Cape Town - The British & Irish Lions in South Africa in 2021 will be a departure from how traditional tours operate, making it another first for two of the game’s greatest rivals.
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The Lions in South Africa are synonymous with firsts: The first ever international Test series in rugby was the Lions against the Springboks in 1891. The Lions’ nickname was coined in South Africa in the 1924 visit. The first ever drawn Test series was between the Lions and the Springboks in 1955, and the first ever Lions team to go unbeaten on tour was in South Africa in 1974.
The first Lions professional tour was against the Springboks in 1997 and very little separates the two teams in 46 Tests, with the Springboks winning 23, the Lions 17 and the remaining six matches drawn.
Never before has a Lions tour been a joint venture between the tourists and the host nation. The South African Rugby Union, through a Special Purpose Vehicle registered as the South African Rugby Event Service (SARES), and the British & Irish Lions (BIL), agreed on a partnership designed to make the 2021 Lions in South Africa the greatest spectator and supporter experience in the history of the Lions and also commercially the most successful for the South African Rugby Union and the Lions.
‘The 2023 Rugby World Cup bid outcome was a massive disappointment for us, as a nation and as one of the powerhouses of rugby,’ said South African Rugby Union president Mark Alexander.
‘It was also a huge commercial blow. We had to regroup and ensure that the British & Irish Lions in South Africa in 2021 spoke to everything we would have wanted to achieve with the hosting of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.’
The South African Rugby Union subsequently invested in the expertise of the best sporting commercial brokers and some of the most experienced and astute minds in rugby. What followed was a commercial model that spoke to every international global professional sporting trend.
A joint venture with the Lions was agreed, with the Lions head coach Warren Gatland as much a part of the eight-event schedule structure, as the South African Rugby Union.
This was no longer just about a rugby tour, in which the tourists are shifted up and down the country for the sake of it and for a supposed hometown advantage.
The schedule was meticulously thought out, so as to ensure an unrivalled spectator and fan experience. The schedule also had to speak to maximising the tourists’ ability to perform, and every commercial avenue had to be maximised.
‘We had to create a vehicle to deliver a global élite sporting event that gives a world-class supporter experience. Our filter is the player, the supporter, the legacy, the efficiency and commercial. When we assessed existing tour models, we knew we had to change. We had to learn all the lessons and improve delivery. We also know what the Lions in South Africa brings to our country, in tourism, in job creation and in money,’ says Alexander.