Sustainability in Sport
A blueprint for more sustainability in sport. Some learnings from my first 100 days in office.
Sport has been an integral part of our modern society. And it has been a vital part of my life as long as I can remember. Growing up and becoming exposed to so many different Sports and their facets has made me realize what an important role it plays in so many people’s lives. As Nelson Mandela put it in 2000:
”Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.”
It brings millions of people together and Sport’s biggest stars are role models for both current and future leaders. That’s a power neither art, filmmaking nor music have on such a consistent and global basis.
However, and this is yet another quote of an iconic figure:” With great power comes great responsibility“. What’s true for Spiderman is certainly also true for Sport. And this responsibility is closely linked to the concept of the Triple Bottom Line. Given the role both small and large Sport organizations play today, they need to be aware of their social, environmental and economic responsibility. Or more simply put: their responsibility towards people, the planet and profits. What do I mean by that?
Sport not only improves the health of the people actively doing it, it also manages to help overcome political conflicts, it unites different cultures, it can help create a new self-esteem of entire nations and it teaches some of the fundamentals of living together as human beings: respect, tolerance, fairplay, equality.
There’s an interesting relationship between Sport and the natural environment. They are both impacted by one another. Some Sports are heavily impacted by climate change. Look at snow Sports or the impact heat waves can have on tennis tournaments. But Sport also has an impact on climate change. Think about the traveling required to play certain Sports (again, snow Sports and tennis for example but also motorsports) or the environmental impact thousands of fans have when they watch a game (due to their own travel and consumption on site). If Sport wants to continue to be an important factor in people’s lives, it has to look at this potential area of conflict. Otherwise the hashtag #noplanetnoplay will become a reality sooner rather than later.
Economic responsibility (Governance)
No business can survive if it fails to act economically responsible. You cannot spend more than you earn. At least that’s the theory. Looking at the most recent financial numbers of some of the world’s most famous football clubs is certainly challenging that point of view. But you can also find better examples. Financial Fair Play or Salary Caps widely known in the US lead to a more conscious management of financial resources. And the Corona crisis has shown that clubs are rethinking their financial strategies in order to guarantee long-term survival.
WHY IT MATTERS
The 17 SDGs formulated by the United Nations can help as a guiding tool for Sport in its quest for more sustainability. I am convinced that using these SDGs can not only help countries or major corporations as a guiding principle but also Sports organizations.
In my opinion, there are a number of reasons why sustainability should be given more weight in Sport. But before diving into these, it’s important to note that not every reason applies to every organization. What do I stand for? Where is my biggest lever of change? These are fundamental questions that should precede any sustainability action. Credibility and integrity are two central issues when it comes to sustainability. You can always expand your commitment. It’s both the first step as well as the right direction that are important.
So why is it important to look at sustainability in the world of Sport more strategically? To me, firstly, Sport’s stakeholders are the primary reason.
Your current but even more so your future workforce will be very sensitive to the topic of sustainability. They are part of the generation that feels climate change from the day they can think. They will eventually choose their employers based on shared values. So if you want to find the best and best suited talent, make sure you address their concerns, needs and wishes. Position yourself as an employer who cares about the environment and society, who thinks of itself as a member of the community and truly lives in the spirit of “doing good and doing well”.
If Sport wants to keep attracting new audiences, if clubs want to make sure their stadiums are full for years to come, they need to listen to what their fans want. And with a new generation of consumers emerging, the demands and values are also changing. Factoring this into the service and product offering can make the difference between survival and disappearance. Fans care. They’ve shown this repetitively and vocally. Take FC St. Pauli fans for example, who have demanded their club to switch away from their current team kit supplier to producing their own, more sustainable clothing line.
6 out of the 10 biggest sponsors in Sport publish sustainability data (source: The Sustainability Report) and all communicate about sustainability in some respect. So for a rights holder not to act sustainably will lead to controversies with their sponsors. Because the latter will struggle to defend their sponsoring spend if they can’t prove that it goes into sustainable projects. That’s a danger rights holders may not feel today but one that is very likely going to emerge very soon.
New Business Opportunities
Sustainability has a reputation of being expensive. But done right it’s actually a way to generate money. Think about the potential of finding new sponsors that are actively seeking platforms to showcase their own sustainability efforts. Imagine what it means if you are able to attract a new type of fan base into your stadium because of what you offer them. Think about the saving potential if you are more cautious about your resource consumption and if you find new ways of bringing circularity into your business model.
It’s the right thing to do
Eventually there’s just no denying: if we want our society to thrive, we as Sport organizations need to be more responsible about the role we play in it. What example do we set? What world do we want to see? How can we guarantee a sustainable future? Only if we ourselves act sustainably. Only if we lead by example. Only if we use the power of Sport to convey messages that others wouldn’t be able to convey.
So it’s not just the right thing to do. It’s the only thing to do.