Exclusive: Women calling the shots as rugby gets up for the cups

Debbie Jevans and Sally Bolton have blazed a trail in British sport by being put in charge of rugby's two World Cups, both of which will be held in England. Robin Scott-Elliot asked the questions when they met

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The Independent Online

The next two major sporting events to be staged in England are the Rugby League World Cup this autumn and the Rugby World Cup in 2015. Uniquely in British sport, both events are being overseen by women and, for the first time, The Independent on Sunday brought together Sally Bolton and Debbie Jevans to discuss sporting equality, the wider place of women in sport a year on from 2012 and the Olympic effect on their tournaments.

You are both something of a rarity – there are not many women in prominent positions across sport

Debbie Jevans: There's Karren Brady, (vice-chairman of West Ham) Sue Campbell (chair of the Youth Sport Trust), Liz Nicholl and Jennie Price (chief executives of UK Sport and Sport England respectively). Then there are people like Clare Balding – I don't think we are unique.

Sally Bolton: And if you look below the figurehead I think you'll find that on the management boards there is a much more significant number of women. On our executive board at the RL there are six of us, and there are two women.

DJ: On my executive team it is 50 per cent women. It's something that is gradual. If you take 2012, for example [Jevans was director of sport at the London Olympics], we delivered 26 sports, and 50 per cent of those managers that delivered those sports were female. If you chip away a little bit there is quite an influence of women in sport.

Debbie, you have been in sport as an athlete and administrator since the Seventies; how much have attitudes changed?

DJ: It's funny you ask that, because I have never actually found it a challenge. You say the attitude to women in sport and it gets highlighted when you recently had the Open at a club that doesn't have female members. That gets exaggerated to go across the whole of sport as, "Oh, it's tough for women" – sure, we have broken down barriers as things have evolved but I've never found it particularly challenging being a female.

SB: I haven't either. It is always the first question I get asked – "It must be so difficult…" I have never found it [to be the case]. I don't think I have ever felt I have been prejudiced against for being a woman.

DJ:I have spoken to Maria Miller [Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport] and she is quite rightly fighting a female agenda. But she is talking board members, and by definition board members are older. As more women get involved in sport, as they get older they will become board members. If we were having this conversation in five years it will be a very different landscape at the board membership of federations and national associations than it is currently.

Does it reflect wider society or is sport playing catch-up?

DJ: It's a discussion in the corporate world as well. If you look across the FTSE 100 index, the FTSE 250, then there is the same argument that there is an under-representation of female members. The corporate world has been proactive, said you have to have one or two women [on boards]. That hasn't worked because you tend to sometimes get a token woman to tick a statistic box.

Sport hasn't taken that approach. Coming up through the ranks are a lot of women that will then advance to board level through ability. That is the right way to do it. In the long term it will give you the result you need, and that is why I am confident sport will get there quicker.

You mentioned Muirfield – take that and John Inverdale's comments on Marion Bartoli during Wimbledon. There are some dated attitudes hanging around...

DJ: Clearly that was an unfortunate statement that John made. I know John – he chairs a female rugby club, he has supported women's sport for a number of years. If he could turn back the clock and say what he said differently he clearly would. But I regard him as someone who is supportive of women's sport.

When it comes to something like the R&A and its choice to have a men-only club, that is its choice. What's my preference? Absolutely that clubs should be open and I'm sure that will evolve, but I don't think it is up to us to try and dictate their policy.

SB: Ultimately it is a business and your customers, players or spectators will vote with their feet.

How important was 2012 for women's sport in Britain?

SB: At this point it feels like it's made a really significant step change in awareness and interest in women's sport. If we look back in 10 years, will that have been maintained? There has been a greater interest in the media but it is starting to wane. It will continue to be a challenge to women's sport to stay in the news but certainly from last summer through to now the increase in profile for women's sport has been hugely significant.

There were some fantastic role models and that is what it is about when you are trying to get seven-, eight-, nine-year-old girls to play sport – the idea that you are doing it because you want to follow someone else is very appealing.

DJ: Those role models are really important – that an athletic body is OK. Look at a Jess Ennis figure. She is a brilliant role model and it gives an alternative to girls – that the role models aren't necessarily a pop star, that the ambition to be a top athlete is a great career. In that sense I think the Olympics was really, really important.

You mentioned Clare Balding. Is there a need for media role models as well, to see women presenting sport, not just women's sport, like Clare and the rugby league on BBC?

DJ: Yes but Clare is there because she is an incredibly talented individual. She is a great and justifiable role model but it is also important that she is there on her talent and not just because she is female. Which is the point Sally is making – the more and more women who are there for their ability, that can only encourage more women to get involved in different aspects of sport, be it as a commentator, a coach, a volunteer or as an administrator.

What about the response to someone like Jacqui Oatley? After working as a commentator on Match of the Day she was on the receiving end of an extraordinary amount of criticism.

DJ: Yes, but that's more indicative of the people who are making those comments than her.

But how much of that attitude do you think remains?

DJ: I would hope it is getting less because it is just silly. It's childish to make such comments just because somebody is a female. I hope it is getting less but I guess it's disappointing that you think it is still there and are asking the question.

To go back to the Olympics, what does the success of the Games mean for your tournaments? What effect do you expect?

SB: A significant proportion of our ticket sales at the moment are from outside what would be our traditional heartlands. We think that's about the Olympic effect. When you saw people battling for Greco-Roman wrestling tickets you knew that the world had changed. And certainly the sporting psyche in this country had changed from "It's football and everything else comes a distant second". It lit an even greater appetite for sport in this country and for people to look outside of the sport that they had previously always watched. That has presented a great opportunity for us.

So more people are coming to watch the Rugby League World Cup because of the Olympics?

SB: I think so. We look at the number of sales we have made in the South-east for example, where you would not have expected to make sales. We have seen a really positive boost.

How important are these World Cups, particularly for rugby league? This is potentially a big moment, isn't it?

SB: It is. More than anything, what the World Cup offers is the opportunity to raise the sport beyond what it currently is. Nothing else will get you the profile the way international sporting competition does. It doesn't matter how amazing a Wigan v St Helens game is, it doesn't get you the same sort of cut-through that international competition does.

The union World Cup has already received criticism for its ticket prices, especially for the final

DJ: The one thing I am passionate about is making it accessible, and we have achieved that by a £15 and £7 concession price for all pool matches, including England. But there are significant financial targets we have to hit. We have said it will be over £700 for a final ticket and I'm not in the least bit embarrassed by that because you can't have one without the other. I don't have any angst about the pricing. We will have a large percentage of our tickets within an affordable range to ensure when a fan goes to, say, Elland Road to watch rugby that price isn't disproportionate to what they pay to watch Leeds United.

So what price will the cheapest tickets for the final be?

DJ: We are working on it, announcing it towards the end of the year, but it won't surprise people.

Sally, how do you balance pricing and getting enough cash into the coffers?

SB: I think we have got it about right – 50 per cent of the tickets are £20 or less. The challenge for us is filling the stadiums.

Empty stadiums don't make a good impression on newcomers to the sport…

SB: That is a concern, definitely. We have tried to find an appropriate venue for the matches so you get a great atmosphere and an almost-full ground. Rochdale is a great example – Fiji v Ireland. That place will be full. There is a buzz in Rochdale because international rugby league is coming to a relatively small town.

Will people come and watch in decent numbers, especially when you are going up against the football season?

SB: Our target is half-a-million ticket sales across the 28 games. We have 40 per cent of our ticket sales target done – our big push starts now.

DJ: There is no getting away from it, [football] is a challenge. It is incumbent upon both of us to ensure we have the right marketing and use the partners we have – in our case ITV, in theirs BBC – to promote that event, but there is no question there is a challenge there between football and rugby. After 2015 I would like to see rugby union have its profile raised, have more people participating and that there is a general buzz. Take the atmosphere in the country after the Olympics, everyone was saying that was great, a fantastic experience – we want to create that same atmosphere around 2015 so that you think of 2015 as a rugby year.

Debbie Jevans

Chief Executive Rugby World Cup 2015

A former tennis player — she lost to Virginia Wade in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 1979 — Jevans moved into sports administration and led tennis's successful bid to become an Olympic sport. Also masterminded rugby union's re-entry to the Games before becoming director of sport at Locog, the organisers of the 2012 Olympics. Appointed chief executive of RWC 2015 last September

Rugby World Cup 2015 18 Sept-31 Oct 2015

Nations 16

Matches 48

Venues 13

Largest venue Wembley Stadium, 90,000

Smallest venue Sandy Park, Exeter, 12,300

Final Twickenham

Ticket target £2.9m

Most expensive ticket £700+

Cheapest ticket £7

Sally Bolton

General Manager of Rugby League World Cup 2013

The 38-year-old from Harrogate has worked in rugby league since graduating from university. She began as a marketing assistant for the 1995 World Cup. Oversaw the first Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford in 1998 and then worked for Leeds Rhinos before becoming chief executive of Wigan. She returned to the Rugby Football League in 2007

Rugby League World Cup 2013 26 Oct-30 Nov 2013

Nations 14

Matches 28

Venues 18

Largest venue Wembley Stadium, 90,000

Smallest venue The Gnoll, Neath, 5,000

Final Old Trafford

Ticket target £0.5m

Most expensive ticket £99

Cheapest ticket £5

RLWC2013 kicks off on October 26; for more information, visit rlwc2013.com. For information on Rugby World Cup 2015, sign up now to rugbyworldcup.com/frontrow