For some organisations in sport, sustainability remains less a strategic priority than a box-ticking exercise.
That may be down to a fundamental lack of understanding of the issues at hand, or because the business case for investing in more sustainable practices still doesn’t add up. It could also be because short-term thinking and commercial interests continue to guide those who write the cheques. Or perhaps it is simply because old habits die hard.
Whatever the rationale, excuses abound and there remain many myths surrounding sports sustainability which are conspiring to stifle progress. That, in turn, has resulted in token gestures, PR plays or, in some cases, outright greenwashing. Sustainability is just too expensive and too complex to be feasible, so the naysayers claim, and fans simply don’t care enough about environmental issues to warrant the investment.
What is becoming abundantly clear, however, is that the opposite is true. Sustainability does matter – to fans, brands, broadcasters and governing bodies alike. Now, the urgent need to bolster the so-called ‘triple bottom line’ has finally got the sports industry talking seriously about the social, environmental and financial benefits – three priorities helpfully alliterated as people, planet and profit – that come with investing in future generations, greener practices and more viable business models.
With that in mind, there is no better time to bust some common misconceptions surrounding sports sustainability. At SportsPro Live in late April, two of the world’s foremost experts in the field were asked to do just that, with Fiona Morgan, global director of purpose and impact at SailGP, joining her old friend and colleague Susie Tomson, the director of sustainability at ThinkBeyond, on stage for an enlightening, straight-talking 40 minutes of myth-busting.
Myth #1: Sustainability is too expensive…
According to Tomson, who previously headed up sustainability at London 2012 and the Ben Ainslie Racing sailing team, implementing more sustainable practices makes “good business sense”, full stop. That’s because, by definition, it requires rights holders to more closely scrutinise the way they and their supply chains operate.
Sustainability, she said, is all about seeking out operational efficiencies and being more prudent throughout all areas of an organisation. That includes improving supplier procurement processes and, at a time when energy and food prices are surging, better managing resources – all of which are ultimately money-saving measures.
Seen in that context, the notion that sustainability is too expensive simply doesn’t wash, as Morgan explained.
If some within the industry still believe sustainability is too expensive or too complicated to implement, then it is worth considering the consequences that can arise if it is not placed high on the agenda.
Many high-carbon industries – airlines, oil and gas, financial services – have been rich sources of income for sports properties for many years, but what happens when supposedly ‘good money’ goes bad?
To cite one recent example, Uefa found itself in a financial hole after terminating its sponsorship deal with energy giant Gazprom following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. An uncontrollable geopolitical situation ultimately rendered that particular partnership untenable, but it was already the subject of widespread criticism from fans and environmental groups long before Putin’s war put paid to the deal.
It begs the question, then: could the governing body not have foreseen problems down the line when it first jumped into bed with the state-owned energy firm back in 2012?
Cases like Uefa and Gazprom show how making partnership decisions purely based on revenue can carry reputational risk and prove costly. As Morgan noted, such partnerships have typically been seen as short-term – or some might say short-sighted – survival mechanisms, but now the savvier commercial teams will be taking the longer-term view.
For Morgan, that means embracing burgeoning businesses who are driving sustainable innovation. She noted that there are countless firms out there whose marketing dollars can ultimately make up for any feared shortfall that might arise from eschewing deals with companies from more polluting sectors.
Myth #2: Sustainability isn’t profit generating…
For smaller sports properties, developing one’s own sustainability credentials – and, crucially, talking them up publicly – can be a clear differentiator in a crowded sponsorship market.
Take Forest Green Rovers. Named by Fifa as the world’s greenest soccer club, the English third-tier outfit has seen its commercial income skyrocket in recent seasons – with partnership revenue purportedly growing five times in the last three years alone. That’s despite putting purpose before profit ever since Ecotricity owner Dale Vince acquired the club in 2010.
While not every sports property is owned by a vegan eco-warrior, Tomson believes other rights holders have the ability to turn sustainability into a commercial revenue opportunity, but first they must work harder to align their own sustainability goals, strategy and narrative with the corporate objectives and positioning of a prospective partner.
By finding common ground and ensuring authentic alignment, Tomson insists that story will resonate with those who control the marketing budget on the other side of the negotiating table, the majority of whom are intent on positioning themselves as greener businesses and good corporate citizens.
As an upstart property with sustainability at its core, Morgan went on to explain that 90 per cent of SailGP’s commercial discussions today centre on purpose, rather than traditional metrics like broadcast reach and eyeballs. In fact, Morgan herself participates in every commercial pitch the organisation makes to potential partners, and while she acts as the self-proclaimed “critical friend of SailGP” her stance is always to find ways of making a deal happen.
Such an approach gives newer or more niche properties an edge over larger rivals, said Morgan, particularly those who may be restricted by legacy relationships or struggling to move away from long-established ways of doing business.
Myth #3: Fans don’t care about sustainability…
One common myth is that sports fans, particularly ageing traditionalists and the most ardent supporters, simply don’t care about sustainability: what they want above all else is success for their team at any cost. Yet recent research suggests that characterisation is misguided.
Just as consumers vote with their wallets, there is a growing wealth of evidence that indicates sports fans invest their money in events and brands who share and champion their values. This is particularly evident in women’s sport, which is increasingly being recognised within the industry as an untapped growth opportunity.
Family-oriented and purpose-driven, with a clear focus on female empowerment and improving gender diversity within sport and society, all the key metrics in women’s sport are heading skyward. Attendances, viewership, merchandise sales, commercial rights fees and social media engagement are on the rise, so the idea that sports fans don’t care about issues like diversity, inclusion and social purpose would appear to be some way off the mark.
Last year, a study by sports marketing agency The Space Between found that 50 per cent of women’s sport fans ‘strongly agree’ that sponsors should look ‘to make the world a better place’, with 40 per cent considering it to be of great importance that sponsors reflect their own values.
As Tomson noted, increased investment in women’s properties and female athletes should be seen as an obvious opportunity not only to expand audience reach, but to grow the financial bottom line in the long run.
Myth #4: Sustainability is just a fad…
Call it “dinner party conversation” or, as Morgan put it, “pub chat”, but sustainability is now at the forefront of public discourse. Climate change, plastic pollution, fossil fuels: people are readily talking about the big environmental challenges in their everyday lives – and, of course, the problems are not going away anytime soon.
In fact, sustainability is so in vogue it is now found on sports industry conference agendas across the globe, not just at SportsPro Live. But the issue runs far deeper than talk.
Nowadays people are reevaluating their own attitudes and behaviours, taking steps to reduce their environmental impact, and even switching jobs to build more meaningful careers in what has fast become a hugely relevant field. As a result organisations are restructuring their businesses, hiring specialist talent and remodelling senior leadership teams to give sustainability directors greater influence by virtue of a seat at the top levels of decision making.
Such measures would suggest sustainability is far from a fad. Indeed Tomson, a veteran consultant who has worked in the space for well over two decades, is living proof that sustainability is by no means a passing craze.
Morgan, who joined SailGP from Sky in 2020, wholeheartedly agrees. Her own job title – global director of purpose and impact – is evidence of the importance that younger, more forward-thinking sports organisations are placing on sustainability in all its forms.
Now, given the scale and urgency of the climate emergency, Morgan believes environmental sustainability should underpin every decision made at an organisational level – from the transport provided to fans and the food served at venues, to commercial partners and recruitment strategy.