Executive Insights – Interview with Ben Calveley, British and Irish Lions
A British and Irish Lions Tour is one of the most hotly anticipated international sporting events – and with the 2021 tour against the World Champions South Africa, it is undoubtedly going to be a true spectacle generating significant global interest. psd Sport have been working exclusively with the British and Irish Lions to deliver several senior level hires across the Operations, Commercial and Digital functions. With the event now less than eight months away, we discuss tour preparations, innovative commercial opportunities and the continued growth of the brand with Managing Director, Ben Calveley.
Sport is no stranger to change and disruption, and in the upcoming tour the British and Irish Lions have chosen to work in partnership with the host nation for the first time. Competition on the pitch and collaboration off it – what was the reasoning behind this decision and what commercial benefits can it bring?
The primary driver behind this decision was the recognition from the South African Rugby Union (SARU) and the British & Irish Lions (BIL) that, while we want fierce competition on the field of play, off the field we should be working collaboratively to create a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.
In the past the relationship between BIL and the host Union has been relatively binary with commercial rights allocated to either party but no strategy existing to join the different sets of inventory behind a coherent approach. Our view was that by creating a joint venture model, combining our commercial offerings, we created the opportunity to develop a more premium rights set, to ensure that the approach to the market was strategic, and to elevate a Lions Tour so that it becomes more than a typical summer tour with added bells and whistles and a premium event in its own right.
We’re now seeing the theory bear out with the JV providing a completely clean platform for commercial partners, similar to a Rugby World Cup, a FIFA World Cup or an Olympic Games. We’re fortunate to have a partner in SARU who is very forward thinking, progressive and keen to maximise the potential of the Tour.
With such a rich heritage, the British and Irish Lions boasts a very strong brand position across the sporting landscape. With consumer habits constantly changing, how do you maintain this position and more importantly drive greater value for partners, sponsors and the brand itself?
Research shows us that the Lions is the UK & Ireland’s most loved sporting team with the Tour itself the most anticipated sporting event of the relevant year. Having been in existence since the first Tour in 1888 it is undoubtedly unique. There is an extremely rich heritage that needs to be protected and nurtured and that’s a task which requires sensitive and careful stewardship.
One of the reasons the brand continues to thrive is that it genuinely does represent everything that is great about the sport
One of the reasons the brand continues to thrive is that it genuinely does represent everything that is great about the sport and is rightly held up as the ultimate embodiment of rugby’s core values. For the players it is viewed as the absolute pinnacle of the sport, whether you’re playing for or against the Lions. For the fans there is little else that can transport tens of thousands of people from two small islands of the west coast of Europe to the other side of the world where they coalesce around a common purpose. Even despite having been supporters of rival teams in the years leading into the Tour.
The sport as a whole benefits from Lions Tours too – in that they have the ability to attract the casual in addition to the hardcore fan in a way that perhaps other rugby properties cannot. In my experience there are two constituents who should always be front of mind, whatever decision you are taking, and they are the players and the fans. If you get things right for those two all-important groups then you have a platform from which to build and grow.
Women’s participation within rugby and many other sports continues to grow on the international stage. What plans are in place to create a British and Irish Lions women’s team?
Women’s sport is going from strength to strength and rugby is no different. In fact, women’s rugby feels as if it is on something of a crest of a wave. Ireland delivered a fantastic Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2017 in front of huge crowds and inclusion for the 7’s form of the game on the Olympic programme has introduced a whole new cohort of participants and fans to the sport.
The athletes involved are so impressive that they not only deserve the opportunity to showcase their talents on the Lions stage but would add real value to the brand.
The Lions absolutely wants to be a part of that and for us it’s a case of when not if we introduce a women’s Lions team. We are currently in dialogue with our shareholder Unions, World Rugby and other stakeholders to make sure that we create something which adds value to the growth of the game internationally and is complementary to, not in competition with, other rugby properties. It’s a really exciting growth area for us though and we’re focussed on making this a reality. The athletes involved are so impressive that they not only deserve the opportunity to showcase their talents on the Lions stage but would add real value to the brand and our potential to continue to grow and remain relevant in future.
Covid-19 has obviously brought spectator sport to a shuddering halt. With that in mind how have package and ticket sales fared for the tour and are you seeing any change in the breakdown of demographic groups purchasing.
Despite the economic headwinds created by the constant Covid overlay the interest in the Tour is significantly higher than anything we have seen before. This is partly because we’re still somewhat insulated from the worst of the pandemic given that we still have eight months to go until the Tour, and partly because the Lions seems to be becoming the physical manifestation of everything people are missing during such a challenging time.
We’re certainly seeing that translate into package and ticket sales with our ticket only ballot and our travel programme being heavily subscribed. At the point of going on sale it was almost as if the cork had been released from the bottle with a huge surge in demand coming forward and, Covid allowing, we’d certainly anticipate seeing more fans travel than the 33,000 who made it to New Zealand in 2017.
Recognising that not everyone is able to travel to SA for the Tour, we’ve recently announced a match to take place on home soil against Japan, before we depart to take on the World Champions in their own backyard. Part of the thinking here was that a significant proportion of Lions fans don’t ever get the opportunity to see these wonderful players in the flesh, and we wanted to provide that opportunity. Here too we’re seeing extraordinary demand.
Apart from a series win what would be the key milestones to reach to ensure that the tour is a resounding success?
A series win would be something special, and our focus as you would expect is on providing Warren Gatland and the rest of the coaching team with everything they need to maximise the chances of that happening.
Besides a series win, our key targets are to: i. deliver an incredible experience for our fans – we want to develop a closer relationship with our existing fans and bring new fans into the Lions family; ii. we want to use the Tour to invest in the growth of the game. Whilst clearly there is a commercial imperative that means we quite rightly want to optimise our financial position, every penny we make is reinvested into rugby. Part of the ethos of the Lions is about making a contribution to the game in the country hosting us too; and iii. we want to enable our partners to deliver their objectives, be they our shareholders, our sponsors, our broadcasters around the world or our licencing partners.
Every penny we make is reinvested into rugby. Part of the ethos of the Lions is about making a contribution to the game in the country hosting us too
There is a huge ecosystem that comes together to deliver a Lions Tour and it would not be possible without their support. Key to that is making sure that we are genuinely working in partnership, understanding very clearly what each partner wants out of the relationship and working tirelessly to ensure that is delivered.
Ben Calveley has been MD of Lions Rugby since November 2018 after serving 7 months as acting MD of Six Nations Rugby and Lions Rugby on secondment from the RFU.
Prior to joining Lions Rugby, Calveley worked as Head of Strategy and Corporate Affairs for the RFU from June 2011 working on corporate strategy, policy, public affairs, international relations, project and risk management, fundraising and events.
He also worked for UK Sport from 2007 where he led a team advising all Olympic and Paralympic sports on how to increase their influence within the International Federations to which they affiliate. Calveley joined UK Sport from PMP, the sports consultancy, where he led the Football division and managed complex domestic and international sport projects involving multi-disciplinary teams including advising on how to develop grass root and elite sporting systems in a number of international markets.
Ben began professional life working in Mergers and Acquisitions with Arthur Andersen and holds an MBA. He lives in Buckinghamshire with his wife and three young children.