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Sustainability in Sport: How 5 sport brands are playing the game for a better future

Updated: Sep 7, 2021

Back in 2015, the members of the United Nations agreed on a package of 17 goals as part of an effort to adopt the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda:

Sustainable Development Goals 2030

Logically, a huge collective effort is needed in order to meet those goals and that is the reason we are launching a new series of blog posts aimed at raising awareness around the topic. As many others have done, the sports industry needs to embrace the sustainability challenge as well to provide the world a better future. Moreover, given the power that sport has proven to have in driving social change and empowerment across the world, it makes sense that sport organizations help and even lead in carrying the flag in order to influence their millions of fans and customers to do the same.

In this initial post, we bring you five examples of major global sport organizations world that are already taking steps towards a more sustainable future just to give you a sense of the type of properties that are involved in the game.

Juventus: Sustainability as a key area of the business

One of the biggest brands in football (soccer), Juventus F.C., implemented a more “business minded” structure to the club back in 2017 and which included the creation of a department focused exclusively on sustainable development. Through their efforts, they primarily impact on the following objectives:

  • #3 Good Health & Wellbeing

  • #4 Quality education

  • #10 Reduced Inequalities

  • #13 Climate action

  • #17 Partnership for the goals

The club even publishes an annual sustainability report that is audited by PWC which you can access through this link. We particularly liked the “One Tree Planted” initiative in which 200 trees are planted for every goal a Juventus player scores. As of today, the club reports that more than 18.000 trees have been planted.

Southampton & Premier League Clubs: Driving sustainable efforts in the local community

Southampton is another example of a sports property carrying out a strong effort in not only driving sustainable change, but involving its local community in the process. “The Halo Effect” is the name behind their initiative and they have a pretty cool framework to explain it...

The Halo Effect Southampton

...which they have also summarized in this video:

Similarly to Juve and, as we already shared in #20 The Ballketing Letter, the club is planting trees around the area in an effort to compensate CO2 emissions:

The club is set to plant a minimum of 3,000 trees in the region over the next four years linking it to an objective of having three players from their youth teams making their first appearance with the first team each year. As a result, Southampton is looking to compensate for 3,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions.

And, related to this, the BBC actually published a ranking back in January of 2021 with the more sustainable clubs, in which Southampton was actually ranked #4 and Tottenham Hotspur being awarded the #1 spot.

BBC English Premier League Sustainability Ranking

In fact, it is Tottenham who embraced the challenge of hosting the first "net zero" game in EPL history. Measures included, as reported by Stadium Business, having players travel by bus to the stadium (vs in individual vehicles), modifications in the food items put on sale (more "plant-based) or asking fans to go to the game using public transport or bicycles. Finally, Tottenham, Sky and Natural Capital Partners worked together on compensating the remaining emissions through reforestation projects.

Daniel Levy, Tottenham´s chairman, had this to say about the initiative, which we believe will not be the last one:

“As the Premier League’s greenest club, Tottenham Hotspur is passionate about our planet – we look forward to showcasing our wide range of sustainable measures that are already in place and encouraging our fans to take simple actions that can make a huge difference.”

Climate Pledge Arena Seattle: Demonstrating that sustainability drives positive ROI

Another interesting example can be found in the design of the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, whose naming rights are owned by Amazon. Sportico reports that halfway through its construction, the online retailer reconsidered the initial plans and decided it wanted to build the first “zero-carbon arena.” And while this meant a significant additional investment, there is a firm belief these will pay off not only in the reduction of the environmental impact, but in the improvement of the P&L.

This stadium will be home to the NHL´s Seattle Kraken and Rob Johnson, its VP of Sustainability, had this to say in the case for sport properties to embrace sustainable strategies even as a means to achieve better returns on investment:

“There’s less volatility than the price of more carbon-intensive resources, so while natural gas might seem cheaper today, the long curve is likely to be more expensive than electricity. There’s a case to be made about some of the long-term operating expenses, but our ownership group was more motivated by ensuring that we are really taking this climate pledge seriously.”

From a cost reduction perspective, teams like the St.Louis Cardinals were able to reduce their energy bill by 24%. Additionally, on the other side of the P&L, a new window of sponsorship agreements open up for sport properties as confirmed by Mr. Johnson, who saw a remarkable increase in the number of brands interested in being associated with the team after announcing the aforementioned changes.

Formula E: Sustainability in its brand purpose

We particularly like this case because Formula E has “sustainability” embedded in its brand purpose. In case you do not know, Formula E is a racing competition between electric vehicles. As SportsPro Media shares in this article, the foundations of its strategy reside on 3 pillars, Environment, Social & Economy, and the organization even works with cities in reducing emissions, waste and air pollution.

The competition includes racing cars from major brands such as Jaguar, Audi, Porsche or Mercedes, proving the level of support it enjoys. Moreover, Forbes shares the major KPIs that prove the success of Formula E:

  • Seen in 150 countries around the world

  • 40 media partners

  • €200 million in revenues during the 2019 season (+50% vs 2018) & €1 million in profit although, like all other sports, it took a major hit during the 2020 season because of the pandemic

  • Major brands as corporate sponsors including Michelin, DHL, BMW or ABB

Many, including James Barclay (from Jaguar Racing), see Formula E becoming the leading motorsport competition in the future, :

“It’s a very exciting time—we’re accelerating toward the future, it’s great knowing there is the investment in not just the team but the future of sustainable mobility.”

Copenhagen: The benchmark of a “sustainable society”

There are even cities looking to drive sustainable change within the very roots of its society. The prime example here is Copenhagen, which is considered one of the most eco-friendly cities on the planet thanks to its 450 km of bicycle lanes, where 70% of hotels are eco-certified, or the fact that there are 5 times more bikes than cars.

What is even more remarkable in their case though, is that they align their “brand” with the type of sporting events they decide to host and the ones they reject. On one hand, they have a very solid relationship with the UCI, and among others, it will be hosting several of their Championships, the Tour de France, the UEFA Euro cup or the Canoe Sprint World Championships in the very near future. On the other hand, it was able to stop the development of a Formula One Grand Prix because it did not align with the city´s values (would it have been a different case if it were a Formula E race?).

Copenhagen understands what it represents as a city and the legacy it wishes to leave behind.

The game has just begun

While the above are 5 examples of major sport brands involved in sustainable related efforts, the truth is there is still a lot that needs to be done, not only in terms of actions, but in raising overall awareness. On that note, Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, environmental science advisor for the New York Yankees and the founding director of Sport and Sustainability International, argues that sport needs to leverage the influence it has in society:

“But if you’re looking at biological impacts on the planet, the biggest bang for the buck—the single most important thing we can do to advance sustainability—is change cultural attitudes [and] expectations about how we relate to the planet. Sport can do that, because sport has been enormously influential culturally. Less than 20% of American adults follow science; 80% follow sports.”

Our objective with this series is to contribute our small portion of the pie and bring you more interesting initiatives that hopefully will inspire your own set of ideas to implement in your sport or fitness business to create a more sustainable future and a better playing field.

Meanwhile, keep safe.


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