Middle East could be a rugby league leader

LONDON // The 2021 Rugby League World Cup (RLWC) represents a missed business opportunity for the region, says the man who believes it has a lot to offer the game.

The last tournament in Europe 2013 generated profits of about £4 million (Dh19.1m) – double those made during the 2008 competition.

For 2021, two countries – England and the United States – have submitted bids to the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) but Middle East nations could offer an alternative in the future, says Sol Mokdad, who worked as an ambassador for the sport in Dubai until leaving last year.

“October is when the World Cup is and the weather is great [in this region] at that time of year,” Mr Mokdad says.

“The facilities are all there. It’s not a big world cup like other world cups and not as many teams” and so does not require enormous investment in stadiums, such as is happening in Qatar for the 2022 Fifa World Cup football tournament.

Mr Mokdad says the geographical position of the region is also a plus. “The location is in the middle of the world. It’s a bit further from Australia but not as far as England.”

This month, the two shortlisted bidders made presentations to a three-man bid assessment group, who sent an interim report to the RLIF board.

Detailed discussions are taking place now with the bidders but many commercial details, such as TV rights and sponsorship strategy, are still being thrashed out.

“Up until 2017, the TV rights are being sold by IMG,” says the bid assessment board member David Collier.

“Selling rights directly is the general trend but we are in the process of organising that now. There are different kinds of sponsorship. The normal method is for the international federation to sell a global package and the hosts to organise local ones.”

Sponsorship will be vital as the successful bidder must guarantee a minimum return to the RLIF. The 2013 RLWC took place across four countries – England, Wales, France and Ireland.

The 2013 tournament drew an aggregate crowd of 458,463, including an international record attendance of 74,468 for the final between Australia and New Zealand at Old Trafford.

Organisers reported eight sell-outs and eight stadium record crowds for rugby league matches.

The tournament general manager Sally Bolton also spoke about the financial impact on the towns and cities which hosted matches, claiming Cardiff in Wales benefited to the tune of £8.4m from hosting the opening ceremony and double header and that London enjoyed a £12.3m bonus from the semi-finals.

“We believe that the success factors identified before the opening game were comprehensively delivered against,” Ms Wood said at the time.

“We will be reporting … a turnover north of £15m.”

For 2021, a bid focused solely on England has £25m in government funding linked to the Northern Powerhouse project aimed at boosting economic prosperity in northern England.

The sport in England is primarily a northern game with Yorkshire clubs such as the Leeds Rhinos and Bradford Bulls along with Lancastrian rivals St Helens and Wigan among the top teams.

“We have £15m for the rugby league world cup and £10m is part of the infrastructure legacy programme for the northern powerhouse,” says Jon Dutton, the English bid’s tournament director.

The English bid names 15 stadiums, including Wembley Stadium and the Olympic Stadium in London, but also Old Trafford and Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, and St James’ Park in Newcastle.

Every year, Super League, the top-level professional rugby league club competition in Europe, stages a series of matches in one stadium. Super League signed a five-year deal with Sky Sports in 2014, to extend its 2011 deal worth £90m. The Rugby Football League (RFL) generated £19.2m in revenues the same year.

The Etihad Stadium hosted the Magic Weekend from 2012 to 2014, while St James Park took over in 2015 and for this year.

“We think a majority of the matches will be in the Northern Powerhouse but there will be games in the Midlands and the south,” says Mr Dutton. “We need to look at venues that have the most capacity and the best transport links.”

Since the tournament was first staged in 1954, there have been no RLWC’s outside Europe or Australasia. The US qualified in 2013 and will feature again next year, but the tournament has little profile in North America.

USA Rugby League has teamed up with the Australian group Moore Sports International, which in March 2014 brought the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks to Sydney for the opening series of Major League Baseball.

The US bid would see all 32 men’s rugby league matches – a smaller women’s tournament will be staged in parallel – played in National Football League (NFL) and Major League Soccer (MLS) stadiums, ranging from Denver’s Mile High Stadium and the Levi Stadium in San Francisco to MLS grounds such as the Avaya Stadium in San Jose and New York’s Red Bull Arena.

“We’re looking at basing the European teams on the east coast and the Asian teams on the west coast and mixing it up where possible,” says the MSI president Jason Moore. “From a broadcasters’ perspective that lends itself to the United Kingdom and Australia and New Zealand.

“The sponsorship in the US will be greater than any other place in the planet because of [the size of the sporting audience]. Their consumption of sport is greater than any other place.”

There are parallels between American football and rugby league in the US that could also be exploited, says Mr Moore.

Jarryd Hayne’s successful transition from Australian rugby league to the San Francisco 49ers NFL outfit should spur interest among fans. “We have four years to educate the market,” adds Mr Moore, who admits that the 2021 RLWC in the US would be “unprecedented”.

The US is certainly the outsider and Mr Mokdad expects the RLWC to remain in an established market. “I think the World Cup will stay in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. If it was going to be a success in the United States it would have been there already. South Africa is the way forward,” he adds.

There are 1,800 registered players and 27 clubs in South Africa, where rugby – albeit union – is a national sport. South African Rugby League (SARL) did bid for the 2017 RLWC only to lose out to the Australasia bid. With government support and sponsors lacking, SARL opted out of the 2021 race.

“Due to political reasons we decided that it would not be the right time to bid,” says the SARL president Kobus Botha. “Unfortunately at this stage we do not have government recognition and we are not recognised by our governing sports body as a code. Therefore it is practically impossible for us to get sponsors.”

The RLIF’s bid assessment board is holding what it describes as “detailed discussions” with the two shortlisted groups before presenting a final report to its board prior to the federation’s congress on November 19. A winner will be then announced and a host agreement signed.

With the Middle East and South Africa kicking their heels on the sidelines, England – joint hosts with Wales in 2013 – appear favourites to win out.


Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter


Share This Post