RLWC2021 CEO Jon Dutton on overcoming Covid-19 challenges to ensure a successful tournament, brands association & social impact

Rugby League World Cup 2021 ( #RLWC2021) is the first major international sporting event to introduce a Mental Fitness Charter to make a real impact with people both inside and outside of rugby league, and help to set a precedent for how sporting events can make real change within the communities where they operate. The Playknox spoke with #RLWC2021 CEO Jon Dutton about overcoming pandemic challenges, how they plan to deliver the biggest and best Rugby League World Cup and leave a long lasting legacy among other things.


How is the preparation going on for the tournament? What are the current challenges the organising team currently faces due to the ongoing pandemic? 

Our preparations for the tournament are going well despite the current changes around the pandemic. I have been working on this whole for five and a half years now and now we have just less than 500 days to go when the tournament takes place in England. We have staged the men’s and women’s tournaments all together for the first time so we have a strong female inclusivity and also a social impact program looking how we truly leave a long lasting legacy. Also some of the consideration we had to make over the past few months have been changing our ticketing timeline for when we go on sale.

We have also had to look at our recruitment and on boarding of teammates which we have to ramp up quite significantly. Also we have lot of commercial consideration, lot of discussions which we were having, have come to standstill. Other opportunities have been created and also a broadcaster which will sell our international rights so lot of challenges but we are all very positive. We are adopting some principles on being calm, being agile, responsive and supportive and making rational decisions. Overall we are trying overcome the challenge with lots of positivity, hope and optimism


How difficult has the road to #RLWC2021 becomes and how do you plan to overcome it? 

Our journey to the #RLWC2021 has been quite challenging right from the start. When we began the project in 2015, we went to speak to UK government about seeking funding approval. We had to put together a bet, competitively against North America. We had to set the company up, start to build a team and all of that takes some time and also some results. But we started in 2020 without a draw at Buckingham Palace with Prince Harry and in January we were at a very good place. Obviously, Covid has come and has presented a number of challenges that we need to overcome. We will be defined by ticket sales and we still plan to try to achieve a few quarters of the many tickets sold across our 61 games. So my favourite saying “Without challenge there is no achievement” and undoubtedly there has been many challenges so far on the road to the #RLWC2021.


How do you plan to safely and successfully deliver RLWC2021 next year? 

We’ve got a plan to deliver a safe and successful Rugby League World Cup. Next year we have 21 venues across our three tournaments – mixture of big Premier League football venues. We have the men’s and women’s finals jointly staged at Old Trafford. We are using Anfield stadium for the quarter final weekend, we start at St. James’s Park in Newcastle and our wheelchair tournament offers us the ability to stage the game indoors. We will be using the copper box arena synonymous with the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London 2012. So from a safety perspective, we have no major concerns.

Obviously, we’ll have some additional overlay, particularly around medical protocols. From a successful perspective, our vision is to deliver the biggest and best Rugby League World Cup. The men’s part first played for in 1954 and our targets are quite simple. The most number of ticket sales, the most number of viewers and to achieve a world class customer experience for the fans to come and enjoy the tournament. Our plans are very well developed. We have a great team in place. We have a vision, we have a mission, we are a values-led organisation so thus far, we are very much on the journey to the World Cup.


Tell us about #RLWC2021 brand associations. Why should more brands get involved? 

We have a strong family of partners, brand associations. We first started with Eversheds Sutherland the global law practice, we added Manchester Metropolitan University and more recently Deloitte to the family , retail and merchandise partnership with Cube and the last partnership has come in the form of Kappa and Kuhen and Nagel, a global logistics company. Ofcourse, we are looking to get more brands involved as this is a wonderful opportunity for global reach. Also the tournament will have a strong community social impact and we are storytellers where we talk about inclusivity of men and women’s tournaments all together. A real drive towards equality so we have hopefully lots to offer from brands getting involved. Clearly, the Covid the situation has meant we have to re-think some of our strategies slightly but we try to remain positive, we remain hopeful we remain optimistic that many more brands will join us on our journey.


Digital now is more important than ever. What is the digital strategy for the tournament you are looking at? 

Digital is a really significant part of our considerations. Clearly how people are consuming digital broadcast and sports consumption in general has changed radically. It was changing before Covid and now undoubtedly, some of the circumstances will supercharge that change. So we got to be contemporary. We’ve got to provide a digital product that is enticing for people so that people will be able to engage and enjoy the tournament both at home and in the venue.

So we’ve got some really strong ideas. We partner with Deloitte who have written our digital roadmap. And now we’re just working through the art of the possible not only from a resource perspective, but also being mindful that the circumstances have changed and we want to make sure that we are digital first on every level so very excited to share some of those plans over the coming months.


What legacy do you reckon the tournament will leave behind especially in a post Covid-19 world? 

Leaving a long lasting legacy is one of our main objectives. Lots of people talk about legacy in sports events. We hope we can be a point of difference while we’d love to have more rugby players at the end of the tournament but that’s not really the driver for us. This is about engaging with people, particularly in the local communities that we serve and ensuring that people have a great experience and then hopefully, they become enchanted with the sport, whether they play it, volunteer, or simply come and enjoy the spectacle.

So our legacy programme is divided into three strands, volunteering to have a cohort of energetic dynamic volunteers that really represent the communities that we serve. The second area is around facilities. We have some investment from the government to invest into bricks and mortar physical facilities that will be a manifestation of what we leave behind. And our third area is multi-faceted where we have a dance programme, arts programme , a schools and international development programme of many different games encouraging people to enjoy and engage with our tournaments and hopefully when this is settled and trophies have been lifted, we can reflect on truly leaving behind footprints ,a legacy that will be there for years to come.


We have also partnered with one of Britain’s biggest and most successful social care charities, Community Integrated Care. Community Integrated Care will be working with RLWC2021 to develop a series of unique opportunities that will enable people with care and support needs, and the dedicated people who assist them, to connect with the tournament.

The partnership will see the charity create several accessible resources that will give people who access social care support new opportunities to develop life-skills, enjoy social opportunities and have fun, drawing upon the inspiration and excitement generated by the tournament. It is also creating a series of innovative new programmes in RLWC2021 host communities that will promote the health, happiness and inclusion of people who have support needs.

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