Introducing Maria Sykes: COO of the Rugby League World Cup 2017

At the point in time when this story is published there are just 428 days until the Rugby League World Cup kicks off in 2017.

14 teams.  28 games.  5 weeks.  Next year’s Rugby League World Cup will see the best rugby league players in the world compete to be crowned champions in the pinnacle event in international rugby league.  Next year’s Rugby League World Cup will make history with games in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea giving our game the opportunity to shine in front of the most passionate fans in the world.

This week, I thought I would introduce you all to Maria Sykes who is the Chief Operating Officer of the Rugby League World Cup.  I caught up with Maria to hear about her role, the tournament and the exciting role that our Jillaroos will have when the Rugby League World Cup Begins next year.

Tell me a little bit about yourself.

Born in the UK, I moved to Sydney in 1995 and have been working in entertainment related businesses including tourism, arts and sport for over fifteen years.

When I’m not in the office, I can generally be found watching the footy (the round ball too, can’t shake the roots) or walking my two old English sheepdogs.

Before you ask, I definitely follow the Kangaroos not the Poms!

What is your earliest memory of rugby league?

My first taste of rugby league was at Brookie Oval about 8 or 9 years ago where a Manly supporting mate had promised me a sure-fire taste of victory as the Sea Eagles were going to trounce the Sharks, he said. After an incredibly physical and drama-packed game, there was a major upset and Cronulla snatched the win! My mate told me this result was so implausible that I had to be the reason and begged me never to attend again.  Anyway, Manly went on to win the Premiership that year so it can’t have been that bad.

What is your role in the Rugby League World Cup team and how did you get there?

I’m the Chief Operating Officer.  Earlier in my career I was an executive director of Sydney Opera House for nearly a decade looking after all operations, commercial strategy and visitor experience – a very similar role in many ways.

I also spent a few years in the USA in a design agency focussing on customer and fan engagement and the creative and commercial strategies for marquee sites such as Madison Square Garden, Empire State Building, and One World Trade Center.

Delighted to return home to Sydney, I did some consultancy work for the NRL before joining the Rugby League World Cup team.

What stage are preparations at for the Rugby League World Cup?

We have built the foundations and have the brand and the senior management team in place.

One of the earliest priorities was working with governments on the match and team allocation process, which we recently completed with the announcement of the tournament draw up in Brisbane last month.

With that key milestone behind us, we are now embarking on planning with host cities and venues where content will be played.  These groups will not only develop all the operational and logistical plans but will make sure all communities are engaged and that their city is fully activated so everyone has the world-class experience you associate with major international sporting events.  

What will be the most exciting/challenging part of the preparations?

Working on a tournament of this magnitude, with 28 games, 14 teams across 13 cities in three host nations, you know you’ll be faced with challenges along the way.  The complexity is vast with a huge number of stakeholders so meticulous planning is vital.  But it’s the excitement of working on what will be the largest sporting event in Australia and one we aim to ensure is the greatest Rugby League World Cup ever that motivates me every day.

Playing in all four corners of Australia and New Zealand was a deliberate strategy and we are excited about taking this tournament to as many communities and as many fans as possible.  We really believe this approach will create a legacy for the sport in the host countries like no other and really help grow the game in new and emerging markets that have shown an appetite for rugby league.

It’s a thrill to think that a kid watching RLWC2017 might be inspired to become a lifelong fan or even a future Kangaroo.

What role will the Jillaroos play in the Rugby League World Cup next year?

Next year’s Women’s World Cup is a significant milestone for rugby league and will mark an important moment in the history of the women’s game. This will be the first time the Women’s World Cup has been played as a stand-alone event concurrent with the men’s tournament.  It’s fantastic that this important first is taking place in this region while the eyes of the world are upon us.  This will be a really meaningful legacy for women’s rugby league and we are working hard on getting government and sponsor support to make it as memorable as possible.

The Jillaroos and their international counterparts are gifted athletes with supreme skill and deserve to showcase this on the world stage.

What can we expect from the preparations in the next couple of months? Any exciting announcement on their way?

The organising committee will have a series of exciting announcements to make over the coming months including commercial sponsors, ticketing news, broadcast partners and tournament ambassadors.

And not too long after at the end of October, tickets will go on sale to mark the One Year to Go milestone.

Complete this sentence: “People should be excited about the Rugby League World Cup next year because …”

Next year’s Rugby League World Cup will not only be the greatest World Cup ever but the biggest sporting event in Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea in 2017.  This will be a true festival of rugby league and be seen by more fans than ever before. For some cities, this will be the first time they will have hosted a World Cup sporting event and we know this tournament will create a lasting legacy for the sport.

What is the significance of Women in League round to you?

Women in League Round presents a further opportunity for the sport to shine the spotlight on the pivotal role females play in the success of rugby league. From grassroots to the elite level, women make significant contributions to all areas of our game and rugby league is a richer product for their talent and outlook.

Is there anyone in the rugby league family that you particularly look up to or get inspiration from?

I’m constantly inspired by many strong women involved in the game and I would be doing a disservice to those all by singling out one person. We have had many pioneers in our sport who deserve praise but for me, it’s the thousands of female volunteers around the country who give their time tirelessly to create the strong foundation on which rugby league has established itself as the leading code in Australia.

What has been your favourite moment in women’s sport this year?

The past 12 months to two years have been full of amazing feats by female athletes and it’s wonderful to see their achievements acknowledged by the wider public, particularly through mainstream media outlets.  A great example of this is the Jillaroos playing the Kiwi Ferns in a double header Test Match in Newcastle during May. Not only a wonderful game but the strong television ratings reflected the growing popularity of the women’s game. Krystal Rota’s agility was breathtaking.

Like many of us, I am watching the Rio Olympics and applauding the achievements of female athletes from all participating nations. The Australian victory in the women’s rugby sevens was another amazing victory for women’s sport.


Ladies who League xxx