The Rise of Women’s Rugby: The British & Irish Lionesses?
The dust is only just starting to settle following the thrilling Women’s World Cup final, and it seems that a significant legacy has already been left - a change in mindset and perception about Women’s rugby. No more is it the game it used to be, and popularity is soaring across the board. At the grassroots level, participation is thriving; there are more than 27,600 female players in England alone.

At International level, new stars are being born and records are being broken on and off the field; from performance statistics to live attendance figures, viewership and social engagement figures. 3.2 million people tuned into the France vs England World Cup semi-final. Days later, the final won a primetime spot on Britain’s most popular commercial channel, drawing an audience of 2.6 million people. The resounding opinion of fans, sponsors and the media from this year’s Women’s Rugby World cup is that we aren’t talking about women’s rugby anymore, we are just talking about great rugby. So where should the women’s game go from here?

Under Head Coach Warren Gatland, the British and Irish Lions brand remains alive and stronger than ever, following the thrilling 15-15 stalemate with the All Blacks. It has value and equity that seems to transcend how many points are scored on the pitch; the world’s most unsuccessful success story. With that foundation in place, a women’s side seems to be a no brainer – but should the women’s game settle with slotting into the legacy of the men’s Tour? As the World Cup has shown us, our Women are capable of making and breaking records and creating their own place in the history books.

So, what should be the starting point and focus for establishing this new instalment to rugby’s favourite franchise?

Firstly, the history, structure and dominance of women’s rugby must be considered. It makes sense for a joint men’s team from UK & Ireland to travel to play the dominant Southern Hemisphere rugby nations. But that isn’t the case with women’s rugby. Yes, New Zealand is still the powerhouse, but Australia and South Africa are significantly further down in the women’s world rankings. The Lionesses should focus on taking the game to emerging rugby nations, such as USA and Canada, both of whom sit in the top 5.

Secondly, the power that the tour could have on developing nations, in terms of raising standards and growing the game internationally, should be maximised. England Rugby were trailblazers in the build up to the World Cup in terms of their focus and financial commitment to the Red Roses. It seemed other Unions felt the pressure to follow suit - as no one wanted England to get too far ahead. The result – players across the board looked fitter and faster during this World Cup than ever before. The Lionesses can be used as international ambassadors to lift the game worldwide – showcasing the investment, coaching, and fitness standards of the Home Unions, to the rest of the world.

From a commercial perspective, the Lionesses need to be established as its own entity; as a rights holder, and as a commercial platform for brands. This means creating its own brand identity, and unique structure of rights that will allow it to attract its own set of sponsors; something that football did several years ago, but has only recently started to occur in the rugby landscape. Only this year did Six Nations Rugby Limited uncouple the women’s tournament from the men’s game. Rumour has it that the RFU are starting to consider unbundling the rights for the Red Roses; however, the impact of this is yet to be seen in terms of brands involved with the women’s team as the likes of O2 and Canterbury remain to have rights across both teams.

There are plenty of brands that have recognised the commercial benefit of women’s rugby, and are already reaping the rewards in terms of brand and economic impact. This Summer alone, Deloitte, EY and Tyrrells all announced deals across the women’s game; from the World Cup, to the Domestic League, and individual Club deals. As opposed to the cluttered field of the men’s game, women’s rugby is a relatively untapped space meaning brands have the power to shape it and establish unique ownership that drives business impact for them. Get the commercial structure right and the Lionesses have the power to stand alone and be a viable entity on their own – a ground breaking move for women’s sport.

Women’s rugby should be brave and make its own history, heritage and legacy. The British & Irish Lionesses is one powerful way they can do that. It isn’t about 1888, it’s about 2017, marking the dawn of the Lionesses, when women’s rugby put itself on the international map, and added strength, stature and equity to one of the most valuable brands in Rugby. We still have time to add one more record to the history books for this year.

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