Lions and SA Rugby unveil JV, NZ Rugby targets world-leading club tournament

The British & Irish Lions and SA Rugby have today (Friday) announced the creation of a joint venture for the 2021 tour to South Africa which aims to unlock new revenues and reduce “inefficiencies” experienced during prior tours, while NZ Rugby has confirmed plans for a new-look club competition.

Today’s news comes just days after it was confirmed that the Lions’ tour of South Africa will go ahead as planned next summer, with FNB Stadium, Cape Town Stadium and Emirates Airline Park pencilled in to stage Test matches.

The COVID-19 pandemic had raised questions over whether the tour would be pushed back until the autumn but it will go ahead as initially scheduled from July 3 to August 7 next year. The two organisations said the ground-breaking, new model aims to maximise the tour’s appeal by bringing together two of the biggest brands in world rugby to work in a more collaborative way.

Under the terms of the new venture, the Lions and SA Rugby will combine their commercial offering, enabling broadcasters, partners and licensees the chance to fully leverage and activate around a new centralised programme. There will also be a co-ordinated ticketing, travel and hospitality programme to ensure fans have more access to the tour matches.

A more joined-up approach to CRM, digital and social content will seek to provide more opportunities to engage with the global rugby fanbase, while also unlocking new assets such as a Tour documentary that will be packaged together to offer access inside both Lions and Springboks camps.

Ben Calveley, managing director of the British & Irish Lions, said: “A Lions tour is a global sporting event and its continuous commercial growth over the last decade has made it clear that a more collaborative, efficient and optimised structure was needed.

“Together with SA Rugby, this new approach will ensure that the 2021 Tour will reach new heights and avoid some of the inefficiencies we have experienced on previous tours. While competition on the field of play is great, off the field we should aspire to work collaboratively to create a whole greater than the sum of the parts.”

SA Rugby CEO, Jurie Roux, added: “Our partnership with the Lions is a good example of rugby’s northern and southern hemispheres working together to create greater benefits for both organisations.

“I am confident that this new more collaborative approach will help unlock new and increased revenues for South African rugby and the British & Irish lions, which gets reinvested in the game, and look forward to working in close partnership between now and the tour next year.”

Meanwhile, NZ Rugby has today set out plans for a new eight-to-10 team club competition it believes could be the best in the world, a move that calls into question the long-term future of the established Super Rugby southern hemisphere tournament.

The plans follow a three-month review entitled ‘Aratipu’ and come as NZ Rugby seeks to capitalise on the huge success that has been its domestic Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament, which has been held following the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in the country.

Super Rugby is currently made up of 14 franchises – five in New Zealand (Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Highlanders and Hurricanes); four in South Africa (Bulls, Lions, Sharks and Stormers); four in Australia (Brumbies, Rebels, Reds and Waratahs); and a single Argentinian team (Jaguares). It is administered by SANZAAR, the umbrella body of the four unions involved.

The New Zealand Herald newspaper said SANZAAR will have no say, or ownership, in the new competition, which will reportedly exclude South Africa and Argentina from taking part long-term, but could have room for two to four Australian teams and Pacific region outfits.

Expressions of interest will reportedly be sought from Australia and the Pacific to join the five established New Zealand franchises from 2021. “The reality is that the impact of COVID has been so significant that we’ve had to look at alternatives and a new direction here,” New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson said.

“We’ve looked at a lot of other professional sports in Australia and around the world to look at ownership models and commissions. They’ll be the sort of things we’ll be talking in more detail about in the coming weeks.

“We haven’t landed on an exact model yet and we’re certainly in consultation with the New Zealand clubs and other parties who are interested in the competition. We’ll be open to people coming into this process with ideas about investment.”

SANZAAR yesterday said New Zealand is the “favoured option” for a 2020 Rugby Championship held in one location, with chief executive Andy Marinos addressing “recent media commentary” around the long-term future of the organisation, the future structure of its competitions and the rest of the 2020 playing calendar amidst the impact of the global pandemic.

Commenting on the status of South Africa and Argentina in the new setup, Robinson said: “We’ve had a number of conversations with them and we want to remain close. Where there’s opportunity to play each other internationally and work together we remain committed to that partnership.

“We’re looking at ways outside international rugby we may be able to do that too. The reality is the impact of COVID has been so significant that we’ve had to look at other alternatives and a new direction.

“It’s extremely tough. We have a huge amount of sympathy for what’s happening to rugby in Argentina and South Africa and the uncertainty that’s creating.”

In a statement today, Rugby Australia said it “acknowledges” New Zealand Rugby’s preferred position regarding a potential future provincial competition from 2021 and “look forward to working constructively” with them in the coming weeks.

The organisation added: “Due to impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rugby Australia recognises that there is a need to review the sustainability and practicality of the current Super Rugby competition and consider alternative models that are in the best interests of Australian rugby from 2021 and beyond.”

Image: British & Irish Lions