For Andrew Dawson, managing director at MacMobile, rugby has always been a passion. He literally eats, sleeps and breathes the sport. This highly charged, fast-talking, shrewd businessman exudes a will for action. Mobile and web-development for the Lions Rugby Club seem to be an extension of his personality.
Dawson and his brother Craig, a former rugby player turned IT executive, who now works for AMD South Africa, have been involved in the sport for most of their lives. They're both avid Lions supporters and it's clear to see how the Lions website project came into being.
Dawson is also not somebody who likes to waste time when it comes to doing business. Sitting in the official Lions boardroom, he speaks with great enthusiasm about the Lions team, his strategy and vision for the Lions website and how his company MacMobile is developing and evolving the site to make it more interactive for fans, players and contributors.
"From the beginning of the project, the Lions Rugby management team was really open-minded about the website and how it could increase their interaction with the average fan on the street. A boon for them was the fact that our cost of development was minimal because we work on an open source model instead of developing in .Net. To be honest, this project was more a passion than a business venture," he says.
Compared to the other rugby team websites, Dawson believes the Lions are streets ahead. "I think Western Province has a good site and the Sharks have also made a great effort to interact with fans and air their views. However, I think the Lions are more interactive and progressive in our web strategy, getting the players and fans together as often as possible."
What started off as a simple instant messaging initiative for the Lions to communicate internally, the project quickly ballooned into a fully fledged community-driven website, dubbed Lions Pride (www.lionspride.co.za). It comes complete with an interactive chatroom and continuous updates from Lions coach Eugene 'Loffie' Eloff, 94.7 Highveld Stereo sports presenter Graeme Joffe, key rugby players and individuals, and keeps the Lions fans glued to the site.
Fans may sign up for free and have access to content, blogging facilities, forums and mobile content. Alternatively, they can sign up for R250 per year to gain access to membership cards, meet-and-greet functions, preferential seat bookings, competitions, free Lions memorabilia and more.
The site also hosts galleries of the latest games, regular competitions, downloads, as well as stadium maps to ensure fans are always informed. Fans may also post the latest pictures of players taken at the Lions games, and discuss successes and failures.
Dawson says that before MacMobile's involvement - a company that opened its doors for business three years ago - activity on the Lions site was minimal, with less than 10 000 hits per month. Since February this year, the site has become increasingly popular, with more than 900 members already registered and in excess of 60 000 page impressions per month.
"Fans are interacting with each other and the players on a daily basis more than ever before. Like-minded communities are the key to the success of any interactive website - and the Lions fans have really taken to this. We've always had a firm belief that communities of like-minded people are really where the strength of any consumer or fan base lies. And the only way you can get a community to participate is to give them a voice, which is what the Lions site has done.
"It's also much easier for the Lions club to market within this community through a social networking environment. We see the fans are keen to buy memorabilia and be part of social events such as golf days and meet-and-greets," he says.
MacMobile has ported the website onto a mobile platform, which enables fans to communicate in real-time on the Lions site through its Roar Box, a live instant messaging platform.
"It's not a .mobi site per se, but we've written a platform that allows the site to be displayed on mobile phones according to screen size. This means users don't have to scroll forwards or backwards, or up and down to view the site. It's completely customised for an individual's specific make of cellphone and is extremely user-friendly," he says.
According to Dawson, working with the Lions team has been a fantastic experience. "The guys that play rugby here are very humble. It hasn't taken much to get them to interact with fans online. Anton van Zyl, the Lions number four lock, has been particularly instrumental in interacting with fans and keeping them informed about what's happening behind the scenes. Television and radio celebrity Graeme Joffe is a keen Lions supporter and blogs once a week. Having recognised personalities who are fans and who contribute to the site is social networking at its best," he says.
Van Zyl says the best thing about the site - and the way it has developed - is how it provides an interface through which players can interact directly with fans.
"We see thousands of fans in the stands, but don't often get the opportunity to interact with them in any way. We have a lot of sponsor functions where we get to speak with [those individuals], but not so much the fans. The Lions Pride website is a perfect platform to bridge that divide; fans are adding their own commentary on what they think of the players and their performance - the comments are sometimes very biased, but it's very good to get that insight," he says.
Key to the success of the website is that fans, who are actively involved, are always aware of opportunities to meet their favourite players.
"It's all about eyeballs. Fans spend an average of five minutes on the site, filling out quizzes and posting to the forums," says Dawson. "The Lions club regularly has functions where the entire team is present; by notifying fans through the website, the venues are always packed out. This is also a great opportunity for the Lions sponsors to get more exposure."
Krystle Geach, PR and marketing manager for Golden Lions Rugby Union, concurs. "We have our regulars on the site 24 hours a day. As soon as there are season ticket specials, we can engage with them right away rather than book adverts in the newspaper and wait for a reply - on the web, the response is instant," she says.
Future development of the Lions Pride website is set for the mobile space. "Mobility is the future. Not on third-party clients or thin clients, but rather on a mobile website itself. In the near future, Lions fans will be able to surf the web, interact with players and fans, and pay for their tickets via their cellphones."
Rest assured, Dawson's working on a mobile payment system to accommodate this.