British & Irish Lions: Building A Successful Team

What does it mean to be a part of the Lions? How important is the reputation of the Lions in enhancing the brand worldwide? Who is responsible for building the successful team being the players and the tour? British & Irish Lions Chief Operating Officer, Charlie McEwen talks to Head of psd Sport, Kit Taylor and answers these crucial questions.

Much was made about the “future” of the British & Irish Lions before and during this tour. How has the overall outcome helped to preserve the Lions legacy?

I am delighted to say that the Lions are a vital part of the international rugby calendar and they are here to stay. The Tier One rugby nations met in San Francisco and it was made clear by all there that the Lions as a concept is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

While there has been press speculation and comments made about the length of future tours, the existence of Lions tours have never been in doubt.

The performance of the British & Irish Lions, on and off the field, was incredible in 2017, and there is no doubt that interest in the Lions continues to grow. Anyone lucky enough to have attended a Lions match, whether in 2017 or before, will tell you of the unique atmosphere that a tour and match creates, ferocious rivalry but unequalled camaraderie.

At the end of the Tour, Nielsen conducted a consumer research project on our behalf and a key finding was that the Lions, in the UK and Ireland, are the second most loved sports team, after Team GB, and the most loved rugby team. This demonstrates the incredible regard in which the Lions is held by our fans and there is no doubt that the squad of 2017 added to the legend of the Lions.

How would you define the value of the Lions brand?

In business value it is generally attributed to the financial return delivered to shareholders each year. However, I think in sport we have an opportunity to realign the assessment of value.

I believe it is the impact that the Lions have on people’s lives and on the sport as a whole is where the Lions brand delivers greatest value.

With over a third of the UK and Ireland watching, and with fans from 186 countries engaging with the Lions on our social media sites, there is no doubt that the Tour reaches an audience far beyond the rugby fraternity, appealing to individuals who follow big events.

To build on the increased interest in the rugby, we, for the first time, trialled a grassroots programme called ‘Learning with the Lions’. We created a festival of rugby in clubs throughout the UK & Ireland; developed a series of events in New Zealand where both sets of fans came together to share ideas on how to retain players in the game, and ran a programme called ‘Pick of the Pride’ where representatives from each country toured New Zealand, learning about the Lions. The Lions’ audience traditionally has been older and, through these activities, we shifted the age profile of our following from 25% under 24 to 35%.

The true value in the Lions brand lies in helping inspire future generations to play the game. The Learning with the Lions programme was a hugely significant step in realising the brand’s full potential.

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What parts of the 2013 Strategic Review were crucial in enhancing team performance, brand positioning and overall delivery of the Lions 2017 Tour?

The strategic review was undertaken to definitively articulate what the brand represents and provide guidance for decision making. We interviewed all our stakeholders but most importantly we spoke to players from recent tours as well as tours going back to 1950s. The review as a whole has been vital in helping shape decision-making, provide structure for all communications, and guidance for anyone wanting to use our brand.

From a team perspective the review did not dramatically change how we operate, but rather helped reinforce the learnings from previous tours, and helped avoid the mistakes that have been made in the past.

The brand ultimately has come from the players and coaches – it is these individuals that know what it takes to be victorious in a Lions jersey. Each team has its own personality and the review provided a framework for the management team to work within.

The successes of the recent tour reflects the understanding that the Head Coach – Warren Gatland – has of the Lions. Warren understands the unique challenge that we face every four years, taking the best of the best from the four home unions, the fiercest of rivals, and creating a team that in six weeks can match the best in the world.

There are responsibilities that are associated with becoming a member of the Lions team. The responsibilities, and expectations, do not stop after 80 minutes of rugby.

The whole touring party have a responsibility to live up to the Lions values of Respect, Integrity, Friendship and Discipline, by enriching the lives of the people in the host country in terms of being accessible, visiting and supporting schools, hospitals, charities, retirement homes and being sensitive to matters that are of cultural importance in the country we are visiting. In New Zealand the touring party met these responsibilities head on, and rather than becoming a burden, they were used as a catalyst for creating our own identity and helped bring the squad closer together. They enhanced the reputation of the Lions as a result.

From players to coaches to support staff, what key lessons in leadership can be learned from the success of this tour?

Our team is built on a philosophy of ‘best of the best’. Whether you are a player, a coach, a bag man or the logistics officer – you are recruited on the basis of being the very best at performing your role on or off the field. The Lions management team had complete trust in one another to go above and beyond for the success of the group. There was complete trust that you would play your part but also that you would help one another if a job needed doing.

To ensure we were all able to trust one another, honest communication was crucial. We had regular meetings as heads of departments, as a leadership team, or as a whole tour party. Everyone was able to talk freely and if there were issues they would be debated. At the end of the meeting we would leave united in any decision that was made.

There were times when decisions had to be made that were for the good of the Lions and sometimes this did not sit well with the coaches. Any such decision was scrutinised, every individual was challenged, and there were moments of incredible stress. We remained a very tight team and were able to succeed because of the trust and respect we had for one another.

And finally … what was your most memorable moment from NZ?

It is very difficult to choose one moment so you are going to have to indulge me!

Off the field the most moving moment of the Tour was when I was part of a group of Lions representatives that visited the recently built Christchurch Earthquake Memorial. We met some of the survivors including a mum with her two young boys who had lost their husband and father. One of the boys never met their dad as their mum was pregnant when the earthquake happened and he was born a couple of months after the earthquake. The memorial wall is inscribed with all the names of those that were lost, and the boys pointed to their dad’s name – a very sombre moment.

At the same event we met a lady who was very lucky to have survived the earthquake; she was pulled from under the rubble of a collapsed building. Attending that night was the fire man that saved her. They had not seen each other since that day. The connection they had was extraordinary, and deeply moving.

You could tell visiting the memorial and paying our respects, meant so much. Sports teams such as the Lions can have a profound impact on people lives, and sometimes it is not what is done on the field, but off it that count most.

On the field, nothing can really compare to the moment when the final whistle was blown at the end of the 2nd Test in Wellington. The crowd erupted, the singing was incredibly special, and the relief was enormous! We had levelled the series with one match to play and the Tour was going down to the wire.


Charlie McEwen

Chief Operating Officer, British & Irish Lions 

Charlie McEwen was appointed as the British & Irish Lions Chief Operating Officer in April 2015 following outstanding success as the Sales and Marketing Director. Responsible for the day to day management of the British & Irish Lions during his tenure they have experienced exceptional growth in revenues and popularity.  Charlie joined the British & Irish Lions in 2010 after twelve years of working for leading sports and entertainment marketing agencies, including CSM and Octagon, and having been a founding partner in Accelerate Sports, a company subsequently acquired by CSM.