4 Mar 21

The British & Irish Lions are a throwback to the amateur age and cannot survive in professional sport.

So claims an old friend and a leading rugby journalist.

The calendar is too crowded and, in the professional era, the benefits for the four home unions behind the Lions do not add up. Each tour sees the schedule trimmed and preparation time slashed. Over time the “pruning” will get more radical until the Lions become so uncompetitive that they fall down rugby’s priorities and wither away. He is wrong of course, not because of sentimental memories of Willie John McBride, Finlay Calder and John Bentley but because the Lions have all the ingredients that make sporting properties staggeringly valuable. In professional sport “the pinnacle” is always disproportionately more attractive and more valuable than the second tier. The English Premier League’s broadcast rights sell, across all markets, for £3 billion a year. The second tier Championship does well to secure a fraction of that at £150 million. Europe’s top clubs are all acutely aware of their exceptional value hence the regular sabre rattling about super leagues and breakaways. The “pinnacle principle” applies across all sports. The grand slams catapult tennis to the top of the sports headlines in a manner the ATP and WTA tours can only dream of despite showcasing the same players week in week out. In American Football, the Superbowl captures the world’s imagination with viewing figures approaching 100 Million. The two conference championship games which provide champions in their own right, as well as the two teams to contest the Superbowl, secure less than half that figure. In this age of short attention spans and hyperbole, to many the very best is all that they are interested in. The exceptionally good, but not quite best, just does not resonate. The Lions can claim to be the very best in rugby. The titans of the southern hemisphere regularly, although not always, best their better funded northern neighbours. However, once every 12 years they get to test themselves against the very best of not one, but four northern hemisphere nations. As for the Lions themselves, selection for the Lions is, of course, a far greater and rarer achievement than national selection. A series win, away against one of the world’s top teams, whose players will almost certainly never get another chance to face the Lions is, as Jim Telfer growled so poetically, “your Everest”. Lawrence Dallaglio is one of a very small group to have won a world cup and a Lions series. His views are unequivocal “the most important rugby experience of my life bar none was the 1997 Lions tour to South Africa”. If sport can boast heritage and tradition on top of excellence, the value and interest carry on rising. The old Ashes rivalry, playing for the fabled 4 inch trophy containing a burnt stump, provides the ticket revenues that keep the, possibly too many, cricket stadia in England afloat. Similarly, Wimbledon and Augusta outperform the other three top tier tennis and golf events as a result of their unique heritage and idiosyncratic traditions. In rugby no other property can command such a rich and compelling history as the Lions. Spanning back to the first tour in 1888 which took a full 9 months to complete, the hundred and thirty years since have provided many of rugby’s most memorable stories. But the Lions can add yet another “accelerator”, to borrow from MBA speak. Romance. The concept of players brutally competing against each other in the Six Nations, rivalries in themselves spanning 150 years, but coming together as teammates and tourists a couple of months later. The narrative this sparks captures the imagination like nothing else in sport. The Ryder Cup is magnificent, and players stop playing for themselves and prize money to come together for their country and continent. However, they have not been “beating the living hell” out of each other one month before they put their body on the line for each other the next. There is quite simply nothing to match the Lions’ combination of excellence, history and romance. So why on earth could it fail? My friend is right that the Lions are under threat. They are a throw back to the amateur age in many ways. The commercial exploitation of the Lions tour in 2017 saw broadcast rights, sponsorship, hospitality and merchandising all carved up and exploited by both hosts and tourists in different and often confusing ways. However, with the New Zealand Union also exclusively entitled to ticket revenue, the model worked well for them. They benefited to the tune of $40 Million, never mind the $245 Million contribution to the New Zealand economy. This value is, of course, generated principally by the Lions themselves. However, this complex, conflicted and altruistic model left each of the four Lions’ stakeholders with less than £2Million for their troubles. The upshot is that the southern hemisphere nations cherish Lions tours, relying on them to stay afloat financially and clinging stubbornly to such a favourable financial model. World Rugby is willing to tailor the global calendar for the Lions and uses them to market the spirit and values of rugby. As for the fans, they can turn a city red on tour and every media publication will run Lions’ selections from years out to satisfy the insatiable debate over the Lions test XV. However, none of these devoted supporters control the Lion’s destiny. That, of course, lies with the four unions contributing the players. The unions (and of course their leading clubs) lose their best players for long periods of time to the most arduous of tours with consequent injury and welfare issues.  Their own overseas tours become low key second class efforts. They receive a little by way of “player compensation fees” and, inevitably these will be passed to clubs to try and appease them for the impact the tours have on them and the costs of replacing/nursing players afterwards. All in all each union receives, as their share of Lions profits, a fraction of the figure the RFU make from just one home international at Twickenham (although it, of course, must be remembered those revenues can only be generated if the SANZAR nations come north every autumn). Given its attributes, the Lions could be one of the most valuable sports properties on the planet. However, if the cost to benefit ratio for its stakeholders does not add up, it could fail. Critically, the current Lions management team, led by Ben Calveley, understand this and were making huge strides to tackle the issue before the tragedy of the pandemic. For the 2021 South African tour, for the first time, a joint venture between South Africa and the Lions had been created to exploit media and commercial rights collectively. This model removed competitive tension between home and travelling commercial offerings. It provided partners with a far simpler, cleaner, and more valuable commercial opportunity and aligned South Africa and Lion’s interests as shareholders in one entity commercialising the tour. The 2021 tour has of course been blown off course by the pandemic and we are yet to see how successful the new model would have been. However, an aligned centralised system for the organisation and exploitation of the Tours could be fundamental to their survival. If the other SANZAR unions bury their heads in the sand insisting the current model works fine for them “thank you very much” they could kill the golden goose they rely on. If the plans of the current executive are developed, as well as aligning tourists and hosts and uniting stakeholders, the new system could provide a far more valuable commercial offering. The share of revenues may skew a little back towards the Lions’ unions, but the system would still generate huge revenues for SANZAR unions. More importantly the system would make the Lions worth fighting for in the RFU’s boardroom as well as for the decision makers at the Pro14 Unions. These decision makers, who quite naturally have the interests of their own game front of mind, need to believe that the success of the Lions is critical to their own success. Persuading them of that should be the overriding goal for those in the South.
Jamie Singer