Local stakeholders examine legacy of Rugby League World Cup and growth possibilities
New Zealand's Jeremy Marshall-King scores their side's tenth try during the Rugby League World Cup Group C match between New Zealand and Jamaica at the MKM Stadium, Kingston upon Hull, England, on Saturday, October 22, 2022.(Photo: AP)

In spite of Jamaica's debut at a Rugby League World Cup recently, stakeholders are concerned that the sport's local profile may still face growth challenges.

The team's Head Coach Romeo Monteith, who is also a director at Rugby League Jamaica (RLJ), is hopeful that it will inspire more people to take part in the sport in various roles, as there are just over 1,000 registered players in rugby league at various age groups across the island.

"My hope is that another generation of players, match officials, and administrators will be inspired," he told the Jamaica Observer.

"I hope to see increased participation numbers and a wider geographic spread of the sport — more people playing rugby league more of the time.

HARRIS-LAU... sport is something that is appealing across industries and sectors and backgrounds. It really connects with people from all walks of life

"It's definitely an inspiration for more adults and children to play the sport. Many will be inspired by this journey. This is only the beginning for us, once you have a taste of success, you will want to match and surpass that success, and I hope our journey inspires many more people to have a go."

Monteith has repeatedly said that the sport needs a permanent base to play club championship games and that RLJ sought the help of sponsors and the Sports Development Foundation for a venue, but these games are still being played at rented fields. He is sceptical that the World Cup appearance has done much to aid this cause.

"If I'm being honest, I can't say I think it will be easier," he said. "We seem a long way off from that reality."

But Sophia Harris-Lau, a business consultant and chief executive officer of Lau Global Consulting, says for that dream to become reality, more needs to be done by RLJ to build its profile and the profile of the sport locally.

Lebanon's Khaled Rajab (centre) tackles Jamaica's Alex Young during their Rugby League World Cup Group C match at the Leigh Sports Village, Leigh, England on Sunday. (Photo: AP)

Harris-Lau previously served as the Jamaica Football Federation's director of marketing and business development, during the period of the Reggae Girlz's debut at the FIFA Women's World Cup in France in 2019. During that time, she was responsible for developing the Reggae Girlz as a commercial brand and fostering partnerships with corporate bodies for the campaign's funding.

Jamaica's rugby league team, also known as the Reggae Warriors, competed against Ireland, New Zealand, and Lebanon in Group C of the World Cup last month but little of their campaign is still known by the public, in spite of games being televised and reported on through various media platforms.

Harris-Lau says the first step to addressing this is to educate the public about the sport as most Jamaicans are not even aware of the existence of two types of rugby (league and union). RLJ oversees rugby league while the Jamaica Rugby Football Union, a separate association, governs all aspects of rugby union, which is an entirely different sport with different rules and scoring.

"From my perspective, there seems to be a lack of clarity around rugby," she said. "Most stakeholders, including myself until recently, did not even know that there are two different types of rugby played in Jamaica and that their goal is to compete in two separate World Cups. This is important information that would form the foundation of how you package your value proposition [a presentation outlining the worth of what you offer investors] to attract investors, engage stakeholders, and also for you to decide how to promote and differentiate one rugby from another.

"Your ultimate goal is to engage stakeholders, to promote your brand, and to differentiate one rugby programme from another. You need to talk about the objective, which we would assume is to do well at the World Cup. If that's your objective, then what is your development programme? You need to chart that programme and advise stakeholders of how you build the sport locally, how you are interconnected with regional bodies, what associations you're involved with, what strategic partnerships you have, what your objectives are, what your needs are, and then put a dollar figure to those needs. If you are falling short and you need sponsorship, then you need to show that you have a value proposition and package it."

Harris-Lau says increasing the popularity of the sport also means getting famous public figures involved in matches.

"It's not just social media influencers, but people who are rising stars across multiple industries," she said. "Sport is something that is appealing across industries and sectors and backgrounds. It really connects with people from all walks of life. If you have young rising track stars, young entrepreneurs making their mark in corporate, rising stars in the medical field, rising educators - people making their mark in society, their words carry weight. Invite them to be a part of the sport. Invite them to sit on your board. Invite them to the games for free and tell them to go live [on social media]. Tap into their audience space. That's a strategy that works well all across the world and could be very successful in helping to build awareness for rugby league."

Another challenge for rugby league's popularity, Harris-Lau says, is the lack of documentation of events as they happen. She says that mobile phones make this an easier and inexpensive proposition.

"I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to document your journey, even with something as simple as a mobile device," she said. "Photographs on your phone, going live, short videos. Document the wins and document the interviews with your players. Showcase your team and your value and do that consistently over a long period of time through your wins and your losses so that we can follow the journey with you as stakeholders.

Additionally, she says it is not hard to find personnel to manage that aspect of record keeping as there are many young people looking to build their portfolio in media and public relations.

"You don't need a lot of money to start," she said. "You can get some young people, volunteers from colleges, from the HEART Institute, and young people to just be a part of the movement. Get them to go live and engage their peers and associates and build up awareness. Then you create a brand through a marketing exercise, then you can solicit volunteers to assist with marketing if you don't yet have the budget. But you need to build it up to the point where it is now an attractive asset and brand that other brands want to associate with. You package it in a way where it attracts investors, and strategic partnerships, instead of just looking for sponsors to give you money."

Harris-Lau also focused on how little-known the personalities involved with rugby league are and says RLJ should recruit more charismatic figures to its board.

"It can never hurt to have a charismatic leader to get people engaged and to rile people up and build passion and interest, and connect with audiences," she said. "It's the leadership that drives brand development. People will invest in and partner with a charismatic leader. Someone who's present and knows how to communicate and articulate the passion and the vision that goes a long way to driving people to want to be a part of a mission and a journey."

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