OPINION | Why the British & Irish Lions tour needs fans

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The British & Irish Lions tour is big for its players, huge for its fans and critical for the countries that host it. Photo: Getty
The British & Irish Lions tour is big for its players, huge for its fans and critical for the countries that host it. Photo: Getty


The significance of the British & Irish Lions tour is summed up for me by an email a colleague received.

An English associate of his was leaving his longstanding job sooner than he would have liked, so when he received this email he believed it had something to do with this great personal shift.

It didn’t. It was to ask my colleague his thoughts on whether the iconic rugby tour would go ahead because he had spent a great deal of time and money planning the trip to South Africa as a supporter.

The British & Irish Lions tour is rugby’s biggest and most valuable product after the Rugby World Cup. It is big for its players, huge for its fans and critical for the countries that host it.

This is built on a mix of the history of these tours dating back to 1888 and the exclusivity of their occurrence once every four years on a rotational basis between South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. So the host nation gets a crack at the best of the northern hemisphere once every four years.

READ: Minister of sport on Lions tour: ‘My hands are tied’

And when the stars truly align, the host nation is also the reigning Rugby World Cup champion. In the context of South Africa, this has happened three times – in 1997, in 2009, and this year, after our 1995, 2007 and 2019 Rugby World Cup triumphs, respectively.

From an economic perspective, this is like having the winning lottery numbers and having a year or more to plan how you will celebrate. But, of course, that’s not how this particular British & Irish Lions tour is going to play out, because one of those lottery numbers on this occasion is marked “Covid-19”.

In 2019, SA Rugby president Mark Alexander declared with great optimism that the tour was projected to create more than 13 000 temporary jobs, with roughly 37 000 tourists expected to provide a R450 million windfall for the economy.

So as we prepare to welcome the British & Irish Lions to South Africa, here’s a look at the full ramifications of this year’s tour.

We’ll start with the obvious.

Having fans in stadiums is still one of its biggest revenue streams

The Covid-19 pandemic has had devastating health consequences around the world, and the sports industry has not been spared. In the US alone, the pandemic is estimated to have directly affected 1.3 million jobs in sports.

At the peak of the lockdown last year, it was estimated that the US sports industry was losing $93 000 (R270 000) every minute.

The reason is simple: fans.

The sports industry derives a lot of revenue from several sources, including broadcast rights, tourism, hospitality and merchandising. But having fans in stadiums is still one of its biggest revenue streams.

According to Forbes, ticket sales make up almost 70% of the National Hockey League’s annual profits, with 40% for the National Basketball Association and 38% for the National Football League.

A British & Irish Lions tour is no different. The economic success of a tour is dependent on their travelling fans.

With the Covid-19 pandemic and the feared South African variant, even the most hardened Lions fans will be loath to travel. And those who are willing to do so could be prevented by the ban on travellers from the UK, should the ban in South Africa persist.

So who loses when there are no fans? Well, we all do. As that email to my colleague showed, Lions fans have been planning this trip for some time. The tickets, which are not cheap, were sold out within a few hours.

With that comes huge tour packages, hotel bookings and travel itineraries to tourist destinations. Everyone, from large hotel chains to your local B&B, is on somebody’s travel list with a tour such as this.

Lions fans don’t come just for the rugby – they come to play golf, tour the country, drink wine and visit game reserves.

READ: British & Irish Lions tour still ‘touch and go’

The world’s biggest rugby team creates a tremendous wake as it travels, and the ripple effect is huge. An inability to fully cash in now will mean another 12-year wait to try again. And as we saw during the lockdown, many South African companies don’t have 12 years – it took just five months to sink them. The chance to truly benefit from this Lions tour cannot be overstated. As mentioned, this is rugby’s perfect storm. The Springboks are world champions. They’re facing a Lions team containing many of the England players they beat in that final in Japan.

For world rugby, this is that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch the world champions take on the collective might of northern hemisphere rugby.

For a cash-strapped SA Rugby still trying to plot an international future for itself without Super Rugby, this was going to be a much-needed pot of gold for this rainbow nation.

The fact that this British & Irish Lions tour is going ahead at all is indeed something to cheer about in a bleak sports sponsorship economy.

But there is no doubt that the greatest tour in rugby history without fans will, quite literally, leave South African sport poorer.

  • Itsweng is the managing director of Openfield Marketing, a full-service marketing and sponsorship consultancy


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