In a year short on truly global sporting showpieces, one of the most keenly followed sporting events of 2017, albeit on opposite sides of the world, is the tour of New Zealand by the British and Irish Lions rugby union team.
In an era of increased professionalism and packed schedules in international sport, representative sides are sometimes seen as an anachronism and an unnecessary distraction from domestic leagues and the development of national teams.
But the Lions, which comprise players from the national teams of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and date back to 1888, are arguably an exception, with the three tests in June and July against the All Blacks, the winners of the last two World Cups, set to provide rugby’s centrepiece this year.
Sky, the UK pay-TV operator, gets its largest sporting viewing figures outside soccer for the team’s clashes with the southern hemisphere’s leading lights every four years and an army of about 20,000 fans and various sponsors has followed them to New Zealand.
The Lions have lost established partners in kit supplier Adidas and main shirt sponsor HSBC, but they have been replaced by other well-recognised brands in Canterbury and Standard Life Investments, while long-time commercial supporters such as Land Rover remain on board.
These brands connect with rugby’s core audience of affluent 35-to-55-year-old men, but also have access to a wider demographic that buys into the heritage and allure of the team.
Charlie McEwen, the chief operating officer of the British and Irish Lions, tells Sportcal Insight: “The great thing with the Lions is it reaches a sports audience and a big event audience [not just a rugby one]. Because of the noise created especially by our media partners you can’t avoid it in the six weeks it’s on.”
The Lions are also appreciated in the countries they tour – Australia and South Africa, as well as New Zealand – given that, under the rotation policy, they only visit once every 12 years, bringing various financial benefits. It was estimated that the 2013 trip to Australia generated A$150 million ($115 million) for the national economy.
Asked about the unique selling point of the tours, McEwen says: “Scarcity, first and foremost. There are different events repeated week-in, week-out. The Lions is once every four years and in the countries we visit it’s every 12 years so it’s even bigger for them.”
He adds that the tour “captures a very unique place in sport. All of our statistics are going up across the board.”
Mark Cameron, the global brand experience director at Land Rover, a major rugby sponsor, adds: “There are two things in my mind that are at the pinnacle of world rugby: obviously the Rugby World Cup; and the Lions tour. With the cadence of every two years it gives us at the elite of the game a nice peak of activity we can use as a halo to talk to rugby fans.”
The future of the Lions has been under scrutiny since rugby union turned professional in 1995
The future of the Lions has nevertheless been under scrutiny since rugby union turned professional in 1995. The tours now have to be crowbarred into a crammed international schedule, with the result that they have compacted to 10 games, seven against regional teams, in little over a month.
The situation was not helped by the fact that, heading down under in 2013, the Lions had not won a test series since a memorable triumph in South Africa in 1997, and this made the 2-1 series defeat of Australia all the more important.
Cameron argues that that result was a game-changer, saying: “I was reflecting on four years ago when we were building up to the Australian tour, and when the Lions hadn’t won [a test series] for some time, and there was a lot of commentary about ‘are the Lions still relevant?’ and ‘is there still a place for them in the modern game with the congestion of fixtures?’
“Then they go and win the tour and all of a sudden it’s back on again. I think everyone’s really up for this. I haven’t heard any commentary questioning the Lions’ existence in the same way I did four years ago.”
This view is endorsed by McEwen who claims that an increased level of interest in the UK was demonstrated by the fact that the (widely-expected) confirmation of New Zealand’s Warren Gatland as coach of the Lions last October prompted five days of national media coverage, up from two days when he was appointed for the last tour.
Anticipation for this year’s event was ramped up by it taking place in New Zealand, the spiritual home of rugby and a place where the Lions have won only one series, making it the ultimate challenge.
McEwen says: “New Zealand had the Cricket World Cup in 2015, but this is their biggest event since the 2011 Rugby World Cup, and it will be the biggest one until they host that again. That is what they are saying.”
The meeting of what the Lions’ chief refers to as “the two biggest brands in rugby” is also resonating in other parts of the world, with the tour expected to have a TV reach of over 1 billion across 120 countries.
Sky’s exclusive deal with the New Zealand Rugby Union means that, outside of news broadcasts, there is no free-to-air TV coverage of the Lions tour in the UK
Sky’s exclusive deal with the New Zealand Rugby Union means that, outside of news broadcasts, there is no free-to-air TV coverage of the Lions tour in the UK, but McEwen acknowledges the extra money subscription broadcasters bring, and argues that the team and its sponsors will be accessible in other ways.
Sky Sports will show all the games live and they will be broadcast on radio via Talksport. McEwen says: “Sky have been good partners of rugby and rugby in the southern hemisphere. We’re always working with them on ways we can reach a wider audience. I believe the 2017 tour will be the most freely available tour since the last one [on free-to-air TV] in 1993.”
Financial services companies have always had a strong affiliation with rugby and McEwen believes there are shared values with Standard Life Investments and another new sponsor, albeit one already involved in the sport, in business insurance provider QBE, saying: “We’ve tried to create content that supports their brand narrative, and not the other way round.”
Standard Life Investments will enjoy significant exposure from the shirt sponsorship alone, especially given that the Lions jersey is one of the biggest sellers, in retail terms, in rugby, while QBE is basing its campaign around the slogan of the ‘team behind the team’, with a supporting YouTube video series.
Activation was stepped up around the time of Europe’s Six Nations Championship as talk intensified over which British and Irish players would be selected for the Lions’ 41-man squad.
McEwen says: “The Lions is a star that burns brightly, but for a short period of time. You can go early [with promotional activity] and some of our partners do that, but this is when the big campaigns start.”
The Lions is Land Rover’s longest-running rugby sponsorship, dating back to 1997, and the brand has revived ‘We Deal in Real’, the grassroots campaign it launched for the 2015 Rugby World Cup, inviting Gatland and Lions legends to visit amateur clubs across the British Isles to identify people who “embody the game’s values of resilience, identity and passion,” and reward two supporters with trips to the tour of New Zealand.
Land Rover is also supplying a fleet of cars to transport players and tour staff and organise events in the country involving former Lions and All Blacks to engage with local fans, while rolling out a variety of social media content.
However, Dan Carter, the retired All Blacks star, will not be involved as he lost his endorsement contract with Land Rover after being charged with drink-driving in Paris where he plays for Racing 92.
Asked about whether the company is likely to stay involved for the 2021 tour of South Africa, Cameron says: “For this tour we made a decision within a year of the last one finishing. You don’t go out and start activating too early because you’ve got the Rugby World Cup and other things going on. This is our longest-standing rugby partnership. It’s very special and all things being equal we’d like to continue, and will start discussing what the future is after this tour.”