I’ve survived a Pendolino train today and arrived at Media City in Manchester to meet with the Chief Executive of Rugby League World Cup 2021, Jon Dutton.
The tournament has set itself some ambitious targets so I’m intrigued to find out how Jon will deliver on those.
He has real energy, focus and drive that I find very appealing. I particularly enjoyed discussing how live sport has the challenge of creating an intimate but mass social experience
We talk about the tournaments bold and brave ticketing targets, how sports consumption is changing and the need to future gaze when you are preparing for something years in advance.
With such ambitious targets… I asked him first to reflect on the milestones in his career that got him here.
ABOUT JON DUTTON
Having led England’s successful bid to host the 2021 Rugby League World Cup, Jon was appointed Chief Executive of the tournament, leaving his position as Rugby Football League Director of Projects and People.
A sports management graduate with over 20 years’ experience in the sports industry, Jon has previously worked for the PGA European Golf Tour, Manchester FA (with a secondment to UEFA) and ran his own sports consultancy company.
Jon was the Operations Director for Rugby League World Cup 2013, Director of Readiness for the Tour de France Grand Depart in 2014 and Tournament Director for the Ladbrokes Four Nations tournament in 2016. In 2017 Jon was the International Federation Tournament Commissioner for the Rugby League World Cup in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea.
Jon is also a member of UK Sports Major Events Panel, a specialist advisory body. Its main purpose is to represent the interests of UK Sport by making major event investment recommendations to the UK Sport Board.
THE TRANSCRIPT BELOW WAS TYPED FROM A RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT. BECAUSE OF THE RISK OF MISHEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY IN SOME CASES OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, WE CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS COMPLETE ACCURACY.
TX: 22.8.19 – Ep 48. Jon Dutton
HOST: TAMMY PARLOUR
TP: Welcome to a ‘Question of Performance’. I’m Tammy Parlour and in this series I’ll be talking with leading figures from sport and business about what improves, limits and drives performance.
Join me for 20 minutes of discussion, twice a month, to hear a range of views and what it means to be successful, how to cope with failure and what people have learnt along the way.
I’ve travelled up to Manchester today, survived the Pendolino train and arrived at media city to meet with John Dutton. John is the Chief Executive of Rugby League World Cup 2021. The tournament has set itself some ambitious targets, so I’m intrigued to find out how John will deliver on those. He has a real energy and focus, and drive that I find really appealing, I particularly enjoy discussing how live sport has the challenge of creating an intimate, but mass social experience.
We talk about their bold and brave ticketing targets, how sports consumption is changing and the need to future gaze when you are preparing for something years in advance. With such ambitious targets, I asked him first to reflect on the milestones in his career that have got him to where he is today.
R: Yeah absolutely, I think I’m in my 25th year working in professional sport, so I’m in an incredibly privileged position, and in particular the job I’m doing at the moment. I guess the seminal moment growing up was, I wanted to be a professional athlete and I realised at the age of probably 16, I was never going to be good enough, nor certainly brave enough to play rugby league, and pursued a career in sports administration and that really guided me in where I did my degree and what I did my degree in, and was really fortunate in my first role, I worked on the European Golf Tour for almost six years, and that gave me a grounding in major sports events like nothing else. So I’ve been very lucky, but yeah, that’s really defined who I am today and certainly the role I’m doing at the moment.
I: Yeah, can you compare and contrast those environments a little bit?
R: Yeah, I mean, I would have started work on the European Golf Tour, I would have been 22, naïve, qualified with a sports degree, flying round the world working with professional golfers, staying in wonderful hotels and it was, gosh, if this is what working life is like, it’s not very bad at all, and of course then you spend weeks and weeks away from home and you’re with the same people, and you realise actually you’re going to have to work pretty hard, and yeah, that contrasting to know in a leadership role, a really senior leadership role delivering the project where we have some metrics that will define our success. And that is very much looking through a commercial lens, so the difference between starting my career and where I am now, and perhaps where I will end, is definitely very, very disparate.
I: How would you define what you currently do?
R: I’m managing, and people may disagree with this, but I talk about it being the world’s biggest team sporting tournament in 2021, and we’re really lucky that when we sat down with government partners, there isn’t a FIFA World Cup, Commonwealth Games, etc, the biggest tournament here in England in 2021 is of course the Women’s Football European Championships, which we’re really delighted about. And the role that I have is to sell in the region of three-quarters of a million tickets, which if you compare that to anything the Rugby League has done before, it is incomparable. It’s to bring in new brands to our tournament and it’s to deliver tournaments together, so men, women, wheelchair athletes, all playing together on the same platform, and that, from an inclusivity perspective, we’re really excited, but of course adds challenge. And what we’re delivering is, logistically we’ve got 61 games, we’ve got 32 teams, 3 tournaments, 21 venues, so it’s big logistically, but success for us is about filling the venues, we’ve got some pretty big stadiums we’re staging our games in, creating excitement, we’ve got to go beyond the Rugby League spectator, this is about reaching out to people who would have enjoyed netball world cup, cricket world cup, will come and enjoy all the events that are staged in the UK, and peaking their interest about an experience that we will deliver beyond what happens on the field of play.
I: Bringing those three groups together, that feels quite unique, how did that come about?
R: It came about, I mean, we did the Rugby League World Cup in 2013, so the Men’s Rugby League World Cup on a shoestring budget, with a really small team, with the wonderfully inspirational Sally Bolton who…I worked with Sally for three years, and we surprised a lot of people because we delivered something that was superb, still the international, the world record for a game of international Rugby League was set in that tournament, Old Trafford 74,000 people watched Australia play New Zealand. And we reflected afterwards, and if we had the chance to do the same again, we decided we wouldn’t, it had to be more ambitious, it had to be bigger and better than before. Fast forward four years to the World Cup in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea, and the organisers there took the really bold decision to play the men’s and women’s tournaments together at the same time, and it was a huge success.
So we looked at that and learnt a lot from being with the organisers and looked at it and said, how can we better that? And quite simply was to add the third premier product in Rugby League, which is Wheelchair Rugby League, which is not…it hasn’t been seen by many people, when I ask people, have you seen Wheelchair Rugby League, yeah, it’s that paralympic sport, round ball, murder ball is it called, that is not Wheelchair Rugby League, and Wheelchair Rugby League deserves to be seen by more people. So the decision, and it was way back, it was in 2015 when we went to talk to government, George Osborne was the Chancellor, David Cameron was the Prime Minister and we went to talk to them, predominantly about a political agenda about northern powerhouse and the part that our sport could play in northern powerhouse, and resulted in significant funding and us being, you know, navigating through Brexit and being apolitical and not really concerning ourselves with that, but what it’s produced is this wonderfully inclusive feel.
So when we talk about the World Cup, we are talking about men, women and wheelchair athletes on the same platform, and we will deliver a finals weekend, on the Friday night a wheelchair final will be in Liverpool, same venue, M&S Bank Arena as the Netball World Cup final, and on the Saturday spectators will come into Old Trafford with the same ticket and will watch the men’s and women’s World Cup finals on the same day, and both of those games will be live on the BBC, and I think that’s really, really significant.
I: You talk about spectatorship, everywhere I read about the tournament, it always uses the phrase, ‘the biggest and best ever rugby World Cup’, which is quite something to go for. Part of that is, you talk about spectatorship attendance, in general in sporting events attendance is going down. What are you doing to get the numbers that you’re hoping for, for the biggest and best?
R: Yeah, I mean, we’ve been bold and brave, we’ve been really ambitious with our ticketing targets, and if you just look at the selection of venues, we start at predominantly Premier League Football venues. Starting in Newcastle at St James’s Park, we’ve talked about Old Trafford, we’re staging the women’s tournament starts at Anfield, big stadium. We’re going to The Emirates Stadium, Arsenal, first sport, other than football to be played in The Emirates Stadium. So we’ve got some really big venues, we’ve been really bold and brave, how do we feel that you’re absolutely right about the way sports consumption is changing and the content is so easily accessible in a very high quality digital environment, and what we have to do is convince people it’s about an experience, and we were talking to someone a few weeks ago about it being an intimate, but a mass social experience. And when you put intimate and mass, those two words don’t come together, but when you think about it, why do we attend sports events? We attend because we want to be with our family, our friends, we want to enjoy that experience with others, and we want to witness something we don’t know what’s going to happen. And if you look at the Cricket World Cup final at Lords, that was that unbelievable finish to a game, you know, the Hollywood scriptwriter could not have come up with what was going to happen at the end of that game, and that’s why we all love sport.
So we’ve got to make sure that the experience inside the venue is better than the experience that someone can consume in the home, and it’s about everything, it’s about the sensory perception, you know, touch, taste, smell, what will it be like to go with family and friends and see the world’s greatest Rugby League players.
I: Things are changing as far as, sort of, the how we consume media and how we consume entertainment, things are changing so fast at the moment, Rugby World Cup is a little while away yet, how do you ensure that what you’re spending money one and what you’re planning is going to contemporary in a few years’ time?
R: It’s a really good question, for Rugby League World Cup, some future gazing involved, and bearing in mind I started working on this project in 2015, so it already feels like a lifetime’s worth of work, and we’ve still got 800 days to go. So we’re doing a really interesting project at the moment, a digital roadmap, and it’s exactly that question, so we need Data Warehouse and CRM and all the things that you need, you just need, and we want to procure the best, but we also then want to look at wearable technology, where that might be, augmented reality that I think, not just to do something cosmetically, but something that enhances the ticketed spectator’s experience. So we’re involved in that sort of future gazing, and at some point, you’re absolutely right, we’ve got to put our money on what we believe will deliver success.
And we are staging the first ever eSports Rugby League World Cup, and people say, why are you doing that, and the simple answer is, why not, you know…
I: eSport is huge
R: …eSport is a global phenomenon, I wouldn’t begin to understand the sort of intricacies of it, but what I do understand is, there is a younger audience of gamers that consume their entertainment through eSports, and so why wouldn’t we want to be in that space offering someone the opportunity to lift the first ever eSports Ruby League World Cup, and I’m quite excited, whatever that becomes and whether it’s about the game or being agnostic about the game, the global read and the physical thing that happens, we will find some smart people that will help us find those answers.
I: Do you have ambitions for Rugby League beyond the tournament, sort of, the legacy that it will leave at all in domestic Leagues?
R: Yeah, I mean, personally yes, I’ve grown up 41 years now watching my rugby league team, so I am a rugby league hardcore fan, but professionally, we’ve got to stay really focused, our job is to deliver the tournament, we are working with colleagues in the sport to make sure that, my analogy is, for the doors we open, they follow, because when the fireworks go off at Old Trafford on 27 November 2021, that’s our job done, and me and my team will disappear, and hopefully be employable in the future. But the job of the sport then will be to capitalise on some of those opportunities, so we’ve very purposefully designed a legacy programme that I think is quite different to other legacy programmes I’ve seen, it’s not in pursuit, per se, of people playing the sport, that will be an output and that is something the sport will concentrate on. It’s about making a positive impact on people’s lives, and then engaging with them that hopefully then become involved in our tournament. So we have three strands, we have a big volunteering project, volunteers we want to give people a great experience of it, they’ve got opportunities in their local communities also within the sport after the tournament, so that is absolute legacy.
We have a facility project whereby, as part of our government settlement, money is going in to improving the facility stock, so when people say in 2022, John, what’s your legacy, there’s a physical manifestation, we can point to a clubhouse, a pitch, a team that’s been set up with the kit and equipment that we’re providing, and then the bit in the middle is [unclear 0:12:17 ] that is just quite radical that we have dance, choir, we have a public health programme that we’re just about to launch, [unclear 0:12:23] mental health, we have an international development programme focusing on trade, all of these different things built to engage with people. And, of course, by the way, the sport absolutely wants more boys and girls, and men and women playing the game, and that’s something they will pick up from us.
So it’s that, staying focused absolutely, not being the sport or the international game because there are governing bodies to run those, but working with everyone, and when we have the glass of champagne moment at the end of the tournament and we reflect, there’s no regrets about missed opportunities and we’ve delivered success by being really focused.
I: What’s going to go wrong?
R: I spent 25 years delivering major events and working in sport, you put together a plan and things always go wrong, and you always deviate slightly from the plan. The most important thing is to have a plan, the most important thing, and we have, we’ve set a strategy, it fits on one page and everyone, our Board, our Executive, our Stakeholders understand the plan and that we will absolutely follow that. What will go wrong, we can’t control the environment, so the political environment we can’t, you know, the world we live in, who knows what that will look like in 2021, can’t control the weather, so we’ve got…we’re blessed with our…wheelchair tournament takes place indoors, so that’s a tick in the box, but our running game tournaments take place in October and November on big Premier League Football venues, and who knows what the weather is going to be like.
So there are things like that, and will we make mistakes? Absolutely, will we make some wrong decisions? Absolutely, we talk a lot about fast failure, and we are up for that, because if you’re going to push the boundary and you’re going to do things that people haven’t done before, you’ve got to test things and they might not work. We’re doing an experiment at the moment with cameras on wheelchairs to see whether we can create some amazing content, and I’ve no idea if that’s going to be successful or not, but we’re going to try it. And fast failure is a phrase that’s definitely part of our vocabulary.
I: You talk very passionately about this role, what do you find most enjoyable, what do you want to do more of, what would you…what do you wish you were doing less of?
R: Gosh, that’s a really good question, what am I enjoying, I’m enjoying the challenge, I love a challenge, I love people telling me that that can’t be done, let’s have a go and see, and we talk a lot about with our team of leaders that we’re growing, I want everyone in the team to be a leader and take ownership of the tournament. If you aim for the bar at six foot, you might just about get over it, if you aim for a hundred foot, you won’t get over it, but you’ll certainly be higher than six foot, and that’s the approach to everything we do. I love meeting new people, I love learning, I’ve got a huge appetite to learn, and we are really proactive. So we’re going to Japan to look at the Rugby World Cup, we’ve been to netball and cricket, we’re off to the cycling, we’re sending people everywhere to learn and we’ve not got…
I: And visiting these places, what are you hoping to learn?
R: We’re hoping to see how other people do it, and learn things that we can implement into our tournament. We’ve got a lot of freedom and a lot of flexibility, so we work hand in hand with the international federation, but in essence, we [unclear 0:15:44] tournaments, we are paying the rights fee that gives us that flexibility, so when we go to the World Cup in Japan, I’m really interested in customer experience, so that’s all how people, and we’re going to go, we’ve bought tickets to a game and we’re going to go as a fan and, you know, get in the metro and walk the last mile, and go in sit in the seats and experience all that because there’s absolutely something we can learn. And we can learn, and we’re not just looking in sport, we’re looking much wider in entertainment, but what I’m enjoying is learning, huge appetite to just culturally meet new people and be stimulated by those people.
What should we be doing less of? We just, time, at the moment the clock is our friend, and so we just last week, 800 days to go, we’re still a long way away, we’ve got to make every day count and if we start to become focused on the wrong thing and not in pursuit of what success will look like, the 800 days will become 700, 500, 300, before we know it, the tournament will be here, and we’ll be having the glass of champagne at Old Trafford and saying, gosh we wasted that time, why didn’t we do that then when we had the time. So focus and just respecting time as a really precious commodity.
I: So, 800 days in…or 800 days away, however you want to term it, what is the main focus at the moment?
R: Everything we do is building towards ticket sales, we’re not on sale at the moment, we’ve still got some qualifiers, we can’t derive our schedule, we’ve not released ticket prices, etc, but everything we do is building towards that, which will happen next year. So we spent a long time, we had to win the bid, we had to [unclear 0:17:30] to give us some funding, we had to win the bid, we had to set the company up, we’ve got a brilliant Board, a large number of independents with particular skill sets, and that was a really great, you know, such an enjoyable exercise to build the Board. Now we’re building our Executive, so we’re building a team, a lean team, but a team that’s really focused and really talented, and then we’re working through the plan.
The plan is there, and if we follow the plan, I’m pretty sure we will get as near as we can to success.
I: Looking back at your career, so not just this particular role, what are you most proud of?
R: Oh gosh, what am I most proud of? I thoroughly enjoyed the different roles I’ve worked in, I’ve had some quite diverse experiences. One of the things I will pick out, in 2010 myself and my colleague Stephen, who’s now the Chief Operating Officer of the tournament, we delivered the IPSA World Blind Football Championships, and we did this at the Royal National College for the Blind in Hereford, and it was such a brilliant experience. We were given some money by the Football Association, we were told to go out there and deliver the thing, and it involved building a little venue, marketing, broadcast, ticket sales, creating a spectator experience, and working with blind athletes and it was just fantastic. And we knew we had 900 seats,10 days and we sold every ticket to every day.
I: What was fantastic about it, what made it fantastic?
R: I think two things, one, just the inspiration of working with the blind footballers who were just brilliant individuals, and secondly, starting off with a concept, a sheet of paper where Jeff Davies at the FA said, there you go, that’s it, go away and, you know, deliver the World Blind Championships, and that was it, that was the one thing it said. And so we had to start right at the beginning of everything from building the venue and how we were going to market it, but other public funding, working with the teams even down to things like finding an ophthalmologist who would come in and check the players and classify, and it was just fascinating, and I think because…and that was on a much, much smaller budget than we had, with a much, much smaller team now, but it meant we had to learn every single skill and as per your previous question, we made a couple of mistakes. But, I reflect back on that, I think that was amazing, that really was amazing, and we had a similar experience in 2013 working with Sally on the [unclear 0:20:02] World Cup where we had 14 people in the team, we had 21 venues across four countries, and I look back and thing, how on earth did we actually do that, how did we do that without people falling over and it being catastrophes all over the place? And we did it, we did it because we had brilliant people who really supported each other and were really passionate about what they did.
I: You like a challenge?
R: I definitely like a challenge, but also I’m a realist, and certainly managing what is a big budget, big risk with government, with public funding, you know, a great deal of responsibility. But I love creative people, at heart I’m a project manager, I would always default to a plan, and I love finding creative people, who I envy greatly, who will then bring to life some of the vision that I have and my Board has, and that’s the exciting bit of the project.
I: So this podcast focuses on success and performance, and what that means for different people, what is success for you?
R: Success for me is delivering this tournament and selling three quarters of a million tickets, that’s simply and quite publicly we will be judged, so we’re doing some recruitment at the moment, and we’ve had a conversation with people saying, I cannot guarantee success, there is no guarantee that we will sell all those tickets and everything will work out in the way that we want it to, but come on Board, we’ve all got to give it our best shot, we’re going to find a diverse range of people who are going to help us with that, and my role is to lead that. My role is to find the people, find the agencies, find the consultants, you know, manage the budget, work with my Board and not forget the mission and vision that we set right at the start.
And that’s why we have this plan that fits on one page, that we can all go back to, we don’t need, you know, we’ve got a playbook and we’ve all got different documents, but the key thing is, these are our values, we’re going to live and breathe them every day, it’s our DNA, this is the vision that we’ve set, and these are the five goals, and if we achieve the five goals, that’s what success looks like. And I’d like nothing more than for my team to get to the end of the tournament and having delivered something really special and just to be hugely employable because the skills that they’ve demonstrated and the skills they’ve adapted to at the end of the tournament, and that will make me most proud.
I: That’s success for you in this role, what’s success for you more generally, or is it very much tied to the role that you’re currently in?
R: Yeah it is, you know, a lot of people have asked me, what next after 2021, what next for me is I think working in a different sport, hopefully, fingers crossed, hopefully I’m still employable at the end of the tournament with a different challenge, you know, I’ve done just about ten years in Rugby League, which will be the longest in any…point in any of my jobs in my career. But yeah, not thought too hard about what next, I think I’m still young enough, hungry enough, ambitious enough to hopefully add some value to other people’s projects. But yeah, what next is, I will be judged and it takes…you know, we’ve thought about this from having a social media presence, being a sports person, standing up in the public domain, being open to criticism, and that’s not something that comes naturally to me, that’s something that I’ve had to adapt to, but I am a leader. So I have to…my mantra is, I would never ask any of my team to do something I’m not prepared to do myself, so I’ve got to display that leadership skill and hopefully deliver something that’s really special and deliver against our vision.
And then, yeah, who knows after that.
I: We’re just going to end up with some quick fire questions. What did you eat for breakfast?
R: Yoghurt and granola.
I: Favourite piece of kit?
R: Favourite piece of kit? Gosh, I do lots of running, so leggings for running.
I: A sporting hero?
R: My sporting hero is someone called John Woods, who was a Rugby League player, he was the most talented player I’ve ever seen, he never fulfilled his ambition of playing at Wembley, but he was my inspiration growing up.
I: Most useless piece of advice you have either been given, or given to somebody else?
R: Gosh, I…that has absolutely stumped me in terms of a question, most useless piece of advice?
I: Or ‘a’ useless piece of advice.
R: Useless piece of advice, I’m in a positive moment, I’m thinking of all the positive things that I’ve…honestly I can’t think of any.
I: Well, I won’t pull you away from the positives.
I: Greatest passion outside of sport?
R: Passion, yeah, sport running, keeping fit, staying healthy, family, but a lot of my life is in sport, yeah.
I: Yeah, and last one, best performance enhancer?
R: Best performance enhancer? Reading, knowledge, I think knowledge and learning absolutely increases my own professional performance like nothing else.
I: Well, thank you very much John, it’s been brilliant talking to you.
R: An absolute pleasure, thank you.
I: Thanks for listening, you can follow the conversation on Twitter, Facebook, and also don’t forget to subscribe online to ‘aquestionofperformance.com’.