biggest ever held.

A broadcast deal with UK public-service broadcaster the BBC will for the first time ensure live coverage of every game – creating an unprecedented opportunity for the sport to reach beyond its Northern English heartlands.

Location, location, location

Unsurprisingly, the north will host a large part of the tournament. RLWC2021 chief executive Jon Dutton tells SportBusiness: “If you look at the cities of the Northern powerhouse – Manchester, Newcastle, Liverpool, Hull, Leeds, York and Middlesbrough – we’re covering all of those and there are 14 million people in the North as defined by the government, and there’s a new audience to hit there, not just servicing the core Rugby League community.”

But to achieve the tournament’s outreach objectives – and to meet the ticket sales target – there is a focus on building a presence in London, where the sport has struggled to find a foothold historically.

One of the men’s semi-finals will be held at North London’s Emirates Stadium, the 60,000-seat home of Arsenal football club. If England progress to this stage of the tournament, they are guaranteed to feature in this match.

And every one of the English wheelchair team’s matches will be held in the Copper Box arena built for the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics.

Digital output key to outreach

Dutton believes that the tournament will have to be digitally led if it is to meet its objective of engaging a “non-core audience”.

“We’ll be a big presence on social media,” he says. “Then we need to build the understanding of the sport and make it accessible.

“We need to make stars out of players from the competing nations. On matchday we need to use data to make broadcasts more interesting, accessible and enjoyable. We’ve got some ideas, some at an early stage and some impacted by the pandemic but we have a firm aspiration to be a digital first tournament.”

One of the ways the team plans to maximise the impact of its digital offering is through its commercial partners.

Kit supplier Kappa, for example, has over a million Instagram followers that the tournament hopes to reach when consumer products are launched in September this year.

RLWC2021 commercial director Jonathan Neill explains: “We want to work with Kappa around merchandise and consumer products and fashion and lifestyle, not just the traditional approach with rugby league, so we feel we can engage a new audience through them.

“Kappa are innovative in social media in terms of connecting with audience [and] we can learn from that.

The expertise of Official Professional Services Partner Deloitte is similarly being mined, with the consultancy firm working to build the event’s digital strategy.

Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex hosts the Rugby League World Cup 2021 draws for the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments at Buckingham Palace in January, 2020. (Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage).

Seeking new sponsors

Joining Deloitte and Kappa in the tournament’s sponsorship portfolio are law firm Eversheds Sutherland, Manchester Metropolitan University and international transport and logistics company Kuehne + Nagel.

“Of our five partners so far, three are completely new to the sport,” says Neill. “So, we talk about transcending the sport, we’re doing that initially from a commercial partner point of view.”

Neill and his team are actively looking to add to this list of sponsors ahead of 2021, and are taking a flexible approach:

“We have no formal tiering system. Our approach on strategy is essentially asking is there space for people to have a good sponsorship experience with us?

“We own all the commercial rights so at the moment we’re very flexible, we can put together quite a bespoke package.

“Consumer brands are a big focus for us in terms of transcending the sport. We would like to increase that, and the BBC coverage should be attractive to brands in that area.”

The RLWC2021 team is in the process of recruiting a sponsorship lead to aid in the process. The new role will have three key pillars: relationship management, delivering activation campaigns and proactively seeking out new opportunities.

Player Cunningham leads community engagement

In a slightly unusual move, Jodie Cunningham – a St Helens player and member of the England women’s teams at the 2013 and 2017 World Cups who will be hoping to make the 2021 squad – has been appointed Women’s Ambassador and Community Engagement Lead for the tournament.

Running from May 2018 through to the tournament in October 2021, the community outreach programme will consist of several initiatives, including:

  • A mental fitness programme for 12-18 year-old rugby league athletes and their families in the communities where RLWC2021 is being hosted
  • An education program for schools that will focus on themes such as women’s empowerment
  • And a partnership with Community Integrated Care, an organisation focused on delivering life enhancing support.

“Our communities are so important to rugby league,” Cunningham tells SportBusiness. “If a person’s had an involvement with the world cup and it’s been a positive one and a positive change in their lives then that [will be] a success for me and means our program has done its job.”

Cunningham joined the RLWC2021 operation team after Dutton saw her speak at a rugby league event and was impressed enough to offer the ambassadorial role. This developed into a full-time position as Community Engagement Lead, and her dual role as player and administrator has proved useful – as when the scheduling of the women’s matches was adjusted to include longer breaks between games based on her feedback and that of other players.

New Zealand celebrate winning the Women’s Rugby League World Cup 9s against Australia in 2019 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt Blyth/Getty Images).

Tournament “raises bar” for women’s rugby league

Given it will be the first Rugby League world cup to run men’s, women’s and wheelchair events concurrently, RLWC2021 is particularly keen to emphasise its inclusivity.

RLWC2021 will also be the first time there will be complete equality across the participation fees for the three categories, as well as prize money for the women’s and wheelchair editions for the first time.

Cunningham is buoyed by the tournament’s commitment to the continued development of women’s rugby league, telling SportBusiness: “I’ll be honest: with my experience of what the profile and visibility of the women’s game had been previously, I probably doubted that it really was on an equal footing.

“Everyone was saying all three tournaments were going to be run together but I was thinking that it was going to be the men’s tournament and then a case of: ‘oh by the way, we’ve got a women’s and wheelchair tournaments as well.’

“It’s the first time it’s felt equal. Equality isn’t about getting paid the same. It’s about being valued the same. If you add value to something, people automatically respect it. The amount of interest that has come into the women’s game on the back of the announcements is amazing.

“They (RLWC2021) have raised the bar so much in terms of the women’s game that everyone else has to step up, The Women’s Super League has been outstanding for the growth of the women’s game, but I genuinely believe having this world cup has pushed that to happen.”

Fingers crossed for the “year of sport” 2021

While Covid-19 still bedevils the sporting world, RLWC2021 believes that – if all goes to plan by October 2021 – the event could thrive as the nation enjoys the return of live sport with fans.

“We decided to focus on what we can control,” says Dutton. “The environment will happen to us. We’ll have to be agile and react to it.

“Hopefully by October 2021 there will be some more normality. We’ve done a big piece of research on consumer confidence/propensity to buy, which is really high and we’re looking forward to testing that out.

“At the moment with the events that have been displaced, [2021] will become a year of sport that we’re toward the end of, and hopefully we can benefit from that and deliver something for people to really enjoy.”

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