It looks more and more likely that the British and Irish Lions tour to South Africa will not go ahead, with the country finding itself in a second wave of the deadly coronavirus. The world of sport is currently in a stranglehold of an unprecedented magnitude.
The eight-match tour, which includes three Tests, is due to start in July, but chances for that to happen are evaporating by the minute. While no contingency scenario will be perfect, playing the Lions, with the opportunity coming only every 12 years, somehow, somewhere is critical.
It has been a trying time for rugby and the end of 2020 has not magically put the ravages of Covid-19 behind the sport. In South Africa, the situation is precarious and the prospect of a British and Irish Lions tour being cancelled could have a catastrophic impact on the industry, which already faces financial difficulties. SA Rugby have already cut the budgets to its 14 provincial unions, and in return some of the smaller unions face insurmountable financial pressures, with some unable to pay their players and staff. The 2021 British and Irish Lions tour was seen as a silver bullet to inject much-needed income.
Even if the tour goes ahead, no fans will be allowed in the stadiums. There are currently talks to postpone to 2022 or stage the “tour” in the United Kingdom for the first time ever.
The Covid situation in the UK and South Africa looks bleak. The UK faces its own problematic situation with Covid-19. Even if it is staged in the UK, it is unlikely fans will be able to attend matches in full capacity, if at all. That brings with it a higher financial risk for the Lions. But rescheduling the tour to 2022 will also have its challenges, with all four nations making up the British and Irish Lions already having pencilled in plans when scheduling tests.
As things stand now, no fans will be allowed in stadiums in South Africa, which makes the tour commercially unviable. Sponsorship and broadcast income from the Lions tour could earn SA Rugby about R500-million.
SA Rugby’s various commercial and broadcast deals are vital to sustaining the rugby ecosystem through disbursements to unions and contracting players. The Springboks are directly responsible for 85% of SA Rugby’s broadcast income and 65% of all SA Rugby’s sponsorship income.
The contract between the Lions and the host country (whether South Africa, New Zealand or Australia) makes stringent demands on allotted tickets for travelling supporters. So, without them, the tour will almost certainly not go ahead.
“As you would expect, we are progressing with our plans based on the latest information available to us,” said British and Irish Lions managing director, Ben Calveley.
“However, given the uncertainty that continues to be caused by the coronavirus pandemic both in South Africa as well as the UK and Ireland, we are very aware of the need to make a timely decision on the best way forward, not least so that we can provide clarity to supporters booked to travel to South Africa next summer, or those thinking of making the trip. The Lions board has had repeated meetings to discuss all scenarios available and is in constant dialogue,” he said.