This Is Why The Rugby League World Cup Had To Happen In 2021
Since the announcement that the Rugby League World Cup would, in fact, be taking place as scheduled in 2021, there has been something of a muted reaction in Australia, the sport’s biggest market.
It barely made a ripple across mainstream sports media in Australia, and even channels that are dominated by National Rugby League (NRL) coverage preferred to cover a variety of other stories. You could have been fooled into thinking that the future of Anthony Milford, a player can’t get a game in first grade, is more important than the biggest international tournament in the sport’s history, but that probably tells you all that you need to know about the media landscape in Sydney.
If the Rugby League World Cup was covered at all, it was done through the prism of the participation/non-participation of Australia and NRL players. Again, you’d have been amazed to hear that NRL players would turn out for nations other than Australia—Australia will make up fewer than 10% of NRL players at the tournament—given how much of the focus was on the Kangaroos and their plans.
In truth, the decision has (and I can’t say this loudly enough) very little to do with the NRL. They are a consideration, of course, because their clubs pay the wages of the players, but when it comes to the decision making process regarding whether the tournament would take place in 2021, they are just one voice of several, and not a particularly powerful voice at that.
There are four key stakeholders here, potentially five, and it’s worth going through them as I can confidently say that four of the five really, really want this tournament to happen, and one does not. It’ll make a lot more sense this way, I promise.
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Two are obvious: there is International Rugby League (IRL), the international federation that runs the game, and there is the NRL, the premier competition in Australia, from which the bulk of the best players are drawn. You might say there is also Super League, the premier comp in the Northern Hemisphere, but seen as the tournament is taking place on their home turf of England, they can be discounted for now as obviously they want it to happen.
The other two are the British government, who are one of the major backers and funders of the tournament, and the Rugby League Players’ Association (RLPA), which is exactly what it sounds like. The optional stakeholder is the commercial partners—TV broadcasters, sponsors and the like—who also have interests in whether the tournament goes ahead in 2021.
The British government really wants this tournament to happen
The biggest factor in this decision, to my mind at least, is that the UK government has stumped up plenty of cash to make this tournament possible and thus, it was always going to happen. The state contribution to the staging of the Men’s, Women’s and Wheelchair World Cups is thought to be $34m USD (25m GBP), which, by the standards of rugby league in the UK, is huge. It’s equal to the entire TV deal that the Super League gets in a year, for a month’s worth of sport.
That money might well have carried over to next year, but it would have garnered a significant drop in terms of return on investment for the UK government. In 2022, it would be competing with the Women’s European Football Championships, which England is due to host and will share several venues with the RLWC, as well as the Men’s FIFA Football World Cup, which would totally overshadow the final stages of the tournament.
Rugby league in the UK cannot go up against football in terms of government spending, as it would for the Women’s Euros, or public attention, as it would with the FIFA World Cup, so for a government motivated by getting as much PR value as possible for their 25 million quid, it had to be 2021.
And be in no doubt that this is a PR exercise. The ruling Conservative Party has, since rugby league was founded in 1895, shown little to no interest in the sport of rugby league whatsoever, until recently, when it markedly changed political strategy to target white, working-class men in the North of England, aka the core rugby league supporter. They coined the name ‘Workington Man’ to represent this person, and cited rugby league as one of his principle interests: duly, they were rewarded with seats that they had never held before, in areas previously dominated by the Labour Party. Now that they have these seats, they need to show that they care about the people in them beyond election time, and providing a world event in a sport that they care deeply about is a really, really good way of doing that.
This government is also heavily committed to the idea of ‘Global Britain’, a realignment of foreign policy that seeks to replaced the previous trading relationship with the European Union with one that takes in partners from all over the globe. Countries like, say, the Pacific Islands: Fiji, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, who all care deeply about rugby league, have signed deals.
There’s also their commitment to reopening after COVID, essentially putting a huge ‘open for business and tourism’ sign on the white cliffs of Dover. Nothing says that more than hosting international events, like the European Football Championships that have just passed and the Rugby League World Cup. Simply put, in a choice between what the UK Government wants, and what the NRL wants, there is only going to be one winner.
The IRL needs it to happen
The main international governing body of rugby league matter too. They need this tournament to happen because it is their main revenue generator, and for the same reasons as above, that return on investment would have been cannibalized had they postponed for a year. RLWC tournament chief Jon Dutton proudly declared that they had already surpassed commercial targets on a media call last week, and there is no telling what the implications would be for those contracts should the tournament take place a year later. Cazoo, a brand big enough that their name is on two Premier League football clubs’ shirts, signed a seven-figure sponsorship deal, the biggest in the history of the tournament, presumably on the proviso that their brand would not be competing with the goliath of the FIFA World Cup for airtime.
With zero elite international competition happening in 2020, the IRL desperately needs this cash to come through so that they can do their principal job, which is distributing it out to member organizations around the globe. This is where the RLPA come in: they hold the keys to the majority of the players, especially those from the Pacific Islands, and the messaging has been constant throughout that they want this to go ahead. Troy Grant, Chair of the IRL, said as much on the aforementioned media call.
While that had been sold as the innate pride that NRL players of Pasifika heritage have in pulling on their national jerseys (which is definitely part of it, and a commendable one), the real truth might be that the national governing bodies of rugby league in the Pacific are net recipients of IRL funding, and so there is a significant financial pull as well as an emotional one.
We like to think that Fiji superstars Maika Sivo and Viliami Kikau as well-paid NRL players, and undoubtedly they are, but the Fiji National Rugby League (FNRL) that picks the team and organizes the sport back home is far from a well-funded operation. They need the cash cow to happen too.
The same story exists in Tonga, Samoa and all the Pacific Nations, as well as countless other nations around the world, and the likes of Kikau and Sivo are well aware that the next generation of stars from their homeland are dependant on someone to buy the balls, train the coaches and keep the lights on. That’s not a criticism of FNRL, by the way. This is exactly how the system is meant to work: the World Cup generates funds which are sent out along the chain across the members to develop and grow the game.
The people who matter don’t care about the NRL
Here’s the kicker for the NRL clubs and the idea that the World Cup cannot go ahead without their players: it’s nonsense. It might be hard to imagine in a country of 26 million people who already have an opinion on rugby league, but the vast majority of the RLWC audience, and all of the important audience, don’t know who any of the players are and probably don’t care.
The fundamental, undeniable truth of international rugby league for decades has been that it touches an audience that domestic competition simply does not. While the majority through the turnstiles at the 2021 World Cup will be existing rugby league fans who will be disappointed not to see a full-strength Kangaroos, a significant portion will not be, and a much, much larger number will be sat at home letting all this new elite sport wash over them.
The tournament will be live on the BBC, will be presented as if it is the most important thing in the world, and the national press will react with a level of interest rarely afforded to rugby league. Literally millions of people who don’t usually watch rugby league will watch the Rugby League World Cup. They won’t miss NRL players, because they don’t know who they are.If you walked down the street in Coventry, where the Kangaroos will play one of their games, I would be amazed if more than one in twenty people could tell you a single current NRL player. That’s not a failure of marketing, it’s a simple reflection of the fact that the NRL doesn’t matter all that much outside of Australia.
Now repeat that thought experiment in December, post-World Cup. The chances of a random member of the public knowing a rugby league player will have gone up significantly, and they will not care one jot if that player is NRL-based, Super League-based or otherwise. The exposure that the international game provides lifts all boats.
The entire tournament is being carried on free-to-air television in the UK, with England games on primetime Saturday afternoon sports viewing. The 2013 tournament, the last to be held in England, saw nearly 3 million tune in to watch England lose the semi-final to New Zealand, with more than 60% in the high income ABC1 advertising demographic that rugby league barely touches.
When someone picks up the Rugby League World Cup at the end of November, it will probably be presented to them by Prince Harry, in a packed Old Trafford, watched by several million people live on the BBC.
The vast majority of these people, from Harry down, will not know who Nathan Cleary or Tom Trbojevic are. Undoubtedly, the tournament will be poorer for the lack of involvement of Australian stars, but if that happens, the world will not end. Australia will simply miss out.