Normally used to just covering the action, broadcasters are now finding themselves part of the conversation around sustainability and sport.
One only has to look at a league’s travel itinerary to understand how much broadcast partners are contributing to a sports property’s overall carbon footprint. In the National Basketball Association (NBA), for example, a team will travel more than 40,000 miles on average during the regular season – 15,000 miles more than the circumference of the Earth. Joining them for games is a small army of presenters, producers and camera crew, not to mention lorryloads of equipment.
The carbon cost of any live broadcast forms part of the wider problem as the sports industry at large bids to play its part in tackling the climate crisis. And the worsening situation has compelled various networks to act.
One example was UK-pay TV broadcaster Sky Sports’ ‘Game Zero’ in September 2021, which saw Tottenham Hotspur’s fixture against Chelsea become the world’s first net zero carbon major soccer match. The objective was achieved by cutting emissions from matchday activity, such as the energy used to power the game, travel to and from the stadium, and dietary choices at Spurs’ home ground. The remaining emissions were offset through natural projects that remove emissions from the atmosphere.
Sky itself has committed to being net zero carbon by 2030, but similar pledges are now being made across the sports broadcasting industry.
To truly allay environmental fears, GameZero and other sustainability efforts cannot be one offs. Fundamental change is needed from top to bottom, which will require cutting back, and eventually retiring, decades of established broadcast practices. Collaboration between rival media businesses will also be needed.
“There’s a lot of shared best practice and a sense of ‘we’re in this together for a greater good,’” Mary-Claire Gill, the head of production for European Tour Productions at IMG Media, tells SportsPro.
“Whilst we’re all hugely competitive, it’s the one area where actually if someone has a good idea that should be rolled out more broadly, then that’s shared.
“The advances in technology, the improved connectivity, is obviously something where Covid probably gave the push. We’re away and running with that now. In terms of progress over a very short space of time, I think the broadcast sector is doing really well.”
Indeed, the pandemic forced sports to adapt to a new way of doing things, but some of those practices have been retained by broadcasters looking to reduce their impact on the environment. Remote production is one area that media companies have continued to lean into as the technology matures. IMG, for example, acquired sports broadcast fibre service provider Cingularity last year, in a move which will see it develop a bespoke remote production solution incorporating connectivity.
“We didn’t necessarily do remote production for the better of the planet,” admits Brian Leonard, IMG Media’s head of engineering, production and workflows. “We did it for financial reasons to start off with, but we’ve taken that to the next level.”
Small changes make a big difference
The benefits of remote production are clear. Costs aside, it also allows for reductions in travel and expenses, onsite teams, equipment, and production trucks. Advances in cloud-based technology also mean the only necessity for an onsite team is connectivity, be it fibre, satellite or 5G. In theory, a plethora of flexible, sustainable options become available.
IMG’s capabilities in this space have enabled the company to work with the likes of the English Football League (EFL), which runs the second, third and fourth tiers of English soccer, to produce 1,800 live games a season.
“You’ve got to a stage where we’re doing that all locally and one crew can be used across multiple projects,” explains Leonard.
“It all adds up to a big win. All of the smaller federations are benefiting because of their bigger brothers. Everybody’s benefitting in the grand scheme of things.”
Connectivity, which is crucial to the success of remote production, is the biggest hurdle to even greater adoption. In golf, for example, vast courses often lack the necessary technology required, which is where, in IMG’s case, Cingularity comes in. The arrival of 5G should also help.
Connectivity for remote production can be a challenge in vast open areas like golf courses
“I think so much depends on the geographical location of the event,” notes Gill, whose role includes overseeing and driving IMG’s efforts to make its productions and broadcasting more sustainable.
“In terms of how cost effective you can make it, if you’re going somewhere once and it’s for one day, and you’re never going back there, it’s probably going to be cost prohibitive.
“But actually, even with the lower tier stuff, it’s worth the investment. Because it’s a fixed venue, or you’ve got a longer-term deal, the barriers start to come down.”
“We have to work for maximum concurrency,” adds Leonard, who says a retooling of the fixture calendar, particularly in soccer, is worth discussing if it helps meet sustainability targets.
“As an example, on a Saturday at three o’clock we’re doing potentially 40 games happening at the same time,” he continues. “On a Sunday afternoon, we’re doing four. So if federations can change their calendars and come to someone like us, we could fit it in relatively easily.
“If they’re so used to playing on a Saturday afternoon at three o’clock, then it limits what other people can do in the industry. If they changed it to 11 o’clock, then we can we can hit price points that they wouldn’t expect.”
Walking the walk
The issue of scheduling is a broader one that affects multiple sports as calendars keep expanding. What is evident, though, is that compromise is required if leagues and teams are serious about protecting the environment. For broadcasters, industry standards are yet to be drawn up.
As a result, more groups are being formed to work towards common ground. One of these is Albert, an environmental organisation founded in 2011 aiming to encourage the UK television and film production industry to reduce waste and its carbon footprint. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Albert Sport Consortium was launched in 2020 to help broadcasters identify and reduce their carbon emissions in line with the specific needs of sports broadcasting.
In short, the goal is to encourage transparency by getting members to share emissions reduction solutions and ideas on how to educate viewers about sustainability, as well as increase climate coverage on screen. Tools such as a carbon calculator, enabling production teams to work out their carbon footprint, are also available.
“Every day, sports coverage reaches millions of people across the planet,” says Neal Romanek, head of communications and events at Albert. “Sports broadcasting has a unique capacity to reach audiences and educate and inspire climate action through its pundits, sportspeople and coverage.
“The consortium aims to align with the broader goals of the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework, which many of the consortium are signatories of.”
As well as IMG and Sky Sports, other members include BT Sport, the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. Formula One, the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) and Premier League Productions (PLP) are also onboard, with Albert hoping more will sign up.
Wimbledon organiser the AELTC is among those to have signed up to Albert’s Sports Consortium
Romanek believes the sports broadcasting community “has been at the forefront of the broadcast industry in practicing sustainable solutions”. Even so, he acknowledges sustainability “can sometimes be treated as onerous, expensive, time-consuming and an afterthought”.
That way of thinking feels outdated, especially now that businesses are increasingly taking sustainability into account when considering which companies they want to work with.
“It’s certainly not an overnight scenario,” says Gill. “But I think there’s probably a bit of a pincer movement with [sustainability] becoming business critical as well. It’s what our clients expect from us.
“If we’re going to remain competitive, that’s in some ways an easier sell up the corporate chain in terms of engaging with these issues and getting the support we need to make changes on the ground.
“I think the hardest barrier is probably just on an individual level. People don’t always want to embrace change. For some people, it is quite a big cultural shift.
“We want the best people coming to work for us. You’ve got to be actively engaged in this area, you’ve got to care. People want to work for a company that isn’t just talking the talk, they’re walking the walk as well.”
Finding the right formula
In terms of what tech solutions will be most important as broadcasters strive to go green, Leonard identifies the cloud as the main driver. Still, there are also other things to consider.
“Potentially, the operation will cost more,” he says. “But, from a sustainability point of view, I don’t think you can really beat the cloud.”
Networks making sweeping statements about their eco intentions also need to back them up with decisive action.
“You get to the stage where you have to be a cynic, you have to be hypocritical,” Leonard continues. “I could look at anybody boasting about any sustainability targets and think: ‘Where’s the weight behind that? That doesn’t necessarily mean anything.’”
A foolproof formula for sustainable broadcasting is yet to be established, but some clear patterns are emerging. Educating viewers through programming is vital, as is making sure staff are informed through practices such as carbon literacy training. Travel and energy usage for broadcasts leave the largest carbon footprints, so those need to be scaled back.
Sports broadcasters are sharing sustainable solutions
One collaborative effort saw Sky Sports, BT Sport and PLP set up an ‘OB Green Team’ in 2020 to lower their environmental impact. The trio agreed to share power at stadiums, reducing the number of generators needed. The ones that were used have been fuelled by gas-to-liquids (GTL), which involves converting natural gas into liquid products and is a cleaner option than diesel. In six months, the group estimated that by sharing generators they were able to save around 50 tonnes in carbon emissions.
Meanwhile, using virtual production studios means lowering flight emissions, one of the planet’s biggest forms of pollution. During the 2020 Olympics, the BBC switched to a virtual production studio in Manchester for its Tokyo coverage, a decision that negated the need for air travel, even if the move was primarily due to the pandemic.
In-house changes should also be prioritised. At IMG Studios’ Stockley Park headquarters, a renewable energy supplier has been drafted in, while electric vehicle charging points have been installed. Less eye-catching but equally important work, like replacing lights in the building with LED bulbs, has taken place. A consultant was also hired to establish IMG Studios’ Scope 3 emissions, which cover those not produced by the company itself.
“Off the back of the results of that we’ll be able to target even further where we need to reduce because it’ll be very clear where those areas are,” says Gill.
Ultimately, media companies need to be pragmatic when trying to be sustainable. Leonard uses the analogy of broadcasters buying computers for staff.
“If I’ve got two PCs that I’m going to purchase where one is low on power and one is ethically built, which one’s better for the environment?,” he asks. “I choose one and give all the reasons why.
“You just have to do what you can. I know that sounds a bit wishy washy, but as long as we’re all doing something.”
And such is their influence – most sports properties rely on media rights revenue for the majority of their income – broadcasters could easily set the environmental standard for the wider sports sector and hold those they partner with to account.
“Every company in every industry must incorporate sustainability just as they would other business practices such as finance or risk assessments,” says Romanek. “Businesses need to put sustainability at the forefront of planning.”
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