On the one hand, this may be due to the fact that people do not see the problems facing them in the modern world. On the other hand, due to the lack of hard evidence and numerical justifications for the profitability of taking care of sustainable practices. This may also be due to the fact that short-term thinking and the desire for quick profits still dominate the activities of people responsible for finance in companies. Or maybe it’s simply because old habits don’t go away easily.
Regardless of the explanations and reasons, there are many myths about sport sustainability that nip any progress in the bud. This, in turn, leads to many merely symbolic gestures, PR tricks, and in some cases even to greenwashing. Opponents argue that sustainable development is simply too costly and too complex to be achieved. What’s more, fans simply don’t care enough about the environment to warrant an investment.
However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the opposite is true. Sustainability is important – for fans, brands, broadcasters and law enforcement alike. Currently, there is an urgent need to strengthen the so-called the triple bottom line has made the sports industry seriously talk about the social, environmental and financial benefits (three priorities, which for simplicity are referred to as people, planet and profit) resulting from investments in future generations, more environmentally friendly practices and more sustainable business models .
The myths surrounding this phenomenon were discussed at this year’s SportsPro Live by two experts in the field of sustainable development in sport: Fiona Morgan, global director of “purpose and impact” at SailGP and Susie Tomson, director of sustainable development at ThinkBeyond.
Myth #1 “Sustainability is too expensive”
According to Tomson, implementing more sustainable practices is in line with “good business sense”. This is because rights holders are then by definition obliged to look more closely at operating methods and supply chains.
According to her, sustainable development is about striving for fuller operational efficiency and prudence in all areas of the organization. This includes streamlining sourcing processes from suppliers and better resource management in times of rising energy and food prices – naturally leading to lower operating costs and higher profits. However, some in the industry still believe that sustainability is too costly or too complicated. It is therefore worth considering the consequences that may result from disregarding this topic and not paying attention to it when setting long-term goals.
Many carbon-intensive industries – airlines, oil and gas, financial services – have been a powerful source of income for sports clubs and companies for many years. What if supposedly “good money” starts to go bad? You don’t have to look far for an example. UEFA has found itself in a financial hole after breaking its sponsorship deal with Gazprom following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The uncontrollable and unforeseen geopolitical situation has made this partnership untenable. However, long before Putin’s war, it was the subject of widespread criticism from fans and environmental circles.
Here the question arises: could UEFA, when signing the contract with Gazprom in 2012, foresee that in the future the cooperation with the energy giant, wholly owned by the state, would cause serious problems and eventually end in a break? Cases like this show that partnerships based solely on revenue can be reputational and costly. As Morgan noted, such partnerships were typically seen as short-term – or one might say short-sighted – survival mechanisms. However, nowadays (more and more conscious and creative) marketing teams take a long-term perspective.
For Morgan, this means seeking and valuing new, thriving businesses that will promote sustainable innovation. He also points out that there are many companies for which potential losses related to resigning from cooperation with companies polluting the environment could be compensated with money from other sources.
Myth #2 “Sustainability does not generate profit”
In the case of smaller sports projects, developing their own rules of sustainable development and introducing them to society can be a serious differentiator for them in a crowded sponsorship market. Let’s look at Forest Green Rovers. The English third-tier club, named by FIFA as the world’s greenest football club, has increased commercial revenue in recent seasons – in the last three years alone revenue from partners has increased fivefold. And this despite the fact that since 2010 and the takeover of the club by Ecotricity Dale Vince, social and CSR activity has been preferred over profit.
While not every club is run by a vegan eco-warrior, Tomson believes that other owners and rights holders can turn sustainability ideas into commercial opportunities. First, however, they must align their own goals, strategy and sustainability narrative more closely with the company’s goals and the positioning of a potential partner.
Tomson emphasizes that by seeking common ground and ensuring the authenticity of the actors’ commitment to ideas, this story will be remembered and will resonate with those who control marketing budgets on the other side of the negotiating table. After all, most companies want to become more environmentally friendly enterprises and their employees good citizens. As an evolutionist with a passion for sustainability, Morgan explains that 90 percent of commercial SailGP calls today are driven by the goal itself, rather than traditional metrics such as coverage and potential viewers. In fact, Morgan attends every commercial pitch the organization makes to potential partners, and while she acts as her company’s self-proclaimed “critical friend,” her attitude is always to find a way to close the deal.
This approach gives newer or more niche clubs and businesses an advantage over larger competitors, especially those that are constrained by long-standing relationships and contracts or have trouble deviating from established and previously accepted ways of doing business.
Myth #3 “Fans don't care about sustainability…”
One of the more popular myths is that sports fans, especially those aging traditionalists and most die-hard supporters, simply don’t care about sustainability. Above all, they want to achieve the success of their team at any cost. Recent research, however, suggests that this characterization is wrong.
Just as consumers are guided by their wallets, there is increasing evidence that sports fans are investing their money in events and brands that share and defend their values. This is particularly evident in women’s sport, which is increasingly seen as an untouched field for development in this sector.
Family- and purpose-oriented, with a clear focus on women’s empowerment and increasing gender diversity in sport and society – all key indicators of women’s sport have a bright future. Stadium fan base, viewership, merchandise sales, commercial rights fees and social media engagement are all increasing. Therefore, the statement that sports fans are not interested in issues of diversity or social exclusion seems to be somewhat misguided.
Last year, a survey by sports marketing agency The Space Between found that 50 percent of women’s sports fans “strongly agree” that sponsors should strive to “make the world a better place.” 40 percent believe it is very important that sponsors reflect their own values. As noted by Tomson, increased investment in women in sports, but also in their clubs, should be seen as a clear opportunity not only to expand the audience, but also to increase financial results in the long term.
Myth #4 “Sustainability is just a current and temporary fad”
We may call it “casual chat” or, as Morgan puts it, “pub talk,” but sustainability is at the forefront of public discourse today. Climate change, plastic pollution, fossil fuels: people have started to notice the challenges that the environment poses to them every day. Moreover, they began to realize that these problems would not go away anytime soon.
Sustainability is so much in vogue right now that it can be found on the agendas of sporting conferences around the world. The problem, however, goes far beyond simple conversation. Currently, people are reviewing their own attitudes and behaviors and are taking actions to reduce their impact on the environment. As a result, entities are reorganizing their businesses, hiring specialists and transforming management teams to increase the influence of sustainability directors. Such actions suggest that sustainable development is not just a passing fad. Tomson, an experienced consultant who has been working in this industry for over twenty years, is living proof that sustainability is not just a periodic madness.
Given the scale and urgency of the climate crisis, Morgan believes that environmental sustainability should have an impact on every decision made at the organizational level – from transporting fans, to food served in stadiums, to business partners and recruitment strategies.
This article is based on an analysis by Michael Long of SportsPro Media “Too expensive? Just a fad? Fans don’t care? Debunking myths in sports sustainability”