Rugby League World Cup boss on Bentley project, ticket sales and TV rights

After a whistlestop tour of Australia visiting NRL clubs, Jon Dutton is preparing to turn into the home straight in his quest to deliver the biggest, best and most inclusive Rugby League World Cup yet.

By James O'Brien
Wednesday, 13th July 2022, 6:59 pm

For the first time in the sport's history, the men’s, women’s and wheelchair competitions will be staged concurrently.

The action will kick off in front of a sell-out crowd at St James' Park on October 15 when Shaun Wane's England face Samoa, while a full house is also guaranteed for the men's and women's finals at Old Trafford five weeks later.

Doncaster will host three group games at the Eco-Power Stadium and will also be a training base for Samoa.

Jon Dutton poses with the men's World Cup trophy. Picture: SWPix.com

Dutton still has boxes to tick before the national anthems are belted out in Newcastle with an overseas television deal high on his list of priorities.

Despite failing to come to an agreement during his two-week promotional visit, Dutton left Australia encouraged by the success of his mission to mend bridges.

Opposition from the NRL clubs due to safety fears caused by the coronavirus pandemic led to the postponement of the World Cup last autumn - but Dutton is convinced they are now fully on board.

"What happened last year was difficult and the way it played out with some of the rhetoric and vitriol that was used was unhelpful," the World Cup chief executive said.

"But this trip was very positive and really worthwhile. It was an opportunity to build relationships. The objectives we set out have been very much achieved.

"We met with every club bar two and that was just down to logistics. We're going to follow those up in England.

"I've seen 15 clubs including the newly-formed Dolphins. In the majority of meetings, the chief executive, head of performance and head coach were involved.

"It's hard to think of a more positive outcome. I think people are impressed with our professionalism in terms of how we will look after their athletes and employees, and that we came out to sit down face to face.

"We've had some fantastic feedback, authentic feedback based on us being there working hard."

Now back in England, Dutton will continue to strive for commercial value out of the big markets to allow organisers to distribute television coverage across the world.

It is hoped the World Cup will be taken to every broadcastable territory with a particular focus on emerging markets such as South America and West Africa.

"It's really important for the tournament and for us all that we are delivering this on a global platform like never before," said Dutton.

"We're making good progress with the TV deal.

"We're happy to take our time to get the best deal for the tournament and international rugby league.

"We're very conscious that three years after us there will be another World Cup in the same region.

"It's taken longer than I had hoped but we've had some really positive conversations. There's a bit more work to do.

"It's not lost on me that the majority of the athletes that will play in the NRL Grand Final on October 2 - if not all - will get on a plane, swap shirts and represent their family and heritage.

"For that reason, we have to do the very best deal possible in Australia.

"We want to keep it in the NRL family - we think that's important - but we're prepared to do whatever it takes to get the pictures to as many people as possible.

"We can guarantee more people will watch this tournament than ever before via different broadcast platforms."

While there is an understandable focus on the television deal, there is the small matter of filling stadiums on home soil in England.

Dutton is optimistic about drawing sizeable crowds throughout the tournament.

"We're going okay," he said.

"We should point out ticket sales were going extraordinarily well and then the postponement came and we had to refund a lot of tickets.

"We've started to rebuild but we're conscious it's quite a cluttered environment at the moment and people are watching their team, the Women's Euros and the Commonwealth Games.

"We're really confident.

"We start out with a sell-out at St James' Park - which will set the tournament alight in terms of momentum - and conclude with a sell-out at Old Trafford for the men's and women's finals.

"I think the ticket sales in between will be really high.

"We've still got a way to go but we're in a really good place.

"If you're a passionate fan of the sport or whether you have a mild curiosity and interest in seeing the very best athletes, we'll deliver that in October and November."

For Dutton and his colleagues, the delayed 2021 World Cup is not only about creating history inside arenas but leaving a lasting legacy away from the spotlight.

An independent report released today highlights the significant strides already being made through the social impact programme.

More than £25.8million has been delivered to help transform communities across the north of England before the tournament has even begun.

Clubs across Yorkshire have benefited from the investment, including Doncaster outfit Bentley ARLFC to the tune of £252,856 to build a permanent home and a £262,000 grant that has allowed York St John University to install a dedicated 4G rugby league pitch.

"We made a conscious decision way back in 2015 that we wanted to make a positive impact on people's lives in local communities and were going to work as hard off the field as on the field," said Dutton.

"What we've revealed in the report is a demonstration of that commitment. If we look exclusively at Yorkshire, there are some incredible projects that will hopefully transform local community rugby league in those areas.

"We believe it's a trailblazing piece of research and many other people will hopefully follow in measuring what the outcomes are from a social impact perspective.

"Our strategy has been to use the government investment - which we're very grateful for - to make every pound that we spend work hard.

"We have managed to leverage more than 50 per cent of the funding that's been invested overall.

"There's York, a project in Bentley, some of the projects across Leeds and wider across England - small grants in terms of kit and equipment to large grants with bricks and mortar.

"When the trophies are lifted, the fireworks are gone and we're gone, we can point to that true investment that we've made."

Club competitions are front and centre as the domestic season winds down but behind the scenes, national teams are busy firming up their World Cup plans.

Squads must be declared by September 24 - the day of the Super League Grand Final - while most teams will play a warm-up game.

"Within two weeks, we'll be able to provide that list which will create excitement," said Dutton.

"There's a few interesting club games.

"We know New Zealand will play against Leeds already and there's another similar opportunity in West Yorkshire.

"You will see some new non-Rugby League World Cup venues which we very much welcome and applaud."

*Doncaster’s Eco-Power Stadium will host three group games: France v Greece (Monday, October 17, 7.30pm), Samoa v Greece (Sunday, October 23, 5pm) and Papua New Guinea v Wales (Monday, October 31, 7.30pm).

Fans can purchase tickets via www.rlwc2021.com/tickets.