OP-ED: How the 2021 Lions Tour was a landmark for at-home fan engagement

09 Dec 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

While the absence of travelling and domestic fans was palpable during the 2021 British & Irish Lions Tour of South Africa, the touring party found a new way to galvanise support watching from home via the fully integrated Lions Media Portal. PT SportSuite’s Nick van Rensburg speaks about the ‘beauty’ of user-generated content.

During recent decades, the British & Irish Lions Tour has become one of the standout fan experiences on the global sporting calendar – an occasion given rare air, where travelling support join arms in an iconic “Sea of Red” once every four years, either in South Africa, Australia, or New Zealand.  

As the sporting world continues to navigate the return of spectators in the wake of Covid-19, the 2021 British & Irish Lions Tour of South Africa was one where the absence of home and away fans was keenly felt - after travel restrictions were imposed by the host nation due to the pandemic. 

With no tourists on the ground, and the Lions playing squad unable to fulfil their traditional visits to local schools, communities, and rugby clubs, the touring party was forced to change tactics to galvanise support from around the world.  

In order to keep fans engaged, the Lions adopted an owned, direct-to-consumer (DTC) strategy with assistance from digital consultancy and platform provider, PT SportSuite, and included the creation of a fully integrated Lions Media Partner Portal, which housed for the first time the Lions’ video content and media portfolio under one roof and gave privileged access to the Lions’ entire sponsorship and media partner roster. 

“This is indicative of the pandemic and the acceleration of digital engagement tools coming to market,” explains Nick van Rensburg, PT SportSuite’s Communications and Engagement Lead. “The Lions Media Portal was treated as a central location where registered stakeholders could access and download media content for whatever purpose they chose, and to create a management platform that engaged Lions fans throughout the UK and Ireland. 

“We had more than 800 users onboarded onto the platform while more than 1,300 media assets were shared across 35 partner dashboards. While a private platform, what made it unique was the Lions Fan Zone, a public-facing web module that allowed the Lions media team and their sponsors to bring to life fan-generated content campaigns that rewarded and incentivised engagement through branded challenges.” 

By way of example, the Vodafone Matchday at Home Challenge encouraged at-home supporters to capture their match experience with video and photo content and share to the fan portal, effectively creating what Van Rensburg describes as a “digital Sea of Red”, incentivising fans with the chance to win prizes and guaranteed discounts on partner products.  

“What this presented was an opportunity for the Lions media team to gather all that user content under the Lions Media Portal and to personalise and grow the fan database,” Van Rensburg continues. “When they come to register to the challenges, fans were giving Lions and team sponsors permission to use their content via their respective social and digital platforms. 

“As a result, we were able to give the fans a voice that the rights holder could proactively engage with. While previous Tours have seen fans upload the majority of content to their own social channels, the Lions Fan Zone gave the media team and sponsors licence to use all of that rich media content created by the fans and in turn opened up new marketing and ecommerce opportunities during the Tour.” 

While the original partnership was predicated on the need to provide the Lions with a single view of all digital media IP and simple, standardised workflow for collaborating with multiple stakeholders, the project expanded when it emerged that supporters wouldn’t be able to travel to South Africa, and the London-based company established itself as the 2021 Tour’s official Fan Engagement partner. 

“We wanted to present Lions fans with a way to connect from anywhere in the world, and to be rewarded for contributing to the tour in a meaningful way,” Van Rensburg explains. “In turn, the Lions were able to collect awesome fan-generated content they have never had access to before, offer more digital exposure to sponsors, and build more ways to engage with the fans and to drive ecommerce in the absence of touring fans.” 

Looking to the future and now that several markets have begun to welcome spectators back to the stadia, Van Rensburg says that the solutions fashioned on the back of its partnership with the Lions presents a unique opportunity for the sports industry to “scale and localise” its audience reach in a more personalised way, with the potential to further diversify rights partnership by region.  

“The beauty of this digital world is that – it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Manchester United fan living in Melbourne or an NBA fan in New Delhi – they can all feel part of the matchday experience and be rewarded through the brand partnerships at play for contributing content to a digital campaign. 

“As fans, we want you to be involved and to share your passion – those are the memorable campaigns that create more authentic relationships between fans and sponsors versus a static banner or a logo on a shirt. By actively engaging with the brand, we’re helping the sports industry cultivate stronger bonds with fans at home and around the world. 

“That’s the direction sports content is going, isn’t it? It’s less about the polished, agency-created media nowadays. Instead, user-generated content helps to build interest and trust among customers and fans, not only in the sports space, but in the brand space as well.” 

Visit ptsportsuite.com to learn more about how their integrated fan engagement solutions are supporting sport’s digital transformation. Subscribers to the Sports Industry Daily newsletter can also follow the latest news and trends across the sector.