From the Top with Jon Dutton

The CEO of Rugby League World Cup 2021 (RLWC21) delivered the closing keynote interview at ALSD International 2018, leaving attendees with tips for hosting the biggest and best events.


Jon Dutton, the CEO of Rugby League World Cup 2021 (RLWC21) closed ALSD International 2018 with some enlightening keynote remarks. Interviewed by Katie McIntyre, CEO of Sports Venue Business and Executive Director of ALSD International, Jon shared insights on how venues can successfully bid on and deliver major sporting events, the legacy RLWC21 will leave long after it is over, and the role technology plays in executing big tournaments.


Editor’s Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jon, perhaps you could start by telling everyone a bit about yourself, your career journey to date, and perhaps some of the highlights.

I grew up always wanting to be a professional athlete, a professional Rugby League player ideally. I worked out when I was probably 17. After a trial, I was not good enough nor brave enough, and pursued a career in sports administration.

I consider myself to be incredibly lucky. I graduated with a sports management degree and have spent my entire career in professional sports, firstly with the PGA European Golf Tour. I was reflecting a couple of weeks ago when the Ryder Cup was on. I was lucky enough to be working at the Ryder Cup in 1997 at Valderrama when Tiger Woods made his debut. So I’ve worked in golf, I’ve worked in football for both the FA and UEFA, I’ve worked a long time in Rugby League, both on the 2013 Rugby League World Cup and then more recently the 2017 edition, and I also worked on the Tour de France, the Grand Départ when that was in Yorkshire which was an interesting experience.

So I’m very privileged. I’ve been in some great circumstances, been given some great opportunities, and met some great people. I love attending events like [ALSD International] because I have a huge appetite to learn from others as I continue my own career journey.

What are the main challenges you’re currently working on with the Rugby League World Cup in 2021?

Undoubtedly, what we’re trying to achieve in 2021 is the biggest challenge of my professional career, and perhaps will be when we’ve delivered it. The sport of Rugby League is 123 years old, and this is the single biggest project that sport has ever attempted to deliver. It’s quite as simple as that. So that’s quite sobering, but also really energizing. It gives us an opportunity to deliver something really transformational.

“The sport of Rugby League is 123 years old, and this is the single biggest project that sport has ever attempted to deliver. It’s quite as simple as that.”

– Jon Dutton, RLWC21

I began my journey on the World Cup in 2015, when we knocked on the door of the UK government and went to talk to them about a political agenda about the Northern Powerhouse, and at the time, went to talk to George Osborne who was the Chancellor. And we submitted our bid before the referendum, with David Cameron and George Osborne as our bid sponsors.

For those who live and breathe in the UK and understand Brexit, the world has changed forever. So we’ll deliver our tournaments in a post-Brexit era, which is quite bonkers really when we went to talk to the government about something very different.

The challenge that we will face, and that everyone in the room faces, is how people are consuming their entertainment in a very different way. And I think that’s something that we all have to understand and embrace. We have to reach a new audience. That’s critically important to us. We can’t rely on our Rugby League community. You can either hide under the duvet and worry about it, or be bold and brave, which is one of our values. We absolutely will be bold and brave.

You were the Ops Director for the Rugby League World Cup. You were the Tournament Commissioner of the Rugby League World Cup in Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea. You were Director of Readiness for the Tour de France and Tournament Director for the Four Nations tournament in 2016. How have these previous roles informed what you’re going to do moving forward in this role as CEO?

I was slightly embarrassed by being given the title Director of Readiness. I thought that was quite an interesting job title with the Tour de France. And I guess, like any sporting event, it’s going to happen. Our tournament will start on the 23rd of October 2021 whether we’re ready or not, and so all of my experiences about time are just a great commodity. And at the moment, the clock is our friend, and we’ve got three years to go.

That will soon change, and time will disappear. So one of the things I’ve learned more than anything, and certainly working with guys in Australia, is you make every day count. So it would be very easy for us to say from 2015 to now, being about 1,100 days away, ‘Let’s not worry, let’s take it really easy.’ But we can’t because I wouldn’t want to get to the end of our tournament and reflect and think ‘Well gosh, if we would have worked harder when we had those three years, we’d have delivered something even better.’

So using time is important. Going around and talking to people. I love meeting people, interesting people, that I can learn from both within and outside of the sports industry. And in everything you’ve listed, I’ve met and worked with some quite terrific people. We have not got all of the answers. What we’re trying to do is deliver something very different. This is not a Rugby League project. This is a sport and entertainment project. And just be relentless in terms of what we’re trying to achieve.

That relates not only to you and what you’re doing, but to a lot of the people in the room, whether they’re running a team, a club, a venue, whatever. It's about delivering an event. Those things still apply.

Absolutely, if you start with our projects, and you look at some of our revenue targets, it’s all really sobering. It’s all incredibly challenging. And the only way to succeed is to break things down. The analogy of eating the elephant is absolutely right for us. It’s about building momentum. It’s about building credibility. It’s a lot of positioning.

“You can either hide under the duvet and worry about it, or be bold and brave, which is one of our values. We absolutely will be bold and brave.”

– Jon Dutton, RLWC21

As I mentioned in the previous morning session, we’re investing significantly into insight. We’re going to take a very scientific approach. There is no magic wand to achieve success with my project. It’s a mixture of all of those things, but also partnerships.

We’ve begun a commercial journey, and when we delivered the tournaments in 2013, it was a very simple transactional rights fee media value, and that’s completely different. We’re talking to some really interesting brands who are interested in us because at the moment, we are storytellers, and they’re interested in a story.

We’re delivering not just the men’s tournament, but the women’s tournament, and the wheelchair tournament. And my one takeaway, my one challenge to you all today is if you’ve never seen Wheelchair Rugby League, and it’s completely different from the Rugby Union version, just look on YouTube, and you will be absolutely amazed.

We’ve got an inspirational ambassador called James Simpson. His story is that he lost his legs in Afghanistan when he triggered an IED, and he says that Wheelchair Rugby League saved his life. To work with people like that and to be inspired is great. And that’s one of our real key themes – to inspire people. But if you’ve never seen Wheelchair Rugby League, then go and have a look at that. It’s pretty brutal, but it’s pretty exciting.

You’ve got a mission statement to deliver the biggest and the best Rugby League World Cup ever, and you’re saying it’s going to engage and excite and leave a lasting legacy. How are you going to deliver on all of those things?

First of all, it’s got to transcend the sport of Rugby League. We’ve seen some absolutely terrific global sporting events in the UK, and we’re not the FIFA World Cup. We’re not the Olympic Games. But we are the next tier of sports and events. I believe if you look at the calendar in 2021, I believe we are the biggest tournament in the world in 2021. So success for us looks like full venues. It looks like giving people a world-class customer experience and them enjoying that experience when they come to games.

Our journey has started now, and we’re trying to engage with our Legacy Program, which we launched a few months ago. It’s about engaging with the new audience. We’re not trying to convince people to play Rugby League. That would be great, but take the physicality away, take the game away, and our Legacy Program is threefold. Firstly, it’s around volunteering. Secondly, it’s around the capital infrastructure. When people ask ‘What’s your legacy in 2022?’, it’s that clubhouse. It’s that pitch. It’s that team that’s been set up with new kits and equipment. Our middle tier, that’s called “Inspired By”, is dance and choir and heritage and public health and international development.

We know we’re going to have to work really hard. But if we reflect on what success looks like, my colleagues who work in the sport would say, “England lifting all three trophies.” We clearly can’t say that, but having the grounds full, a vibrant atmosphere, and some of those people who’ve been engaged by what we’ve done staying with the sport thereafter. And I think that’s very relevant also from a brand perspective.

Back in July, the host bid process closed. You’re going to be making the announcement of the hosts in January. Can you tell us anything about the potential short list of venues, how they got there, what they did that made them stand out from the other venues?

Yeah, I can tell you a number of things. First of all, don't believe the Wikipedia page that we’ve already selected our venues. We absolutely haven't. Secondly, the process has been fantastic. When we started in January, we had 40 towns and cities that expressed an interest. We’ve whittled those down. In fact, today is actually the day when people have refined the bids, and that’s it. The doors have closed, and we’ve got 28 towns and cities. So we’re actually in a really privileged position in that we’ve got more than we need.

“Technology and digital will be at the heart of our tournament, and it has to be if we want to engage with a new audience.”

– Jon Dutton, RLWC21

We’ve run the process through the public sector. We’ve asked each local authority to be the lead applicant, and that’s been a really interesting proposition. We’ve asked them for a rights fee, and in a challenging time for the public sector, that’s been quite a difficult conversation.

But what that’s amounted to is we’ve got 28 world-class bids, and my board will have some really tough decisions to make. So it’s going to be wonderfully exciting. We will announce them in January.

If I could do anything differently, I’d lift our tournament up, which is in October or November, and move it into summer, but we can’t do that. What that means is that we will use a number of Premier League and Football League venues, and of course, we’re right in the middle of the season, so there will be some logistics challenges that we’ll have to overcome. I mentioned in the earlier session that tomorrow is the sport’s Grand Final at Old Trafford, and there will be 70,000 people inside there enjoying it. And we delivered our last World Cup Final at Old Trafford. So no decision has been made. I can’t tell you exactly where the venues are.

Our commitment to government in the funding that we receive is that 80% of our tournament will be played in the Northern Powerhouse, and that’s really exciting to me because the north for me means cool, modern, contemporary, big cities. And we’ll have our tournament largely based in the Northern Powerhouse, but also with a really significant footprint in London. And let’s not forget, because we’re staging three tournaments, we’re going to be seeking some really wonderful indoor venues to showcase our wheelchair tournament.

Finally, what role will technology play? The last two days we’ve heard a lot about technology. How is it going to play out?

One of our core objectives is to stage a digitally connected event. So if you think of what that might look like on match day, it’s the ability to share experiences in big venues which is obviously challenging, all the way through to the technology ecosystem that we’re trying to create. One app where we drive content, where people will buy the tickets. I’ve said a number of times, and been told off by my team, we’re going to be a ticketless tournament because I just can’t imagine in 2021 being anything other than a ticketless tournament. So we absolutely want to embrace digital.

We’re doing a lot of learning. I went to a fascinating talk the other day about augmented reality. I think that will play a really big part in our tournament. And just a bit of future-gazing, technology’s evolving so rapidly that we might put all of our chips on augmented reality, and then of course in three years’ time, that’s not what people are engaging with. So a bit of future-gazing involved, but technology and digital will be at the heart of our tournament, and it has to be if we want to engage with a new audience.

Watch our recap video and read our full summary of the first-ever ALSD International event.