Tuesday 6 April 2021 9:33 am

Rugby League World Cup chief Jon Dutton: We're very optimistic that we'll have full stadiums

Organising a major international sporting event is a logistical labyrinth at the best of times. 

Doing so when your dining room has been your office for the past year, when you haven’t yet met most of your staff, and when it has been impossible to be certain how or even if the event will take place – well, that’s something else altogether.

That is the lot of Jon Dutton, chief executive of the Rugby League World Cup due to take place in England in October and November.

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“Five or six years ago when I started, this isn’t quite what I hoped or expected,” he tells City A.M.

“Normally, you’d make a plan, you’d change it as you go. We’ve largely had to make a plan, throw it away, start again and have that lingering uncertainty as we move forward.

“I’m 27 years into my professional career and I haven’t experienced anything like the last 12 months. It’s incomparable.”

Not that he is complaining.

Dutton worked on the last two Rugby League World Cups – as well as on Champions League finals, Tour de France Grand Departs and European Tour golf tournaments – and is still expecting this to be “the biggest and best Rugby League World Cup ever”.

For the first time, the wheelchair competition will take place alongside the men’s and women’s tournaments, while Jamaica and Greece are among the nations making their debuts.

England will hope to go one better than the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, where they lost in the final to hosts Australia
England will hope to go one better than the 2017 Rugby League World Cup, where they lost in the final to hosts Australia (Getty Images)

All 61 games will be live on the BBC, ensuring the widest possible television audience. 

England, meanwhile, will hope to improve on their runner-up finish last time out.

Perhaps most importantly, thanks to the vaccine rollout and the late autumn kick-off, there is the prospect of full or almost full stadiums in the host nation for the first time in the post-Covid era.

“We’re still very optimistic that we’ll be allowed, if not 100 per cent venue, then something a lot greater than what people will be experiencing in the early stages of people returning,” he says.

“I wouldn’t pretend that we’ve got all of the answers. We don’t know how many people will be allowed in. 

“We are in a more privileged position than the events that will come before us – the men’s football European Championship, Wimbledon, the summer of sport.

“And I think we will benefit greatly not only from the knowledge that we’ll learn on social distancing but, by the time we get to autumn, fingers crossed we’ll be able to sell into full stadia.”

Rugby League World Cup tickets

Appetite for tickets to the 61 fixtures is unlikely to be in short supply. 

Dutton says there is “huge pent-up demand” to attend live sport, as a result of a year almost entirely played behind closed doors.

Following pre-sale processes for the sport’s fraternity and a ballot aimed at attracting new fans, the remaining tickets go on general sale today – 200 days before the opening match.

Spectators at sport events are expected to have to prove that they don’t pose a risk of infection to others – perhaps by presenting so-called Covid passports – as a condition of entry for the foreseeable future.

Rugby League World Cup chief executive also worked on the 2013 and 2017 tournaments as well as several other major international sporting events

“The honest answer is we don’t quite know,” Dutton says. “We are potentially looking at some form of certification. I think it will be more based on testing than vaccination.”

Although the Rugby League World Cup will be largely played in the game’s northern heartlands, London has a key role.

One of the men’s semi-finals is being played at Emirates Stadium, while much of the wheelchair matches are taking place at the Copper Box.

“London was a huge target for us,” says Dutton. “It was important to understand the London audience and what would convince them to buy a ticket for a rugby league game.”

The market research appears to have paid off. More tickets have been requested by fans from the capital than anywhere else. 

‘A celebration of humanity on a global stage’

Commercially, the tournament has also stayed on track amid the uncertainty, Dutton says.

It has a principal partner in suddenly ubiquitous used car retailer Cazoo, as well as deals with sportswear maker Kappa, medical real estate firm Assura, business advisory Deloitte, lawyers Eversheds Sutherland, logistics company Kuehne and Nagel, and Manchester Metropolitan University. 

“We’re very hopeful that we will significantly exceed our sponsorship target.” he adds. 

“We had a strategy that was about being a tournament with a purpose and being values-led. 

“I think we’ve reaped the benefits from that and hopefully, with seven months to go, we’ll continue to onboard partners.”

Since lockdown, Dutton has grown his staff from 17 to 63 – most of which he is yet to meet in person.

He hopes to hold a long overdue company social – “a huge celebration” – in June as they enter the home straight of preparing for a tournament that has, at times, felt a fragile prospect.

“In some respects, simply getting to the start line and kicking off the tournament would be a pretty significant achievement in itself. And largely that’s still out of our control,” he says.

“The tournament I think will be a celebration of our purpose. A celebration of humanity on a global stage. 

“Men and women can play together, disabled and non-disabled athletes, and it feels like that will be a celebration of coming together where rugby league is at the heart of it but it is much wider than the sport itself.”

All remaining tickets and hospitality for the Rugby League World Cup 2021 go on sale today at tickets.rlwc2021.com