With Microsoft’s help, the British & Irish Lions rugby team took 100 million fans on a victorious journey

The British & Irish Lions rugby team knew that the matches against their adversaries in the Southern Hemisphere were going to be tough. Their opponents had names like the Barbarians, Rebels and Wallabies – and they had denied the Lions a trophy for 16 years. But the Lions also had the support of more than 100 million fans and a secret weapon: Microsoft.

When the Lions went on their 125th annual tour to Hong Kong and Australia, Microsoft helped them with apps, devices and cloud services as they embarked on a journey that culminated in a 41-16 triumph over the Qantas Wallabies in the tournament final (a Test Series decider) in front of 84,000 people at Sydney Olympic Park in July 2013.

No matter where the Lions turned, Microsoft had what the team needed to focus on the games and deliver an unforgettable experience for its fans – and for the team. In rugby, nowhere is the concentration of the group more apparent than in the scrum. It means moving as a cohesive group toward a common goal, even as their heads are locked with the opposition.

If Microsoft was a rugby player on the Lions all-star 2013 team, it would’ve been the head coach – the one ultimately responsible for bringing every element together, says Charlie McEwen, head of sales and marketing for the Lions. He says it was responsible for communicating, adapting, directing and evolving the best components to succeed.

“The success of a tour comes down to two key elements: the experience of the Lions supporters and the performance of the team. It is essential that our fans have a fantastic experience – that’s core to what the Lions are all about. Working together, we were able to ensure that every fan felt like they were part of the journey. From a performance perspective, winning is everything,” says McEwen. “We want a real competitive edge and with the performance app we developed with Microsoft we gave the team that edge by ensuring the welfare of each individual. Only Microsoft could do this with the breadth of products and services they had to offer.”

Fans around the world followed the Lions’ every move on the tour through a cross-platform app that brought them right to the matches, as well as up-to-the-minute stats and news, behind-the-scenes videos and interactive features, from any Windows, iOS or Android device.

While they were on the tour, these elite players kept in touch with their families back home using Skype on Surface tablets, took pictures and videos on Lumia smartphones and played Xbox games in their much-needed downtime. (Team member Geoff Parling even witnessed the birth of his daughter through Skype.) They also kept team doctors and coaches informed about their health and readiness to play through an internal app using Microsoft Surface.

And whenever fans tuned in for the latest plays and stats, the app kept up, thanks to Microsoft Azure – which also hosted the internal app. Azure Media Services helped take video content – such as behind-the-scenes action, training and interviews – and encoded it so it could be played on multiple devices and streamed. The servers on the back end had to deal with thousands of requests to consume content at any given time through the app. Microsoft Azure Websites supported the app’s scalability, allowing it to handle the big usage peaks during matches and level down for less busy times.

If all you know about rugby is that it’s like American football without the protective pads, then you’re just scratching the surface of a beloved sport. Yes, it’s a rough game. Players get down and dirty. They tackle and maul one another in a struggle to control the ball, and when they’re in a scrum, they have to go hands-free – all while packed together in one gigantic moving mass.

British & Irish Lions vs. Barbarians on Australia 2013 Tour

British & Irish Lions vs. Barbarians on Australia 2013 Tour

But McEwen says that in general, rugby is defined by five core values: integrity, passion, discipline, respect and solidarity. Every four years, the best rugby union players from the national teams from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are chosen to represent the Lions – the best of the best, rivals normally but competing together as the Northern Hemisphere versus the southern for more than a century. And as rough as things look out there, there’s always an expectation of beers afterward together, winners and losers.

They also have 125 years of traditions, such as singing songs during matches. Lions fans, McEwen says, are renowned for their renditions of four songs, including the American spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The app has song sheets so fans can show their support and sing along, a feature that has proved very popular. Another modern twist on an old tradition included bringing the team’s mascot, BIL (British & Irish Lions), off the field and onto the tour through the app. Candid photos snapped with the fluffy stuffed animal showed fans what players were up to, what was happening on the sidelines and other insights, which helped invite younger fans into the sport.

Fans also got a fresh adaptation of “Living with the Lions,” the biggest selling DVD in the U.K. and Ireland in 1997 – the last time they won. The app gave fans elements of that DVD – behind-the-scenes features, stories, clips and glimpses into players’ lives – and applied it to this tour. Microsoft’s devices also proved to be winners with the team, who used Surface RTs, Surface Pros, Lumia 920s, Xbox 360s as well as periphery hardware such as keyboards and mice (435 devices total).

The “sheer compact nature” of the Surface made it indispensable to Shane Whelan, the Lions digital communications manager based in Ireland. He loved having a tablet with desktop functionality that was easy to carry around, especially with frequent trips to London (and especially on Tour). “I found it extremely clever to use as we were trying to tell the story of the Lions. The quality of it was outstanding. For a whole wide range of purposes, it was very positive.”

Having the same devices, Whelan says, “brought us into a new stratosphere in terms of technology. For admins, this was how we communicated with home, on these devices, making it easier for us to work and making life more efficient for the staff and squad.”

With more than 85 people traveling in the tour, the Lumia 920 smartphones also proved helpful, to make sure people were at the right place at the time. With Windows Phone, it’s possible to create Rooms and Groups to exchange information among a select cluster of people. They set up a Room so that they could all share a calendar and chat as a group in the cloud, making it possible for everyone to stay current on the team itinerary, McEwen says.

“It brought everyone together and broke down barriers,” he says.

A Linux-based app, built by solution provider Elite Edge, tracked player health. The squad used it every day to input their sleep and health to pre-empt sickness, which McEwen says “could destroy a group. You’re all traveling together, all breathing the same air. If someone was to get a contagious virus, become ill, the app could spot symptoms by monitoring sleeping patterns, how they’re feeling.”

When the Lions first saw the health app, they knew it could be a major help — but who on the team knew how to manage a Linux server application a world away from the team’s home office? Elite Edge worked with Microsoft to host the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) back end on a Microsoft Azure infrastructure as a service virtual machine, without modification. None of the Lions staff —non-techies all — needed to manage it or even worry about it.

Lions Official Windows app

Lions Official Windows app

For Sequence, a U.K.-based Microsoft partner, all those fans and their own love of the sport gave them the motivation they needed as they created the Lions app – their biggest mobile app available on eight devices – in only three months.

They knew the capabilities of Microsoft Azure’s cloud services – including Azure Media Services and dynamic streaming support – was the best match for the project, says Chief Technology Officer Jon Stoneman. It gave them a simple and straightforward way to stream video content using the cloud.

Paul Thomas, director of sales and marketing, says one of the most engaging features of the app was giving fans a chance to create their own dream squads, which tied into an “On the plane” competition that brought fans whose teams most closely aligned with the real Lions to the big announcement.

“This is a big part of the Lions excitement, a closely guarded secret,” Thomas says. Sequence published the members of the squad on the app as the roster was being announced. Fans, he says, really enjoyed the second screen element, which linked to real-time stats during games. They could also find additional information such as substitutes, territory and passes. “That’s where we saw the peak in traffic.”

British & Irish Lions celebrate their 2013 Tour victory

British & Irish Lions celebrate their 2013 Tour victory

“Every tour has its own characteristics, and it’s important to develop its own unique personality. We’ve achieved a lot of things in our 125-year history, and we wanted to make sure 2013 set off the next 125 with the most cohesive and strongest possible unit we could build,” McEwen says. “The Lions are the best of the best, and as such the people we align ourselves with are the best in class.”

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Athima Chansanchai
Microsoft News Center Staff