Saturday 20 January 2018

Money makes the Lions go around the world

The Lions stand ahead of their match against the New Zealand Maori. Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images
The Lions stand ahead of their match against the New Zealand Maori. Photo: Hannah Peters/Getty Images

Kevin Moore

Durban, South Africa, June 2009. Paddy Englishman, Paddy Irishman and Paddy Scotsman walk into a bar. "What's round, hard and hairy?" asked the Englishman.

The Englishman was Steve Barton from First Cape Wines, an official sponsor of the 2009 British & Irish Lions tour of South Africa; the Irishman was back-row and budding business entrepreneur Jamie Heaslip; the Scotsman was the 'Mr Lions', head coach and former player Ian McGeechan, and the answer was a coconut.

Following the first Test defeat to South Africa, the trio shared a beer and, ironically, a lengthy conversation about hydration. The isotonic drinks market was now a multi-billion-dollar global industry and ingrained in professional sport through sponsorship. However, scientists, nutritionists and trainers alike were increasingly raising questions about its health credentials, in particular its high sugar content.

As the trio discussed the emerging health and wellness trend in the beverage industry, Barton explained that the head trainer of the Chicago Blackhawks professional ice-hockey team, Mike Gapski, was championing the case for coconut water as the ideal post-match hydration due to its low sugar and electrolytes. But the taste issue was proving a stumbling block.

That conversation between the Englishman, the Irishman and Scotsman proved to be the start of a business venture that finally came to fruition in Dublin last month with the launch of CocoFuzion100; a new range of naturally flavoured sparkling and still coconut water that has addressed the taste issue without adding additives or sugar. McGeechan joined Heaslip and Barton in Dublin to officially launch the new product range before jetting off to New Zealand for the 2017 Lions Tour, this time as a TV pundit rather than coach.

The new coconut water brand is initially being rolled out in the UK, Ireland, Denmark and Spain. While it's too early to take on a sponsorship as big as the Lions, shareholders Heaslip and McGeechan know how important it is to align the brand with athletes and sports teams.

Barton has first-hand experience of the impact becoming a sponsor of the Lions can have on an emerging or established brand. He talks about how aligning First Cape Wines with the Lions simply transformed their brand. The South African wine was the 27th largest wine brand in the UK when it signed up as a sponsor of the Lions in 2007. Two years later following the tour in 2009, it had risen to number three and had also become the largest export brand out of South Africa.

Sponsorship forms the primary financial driver for the Lions, accounting for a staggering 75 per cent of its revenues, significantly more than other rugby entities such as the home unions. The remaining Lions revenue is made up of official tour packages sold through Lions Rugby Travel along with their Sky Sports television contract and other areas such as official merchandise.

Despite its commercial origins, it wasn't until HSBC came on board as principal sponsor in 2009 that the profits started showing. The Lions had finally become the commercial big cat it had always aspired to be and HSBC's estimated £7m sponsorship of the subsequent tour of Australia in 2013, was the foundation for a £6m profit for the Lions.

While HSBC did not renew their deal, there was no shortage of suitors with 11 major sponsors lining out for the current tour of New Zealand. Standard Life Investments now take their place on the front of the Lions jerseys, while the kit sponsorship also sees a changing of the guard - adidas stepping aside after a 20-year stint, replaced by Canterbury.

It is inevitable then that the Lions' reliance on sponsorship leads to heavy off-the-field demands on the players and management and already on this tour we have witnessed Warren Gatland's frustration at how these duties have hampered preparations.

The 36-hour journey to Auckland was a far cry from the 42-day boat trip it took the first British & Irish combined rugby team to reach the southern hemisphere in 1888. However, the overnight stop in Melbourne as part of the Qantas sponsorship did add one night onto the outbound journey. Throw in a five-hour team drive in Land Rovers the following day for a community tour and it wasn't exactly ideal preparation for the first match against the New Zealand Barbarians, which the Lions team understandably looked a little out of sorts in.

While in Dublin, McGeechan commented that the tour is in danger of becoming over-commercialised. He emphasised how vital it was for the Lions brand to have the best players on tour and questioned whether a day would come where top players would opt out in favour of taking a break from the ever-increasing physical demands of the rugby season.

This, he said, would be the beginning of the end for the Lions. Their current financial compensation, with each player receiving £70,000 for finishing the tour along with the carrot of a hefty win bonus, does go some way to preventing this.

Overall, there is every reason to keep faith in the Lions. Its brand continues to grow as does its sponsorship purse, while its magic still prevails, selling out stadiums and maintaining high television figures.

Watching the best of the home nations take on the best of the southern hemisphere every four years is special and as long as the sponsors keep signing and fans keep singing, it will have its rightful place in the rugby calendar.

Kevin Moore is deputy managing director of sponsorship and communications agency, Legacy Consultants

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