Rugby League World Cup 2021 delivers on its promise to be biggest, best and most inclusive in rugby league history

28 Nov 2022

Rugby League World Cup 2021 delivers on its promise to be biggest, best and most inclusive in rugby league history

Rugby League World Cup 2021 broke records on and off the pitch over five weeks of action, which kicked off at St James’ Park on 15 October and concluded with Australia winning the men’s and women’s Finals at Old Trafford on 19 November.  

In that time, 61 matches were played with the men’s, women’s and wheelchair tournaments held simultaneously for the first time.  

England exacted revenge for defeat in the 2017 Wheelchair World Cup final, defeating rivals France to claim their second Wheelchair world title before Australia continued their dominance of the running game by defeating New Zealand and Samoa in the women’s and men’s finals respectively.  

Every minute of every match from all three tournaments was broadcast live by the BBC with a cumulative match average audience of 29.24 million people tuning in domestically across network and digital channels.  

The Wheelchair final between England and France, was watched by a combined peak audience of 1.3 million people, with a world record crowd of more than 4,500 people also filling Manchester Central to watch the two best teams in the world go head-to-head. 

Elsewhere, the biggest television audience across all 61 games was for England v Samoa in the men’s semi-finals with a combined peak audience of 2.8 million and a 23% audience share,  while England women’s semi-final defeat to New Zealand saw a combined peak of 1.4 million watching on the BBC. A further two matches in the women’s tournament were watched by more than a million people. 

In terms of demographics, 40% of the TV audience share was female, while 37% of the overall viewers were under the age 55. Encouragingly 46% of the viewership was based south of the Midlands, outside of the traditional rugby league heartlands with a further 43% based in the north and the remaining share from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.  

The women’s final between Australia and New Zealand was watched by nearly a million viewers in the UK, while nearly two million tuned in to watch Australia overcome Samoa to win their 12th title. In terms of the overseas audience, more than 400,000 people tuned in from Australia to watch the men’s and women’s finals double header live, despite the match kicking off at 3am down under.  

Social purpose 

A real impact was made ahead of the tournament through the trail-blazing social impact programme.  

The strength of RLWC2021’s Social Impact Programme has been in delivering activities that have been about much more than just playing rugby league and growing participation in the sport.  

Working in partnership with organisations like Movember, Community Integrated Care and UNICEF UK has been crucial in enabling RLWC2021 to reach a far wider and diverse audience than otherwise would have been possible and thereby delivering maximum returns from the Social Impact Programme.  

The tournament’s CreatedBy grant funding has been the catalyst for projects to secure additional funding, with an overall investment across all projects of more than £25 million, delivered in partnership with the RFL. This has been transformational for rugby league and community facilities across the country with a particular focus on making the sport more accessible for disabled users and women and girls. 

The volunteers programme was also a huge success with The Power Squad dedicating 18,000 hours of their time during the tournament alone, and playing a vital role in all areas of delivery, from tournament guest services, match and media operations and accreditation. 

Rugby League World Cup 2021 Chief Executive, Jon Dutton, said: 

“Our ambition for Rugby League World Cup 2021 was to make the tournament the biggest, best and most inclusive World Cup in the sport’s 127-year history, and I think we’ve achieved that and more.  
“We overcame huge obstacles to make it happen, including the pandemic and the subsequent postponement but these numbers clearly show that the tournament was worth waiting for. Nearly half a million people came through the turnstiles in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, with millions more tuning in to watch the matches on television or online.  
“The appetite for all three tournaments has been extraordinary, with record breaking attendances across men’s, women’s and wheelchair events. I hope we have demonstrated the appetite for all three disciplines and laid a platform for international rugby league to build on in the future with France 2025 and beyond. 
“The tournament was always about more than delivering 61 matches on the pitch. It was about using the platform provided by the World Cup to make a positive difference within communities and our trailblazing Social Impact programme achieved just that. Working with brilliant partners like UNICEF and Movember took our sport to new audiences while our CreatedBy programme has enabled to us to develop facilities across the country and ensure that anyone who wants to get involved in our fantastic sport has the opportunity to do so. 
“We have also been able to attract new commercial partners to the sport with global businesses such as Cazoo and Vodafone playing a key role in the success of the tournament. Being able to attract significant commercial investment will be vital to the future success of our sport.” 

Digital exposure and record attendances 

Fans of rugby league also flocked online to stay in touch with the tournament with over a million visits to RLWC2021’s website during the tournament alone.  

The Siva Tau v Sipi Tau performed in unison by the Tongan and Samoa players before their quarter final was unsurprisingly the top performing piece of content on social media, with the spine tingling performance attracting nearly 10 million views on TikTok alone. There were 194 million impressions across all platforms and 58 million video views.  

However, nothing can beat the experience of watching rugby league live and this was reflected in the number of people coming through the turnstiles with nearly 500,000 people attending matches, with 67,502 people inside Old Trafford for the men’s and women’s finals double header.  

The record attendance for a Wheelchair rugby league match was broken four times, three times at the Copper Box and then at the final in Manchester, while England women’s opening game against Brazil at Headingley was the highest attended women’s rugby league match in the northern hemisphere. 

The England v Samoa match in Newcastle and Australia v Fiji in Leeds was the highest ever cumulative opening day in a RLWC in the northern hemisphere, while the 23,179 that were in the DW stadium for England’s quarter final win against Papua New Guinea was a record crowd for that stage of the tournament as were the men’s semi-finals. Particularly encouraging was that of the people who attended the opening game at St James’ Park, over half of them were from the North-East, while England’s resounding victory in the match saw a huge surge of ticket sales for the Emirates semi-final from London buyers. With neither area in the traditional rugby league heartlands it was hugely encouraging to see the demand for tickets with one of the key objectives of the tournament being to grow rugby league in new areas.  

The two men’s semi-finals, held at the Emirates and Elland Road, saw the highest aggregate attendance with 67,500 people watching Australia and Samoa earn their place in the final while the double header World Cup Finals at Old Trafford saw the highest ever gate receipts for a game of Rugby League in the Northern Hemisphere with receipts 62% above the 2013 men’s final. 

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