Earlier this month, the British & Irish Lions - the invitational touring team that welcomes the top players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales’ national men’s rugby union teams - named a 13-person feasibility group to look at setting up a women's team.
Chaired by former Wales and Lions star Ieuan Evans, the group is made up of experienced administrators in and around rugby, including eight women.
Their job is an unenviable one. Among the challenges, they will have to establish whether a prospective tour would be financially viable, where it might tour to and how it might fit in with the game's new global calendar.
Upon announcing the group, British and Irish Lions Managing Director Ben Calvely described it as a ‘huge opportunity’ for the women’s game, and there are few that would disagree.
Women’s rugby is growing at a fast pace, and the inclusion of a Lions outfit would be a boon for commercial partners, broadcasters and players alike.
But it isn’t without it’s pitfalls, and there’s good reason that it’s taken this long to be discussed.
Importantly, the new feasibility group will have to determine whether there would be enough balance in a squad that would include fully professional England players alongside amateurs from Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
The men’s tour makes a lot of money - roughly £38 million per four year cycle - and while the women’s tour would be embryonic initially it’s hoped it could eventually deliver similar returns.
This provides an unusual problem, however. These funds are generally ploughed back in to the respective unions and used for player development. But in the women’s game, only the England team are fully professional.
How, then, can funds be distributed evenly?
Another key point of discussion for the feasibility group will no doubt be the destination of said tour.
Lions tours have traditionally been to the southern hemisphere men's rugby strongholds of New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.
But World Rugby's women's rankings have Canada and the USA in third and sixth respectively, higher than Australia in fifth and South Africa in 13th.
A tour to North America would therefore make sense, and could boost the image of the women’s game and the Lions brand in a market where men's rugby has struggled to make an impact.
But a tour to the USA and it’s still embryonic rugby infrastructure remains a considerable risk.
There could, however, be a neat solution here.
USA Rugby has recently announced its intentions to bid for the Women’s Rugby World Cup in 2029, and the men’s in either 2027 or 2031.
Could there be the possibility to tie the two together? Could a women’s Lions tour take place the year before a World Cup, serving as a test case ahead of the tournament?
It certainly makes sense, and would be remiss to not be on the table.
The launch of the feasibility group certainly shows that discussion are at an advanced stage, and it’s brilliant to see commercial partners already attached. The group itself is being pushed by Royal London, while existing British and Irish Lions sponsors Vodafone, Canterbury and Sky have all expressed their support.
Each sponsor will itself be taking a commercial risk, but the tour would be impossible without them, and their backing will be critical. It’s a mutual relationship and it’ll be interesting to see whether confidence levels continue as discussions advance.
The athletes themselves, meanwhile, face a risk-reward decision. Any decision to play will see them cast into a spotlight perhaps never previously seen in women’s rugby. The added attention from fans and media alike brings increased exposure, while commercial opportunities will be on the rise.
As we’ve discussed before though, this creates risk. Athletes are often ill-prepared for extreme elevations in earnings and exposure and are scarcely insured enough to deal with the journey.
Whatever the outcome of the feasibility study, however, we at Miller are eager to see the women’s game - and the prospect of a Lions tour - grow. Be it a commercial sponsor, the governing body, or an elite athlete - we’re here to support them.