RLWC2021 and IRL team up on sale of global media rights
By Tariq Saleh
The 2021 Rugby League World Cup today announced a “historic” partnership with the International Rugby League, the sport's governing body, in which they will collaborate together on the sale of international broadcast rights sales and the production of matches at next year’s tournament.
In a first for the Rugby League World Cup, the partnership will be responsible for the production of 61 matches across the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments next year, the first time the three will run concurrently.
This will be in conjunction with the existing agreement with the BBC, the UK public-service broadcaster which has already secured domestic rights to the tournament being staged in England.
The tie-up with RLWC2021 marks a significant strategic shift from the IRL, which had worked with international sports agency IMG for the last two World Cups in 2013 and 2017 where it was responsible for the distribution of worldwide media rights and the appointment of host broadcasters for the tournament.
Jon Dutton, the chief executive of RLWC20201, explained that the tournament organisers and the federation made the move in an effort to take more control and have a direct relationship with broadcasters.
In an interview with Sportcal, he said: “The last two tournaments, 2013 and 2017, have been under the agreement with the IRL, which has included all the rights both domestic and international so this is a very different model. It is very collaborative.
“Ultimately for the IRL, they want that direct relationship with the broadcasters and that is completely understandable. We just want to use this opportunity to build credibility, make sure that the tournament can be seen everywhere in the world with a mixture of both free-to-air and digital, and we are also very interested in direct-to-consumer.
“Being in control has been the driving force, being in control of our destiny and being very respectful of working with the international federation, which is the rights-holder.”
One reason for the IRL’s decision to switch its worldwide broadcast sales model could be because of the legal dispute it was embroiled in with IMG following the 2017 World Cup over unpaid rights fees relating to the extension of the previous tournament to Papua New Guinea as a host country.
The World Cup took place largely in Australia and New Zealand but IMG chose to withhold money as it claimed the original contract with the IRL did not make allowances for an extra venue outside the two stipulated host countries.
IMG's contention was that the contract it signed with the IRL in 2011 did not provide for a 13th venue outside of the main host countries, and that there would have been extra costs associated with procuring a host broadcaster in Papua New Guinea.
Dutton said RLWC2021 will be “taking the lead” in the rights sales process and under the hosting agreement, will also be responsible for the operational delivery of the tournament and will own all associated commercial rights.
The organisers will launch a tender next week for a production partner “to give fans a better viewing experience than ever before.”
Dutton said: “The content needs of fans are changing radically and becoming more fragmented, and we want to stay ahead of the curve and meet these rapidly evolving demands.
“Our partnership with the IRL allows us to both execute a world-class broadcast production and rights strategy, which will be at the centre of our fan engagement approach and will provide an additional revenue stream for all parties.”
RLWC2021 and the IRL said the objectives of the new partnership are "to create a deeper connection with rugby league’s committed fans while delivering the most accessible experience for new fans through engaging content and powerful, in-depth storytelling."
The organisers also said it is "embracing the latest technology, data and insight to bring fans closer to the action and creating exceptional value for commercial partners by supplying integrated rights and sponsorship opportunities across broadcast."
Nigel Wood, chief executive of the IRL, described the partnership with RLWC2021 as a no-brainer from a commercial perspective.
He added: “The opportunity to work collaboratively on the broadcast production is a very sensible commercial arrangement. It puts the whole presentation of the tournament in the hands of the organisers.
"Together with the tournament's domestic broadcast partner the BBC, we can deliver a great experience for viewers of the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments. It also allows the tournament to make a range of content available to broadcasters of every kind around the world.
“Our offer to world broadcasters will be the most flexible and accessible World Cup ever.”
The two parties are hoping to maximise rights sales globally but their hopes of receiving significant broadcast rights fees could be impacted by the global coronavirus pandemic.
Dutton believes this presents a challenge for the organisers to work through as he expects a depressed market.
He said: “We are very realistic, we did a big piece of work at the start of the year where we travelled to Australia and New Zealand and had a number of meetings with different potential broadcast partners and clearly upon our return to the UK, the world had changed.
“So we have to be realistic, Australia and New Zealand are the dominant markets, one of the interesting aspects to this compared to any other Rugby League World Cup is we have some new nations which present some new territories so we are, whilst being realistic, very keen to try and exploit those opportunities.
“But like the rest of the world, the broadcast market has been materially impacted and it once again presents another challenge for us to work through.”
Asked how the pandemic has affected negotiations, he replied: “It [Covid-19] has definitely had an impact. I would say we are slightly more fortunate than many other people because time has always been on our side but now as we ramp up to going on sale, some of the conversations, like the international sales rights on broadcast, simply came to a standstill so we can now put some energy into that and pick those up.”
Dutton is hopeful the partnership with the IRL will allow the World Cup to have a global reach and tap into new and emerging markets.
Aside from Australia and New Zealand, which Dutton expects to be the first territories where international broadcast deals will be concluded and announced in the coming months, he has identified key regions they will be targeting.
The RLWC2021 chief said: “If we look in Asia, and a strong contingent from the pacific, there is already some real interest which is absolutely no surprise. We are also going for more coverage across Europe than the tournament has ever had.
“We have got a South American nation playing for the first time where Brazil Women will start the tournament against England in the women’s tournament, which is a great opportunity for us and we have North and Central America, we have got Jamaica featuring for the first time.
“We think there are enough territories to present opportunities, predominantly this is about trying to maximise both revenue and reach and build that for the IRL moving forward as they go into 2025 and beyond.”
Broadcasters from key markets for the 2017 World Cup included the BBC and Premier Sports in the UK, Seven in Australia, BeIN Sports in France, Sky in New Zealand and Fox Sports in USA.
Domestically, the BBC will show all 61 matches next year, across three tournaments, live on its platforms.
The three RLWC2021 tournaments, which will take place across 21 venues in England, will run from 23 October to 27 November, and involve 32 national teams (16 in the men's edition and eight each in the women's and wheelchair competitions).