There is a World Cup taking place in Britain this month. Not that you’d know it.
If it weren’t for the BBC, which has been gamefully plugging the 2013 Rugby League World Cup on Radio 5 Live to cross-promote its live TV rights, it might have passed me by – and it’s my job to keep track of these things.
Apart from the subliminal radio messaging, the sum total of advertising I have seen for the event was a poster on a London bus several months ago. Without the novelty of the Burgess brothers, the announcement of the England squad this week might barely have merited a mention.
It is hardly the kind of media impact an occasion of this scale deserves. This is supposed to be the biggest international sporting event of the year in the UK.
Yet, with just 21 days to go until the opening ceremony, there are still tens of thousands of tickets available for the first game between England and Australia at the Millennium Stadium (capacity 80,000) on 26 October.
The organisers aim to sell 500,000 tickets across the month-long tournament, in whose group stages 14 nations will compete in 20 venues in England, Wales, Ireland and France.
Declining to say how many they have actually sold, organisers say they expect the final at Old Trafford (capacity 75,000) on 30 November to be an eventual sell-out. That would be a truly remarkable feat – a crowd of 73,631 watched Great Britain lose to Australia in the final minutes of the 1992 final at Wembley Stadium and it is still the biggest in the event’s history.
They have already sold enough to guarantee a bigger crowd than the 44,329 who made the effort to go to the final in 2000, the last time Britain played host.
However, it shouldn’t be enough simply to outdo the last time. If we are going to host a World Cup, any World Cup, we should sell it out. How else are we to hold our heads up as a nation of sport-lovers?
This is where the naysayers jump in. Rugby league is a northern sport, not a national sport; it is also a minority participation sport (48,700 adults play at least once a week at the last official count) outflanked in popularity by bowls (223,900), weightlifting (106,600), mountaineering (87,800) and gymnastics (49,100).
Indeed, such is the decline from 82,000 in 2007-08 that Sport England, the Government’s community sport agency, slashed the Rugby Football League’s funding by £10.1m to £17.5m under its 2013-17 budget.
It is testament to the all-consuming power of football that it is so difficult for any other sport to cut through, especially when the Premier League season is in full flow. But cycling manages it just fine so it can be done with the right blend of elite success and grass-roots activation.
Despite the appointment by organisers of at least four consultancy firms, the marketing campaign (budget undisclosed) around the Rugby League World Cup has been woeful. It may be abuzz with excitement in the M62 corridor but Down South, supposedly the great new frontier for a game with ambitions to expand beyond the traditional heartlands, it has caused barely a ripple.
Organisers argue that their fans “traditionally leave it late” to buy tickets and, as a result, their promotional kick is only about to start – led by an imminent television campaign.
Despite employing a social media agency in May to “raise excitement”, the event’s official Twitter account has a little more than 12,200 followers. The Rugby (Union) World Cup in 2015, on the other hand, has nearly 180,000 (evidence if any was needed of which version the chattering classes prefer).
Rugby league created its own World Cup in 1954, long before rugby union got in on the act. Its World Cup is the oldest in team sport after the Jules Rimet Trophy. Yet the 23-year head start on its rival code has been squandered.
Two years before England 2015, I already appear to know that Shaun the Sheep – the animated character from the Aardman stable that produced Wallace & Gromit – will help sell merchandising. You can bet that every British child will know too. Will they, however, remember the Rugby League World Cup even happening?
So, on the day of the Super League Grand Final between Warrington Wolves and Wigan Warriors at Old Trafford, this is a rallying call. These are the best rugby league players in the world and they will be on our doorstep to watch for as little as £10 – an austerity ticket for any contemporary politician to run on.
If we can sell out handball and table tennis at the London Olympics at several times the price, surely we can stir up a bit more enthusiasm for rugby league?
It is our civic duty as sports fans – and yes, as journalists in a southern-biased media – to help ensure its success for the greater glory of our “golden decade of sport”. For a World Cup, Britain can do better.