Summer of sport: 5 key ways to engage fans and athletes with sustainability
Headlines in recent weeks have been dominated by sporting results, from the Ashes to Wimbledon. How can we get fans and sports stars to care just as much about the environment – especially amid a season of extreme weather?
That was one of the key questions on the agenda as SailGP hosted its annual ‘Champions for Change’ discussions in London last week. The gathering brought together athletes, broadcasters, tournament directors and sustainability professionals, in a bid to spark ideas and action for a more inclusive and sustainable global sports landscape.
Here are five top tips that the speakers had about embedding sustainability into sports-related communications, which could help to mobilise an influential global community in building a sustainable future.
1) Encourage friendly competition
Competition is the crux of any sporting event, for the athletes and the fans alike. So, why shouldn’t leagues and championships crown a sustainability champion as well as handing out their usual medals or trophies?
SailGP has been hosting an ‘Impact League’ since Season 2. The league enables teams to rack up points for operating sustainably and for going above and beyond with extra initiatives that benefit nature, climate and social inclusion. Experts on topics like clean energy, plastic pollution and women in sport help SailGP to co-judge the league, as do independent adjudicators.
At the end of the season, one team gets to take the Impact League trophy. They may or may not be the winning team for the season itself.
“Teams are just as keen to get their hands on the Impact League trophy as the regular trophy,” SailGP’s director of purpose and impact Fiona Morgan says, recounting how one of the winners from Denmark insisted on cuddling the trophy (pictured) for good luck.
Teams are now encouraging SailGP to make collecting Impact League points more of a challenge, Morgan added, as they a) want to have a greater positive impact on communities and nature, and b) want the competition to be even fiercer.
This gamified approach has also proven popular with fans in other, separate campaigns. Hubbub’s voting bins saw a battle for the title of world’s best footballer being voted on with cigarette buts and drinks cans. And Fair Game produces an index ranking the most sustainable Premier League clubs as do a handful of other UK organisations including Sky and the BBC.
2) Don’t take community connections for granted
As much as sport is about competition, it is also about community. Fans relish the chance to come together in support of something bigger than themselves.
This, Sky Sports presenter David Garrido explains, was a key reason why the broadcaster’s ‘Green Football Weekend’ in February (pictured) was such a success. The campaign saw more than 80 football clubs taking action on climate change, encouraging their players and fans to join in.
Likewise, Sky Sports and other broadcasters shone a spotlight on environmental topics during downtime. There were dedicated game-show-like challenges and interviews galore. Fans were also given tips to save money by improving energy and water efficiency. Sky’s new ‘Sports Summer of Sustainability’ campaign will offer more of the same sorts of content, but for cricket fans.
This creates an environment in which open discussions about environmental topics are encouraged among fan bases which may otherwise shy away from the subject.
But we all know that discussions need to be converted into action. The panel emphasised the importance of making more sustainable options – like walking, cycling, public transport, reusable cups and lower-carbon menu choices – the norm for fans. Most of them will want as convenient and affordable a game-day experience as possible. This requires collaborations between broadcasters, clubs, councils and key suppliers.
3) Athletes’ influence is your not-so-secret weapon
The first two points are doubtless more impactful when the athletes themselves are on board. After all, how many of us started watching because we wanted to follow a particular person? *
Influence stems beyond captivating the hearts and minds of budding fans. Annual lists of the 100 most influential people are always peppered with athletes.
Garrido noted that the believes most members of the public will listen to athletes more than they do to politicians, or other kinds of celebrities, as trust in governments and businesses continues to decrease. And businesses will listen, too, especially if they risk losing their star players directly.
After Cristiano Ronaldo told fans to drink water, not Coca-Cola, in 2021, the business’s market value fell overnight. Just as athletes can criticize unsustainable behaviours, they can also uplift success stories and share their own experience, explained Tottenham Hotspur defender Amy Turner.
Turner has been using her social media platforms and media interviews to advocate for others to follow her lead and teach themselves about climate issues.
She was asked why she does this and responded: “It’s important for each of us to make our own ‘ripple effect’ and (…) do whatever we can, however big or small it might be.”
4) Don’t shy away from the emotional aspects
Turner explained that her own climate education began as a result of her experiencing extreme weather on the pitch, which prompted her to reflect on the lack of coverage that environmental issues had on the curriculum during her time at school.
She also began thinking about what the future of football would look like in a warming world. Since 2020, she said, she has had several matches postponed due to flooding and to extreme heat.
Turner was joined on stage by alpine ski racer Chemmy Alcott. Alcott’s sport is already being severely impacted by climate change; courses are having to change to account for melting glaciers and snow loss. The Alps recorded record high temperatures last Christmas.
Alcott said that, while the organisers of winter sports have historically cared little about climate mitigation, they have faced increased pressure to minimize emissions from travel and operations since last year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing. Scenes of artificial slopes with fossil power plants in the background shocked viewers worldwide.
Her advice to other athletes and fans is not to shy away from the emotions that come with the prospect of losing their sport. This anger or sadness can spur positive action.
5) Calculate your ROI and your ROI
Linked to this point on considering what there is to lose, Garrido encouraged businesses involved in the sporting world to take the same “attitude and mindset” to cascading climate-related risks – to ask what would really happen if nothing changes for the better.
Agreeing with him was Cognizant’s global head of sustainability practice, Philip Smith. Smith said: “Don’t just measure your return on investment. Measure your risk of inaction.”
He also cautioned against betting on any one single, emerging technology as a silver bullet, imploring businesses to instead look at their mindset, strategy and their data in the first instance.
SailGP’s Morgan also pointed out that there is an increasing risk of inaction as regulatory requirements for climate compliance increase. Failure to plan for better disclosures and swifter action could well mean increased legal bills, very soon. She expressed doubt that many sporting bodies are properly prepared.
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