Cravens Opinion Rugby League World Cup 2021

The power of three: the Rugby League World Cup

April 19, 2023

In October 2022 a World Cup came to England; the Rugby League World Cup to be precise. 

It was a World Cup that was postponed a year due to the Pandemic. It was a World Cup that saw three different Prime Ministers in power. And it was the first World Cup where the national anthem was God Save the King. 

But what really made the RLWC2021 special, was that for the first time in the sports’ 127 year history, the Men’s, Women’s and Wheelchair Games came together to form one record-breaking tournament. 

Over 30 million people tuned in to 61 fixtures broadcast live on the BBC. The tournament was shown in over 150 countries. While new attendance records were set thanks to 500,000+ tickets being sold over the course of a five-week period. 

Exciting and unpredictable, the tournament garnered unprecedented media interest. There were monumental moments and real upsets as local heroes and global stars were made across the Men’s, Women’s and Wheelchair games. 

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Particularly England’s Wheelchair Team who arguably stole the show; defeating France to once more earn themselves a World Cup. A well earned victory that epitomises the culture of the tournament, as the RLWC 2021 set out to be ‘the biggest, best and most inclusive World Cup ever’. 

So, what was the logic behind having the Men’s, Women’s and Wheelchair Games appear under one World Cup? 

Women’s Sport is undoubtedly having its moment (and long may it continue). Female teams and athletes are finally being championed in the way they deserve. It’s so encouraging to look at Women’s Football and see their own tournament, sponsors, superstars, fans and culture evolving around the Women’s game. So it’s only natural to wonder why Women’s Rugby League didn’t have a stand alone gig too? 

The simplest answer is numbers. From a funding perspective, having all three tournaments played together was a logical decision. The World Cup required Government backing, and this structure meant we could share stadiums, pool resources and that the Men’s, Women’s and the Wheelchair games would benefit from overall tournament awareness. After all, while Rugby League is one of Australia’s favourite sports, it isn’t as front of mind in the UK. To fill stadiums, we needed to not only to bring all rugby league fans together; but go beyond the core fanbase by getting the country to care. Uniting the Men’s, Women’s and Wheelchair games gave us the best chance of doing that. 

Our theory was, that whatever the discipline, being a fan of sport means certain things. It means you appreciate stories of human endeavour. It means you’ve likely experienced sports’ unique ability to bring people and communities together. And it means you’re likely to take pride in representing the Nation. You might not be a follower of Rugby League; but if you’re a fan of sport, you’re likely to get behind a World Cup that champions inclusivity. 

Our theory proved true. Social stats and ticketing data showed that new audiences were being introduced to Rugby League. Better yet, both existing and new fans were choosing to attend a mixture of both Men’s, Women’s and Wheelchair fixtures. Logistics supported the inclusivity and shared success of the tournament. Rather than hosting the World Cup in one city, it was shared across the country; meaning wherever you lived, you had access to a game (and from as little as £2 a ticket). Alongside the big games, advertising budget was reserved to promote key fixtures like double headers which were designed to encourage fans to embrace all three tournaments. 

Scheduled for 2021, the RLWC was postponed a year due to the pandemic. Its original campaign had focussed on ‘assembling your squad’ and the social side of the sport. While ticket sales were important, we also set ourselves targets that supported the tournament’s legacy and the future of Rugby League in England; so we made a strategic gear change to promote inclusivity. 

What sets Rugby League apart is the grass roots impact of the game; it’s a prime example of sport as a force for good. That is where our campaign, ‘This Is Real Impact’ came from. A nod to the beautiful, full contact nature of the sport; and the real life impact the sport has on and off the pitch. The impact of the RLWC2021, was over 25 million invested back into community clubs. An investment that will pay for local leagues and the ever important community officers that provide vital support and training for young players. And an investment into inclusivity that will see more and more women and wheelchair players welcomed into the game. 

Even the RLWC2021’s branding was designed to be inclusive. For example, the iconic trophy logo was built from coloured ribbons; each colour representing each tournament. While advertising was split between being tournament and fixture specific, it was important that Men’s, Women’s and Wheelchair was represented equally. 

Presenting disability and Women’s sport was a huge cultural responsibility we didn’t take lightly. Our art direction was gritty, rare and real. While our visual style made sure that athlete’s from all three games were represented on the same level. Our TVC didn’t shy away from disability, putting players like Tom Halliwell and Jodie Boyd-Ward in the spotlight, showing off their inspiring mental and physical strength. 

‘This is Real Impact’ also cut through on social, which championed individual impactful stories from players. Resulting in over 194 million social media impressions. A testament to the culture of the tournament; big names from the men’s game used their social platforms to shout about and divert attention towards Women’s & Wheelchair fixtures. Deciding to host three tournaments under one World Cup was a practical decision that reflected the ethos of the event and the sport itself. From day one, the tournament had key values; World Class, Authentic, Bold, Brave and Inclusive – the key pillars that saw the three tournaments played together. Bringing the Men’s, Women’s and wheelchair was how we got the Nation behind the Rugby League; helping us grow the game in the country it was born.

By Niamh Deenan, Senior Strategist for Cravens. To find out more about the work Cravens do click here.

Cravens Opinion Rugby League World Cup 2021