Mapping sport’s path to sustainable growth

Mapping sport’s path to sustainable growth

How can sport be robust, financially viable and limit its impact on the planet? Together, we’ll have to find a way

Growth and sustainability. Can they coexist in the sports industry? That’s the question we asked The Sustainability Report community last week through a survey sent out to our subscribers.

It’s a fundamental question; not just for sport but for all industries. Growth, in particular economic growth, has been our overarching KPI for so long it’s difficult to see the world through any other lens. 

James Carville, Bill Clinton’s strategist when he successfully won the 1992 US presidential election, famously said “it’s the economy, stupid” in relation to the cares and concerns of voters.

Things have moved on in the 30 subsequent years but the broad outlook is the same. We look towards economic metrics to assess how we’re doing, with all strategies geared towards growth.

So in that context, it may be a little unfair to ask the sports industry to buck the trend and turn its back on growth, particularly considering that, in comparison to other industries, it is relatively small.

And, after all, if sport continues to grow in terms of revenue and participation it should be seen as an inherently positive thing. Money that sports organisations make should, in theory, go back into sport, increasing opportunities for participation and therefore social inclusion and improved human health.

Growth in sport becomes a problem when it is viewed on a purely economic basis, like the doomed European Super League project that would likely have been a social and environmental disaster if it had gained traction.

There are grey(ish) areas. If Premier League football clubs fly all over the world for pre-season tours (as many do), the cumulative carbon emissions related to those flights are significant – probably huge if looked at over a number of years.

These tours are driven by economic factors; club’s want an opportunity to grow their fanbase and monetise them. It’s hard to justify rich Premier League clubs doing such ecological damage on a yearly basis to top up their coffers alone. 

But many, if not all, would argue that these tours are necessary to give overseas fans an opportunity to see their heroes in the flesh. To give them a special moment that they will never forget. At the heart of it, isn’t that what sport is all about? 

International federations and national governing bodies constantly try to grow participation to make their sports more attractive and financially viable. Participation growth has various ecological knock-on effects – increased travel, increased manufacturing of kit and equipment and construction of venues.

However, it also gives people the opportunities to try and enjoy new sports, stay fit, become socially active and improve their self-confidence and, in some cases, even future employment prospects.

In this conversation of growth vs sustainability, sport has to be careful that it doesn’t turn into an inclusion vs sustainability argument. To remain financial viable and inclusive, but to make the changes necessary to become more environmentally sustainable, is going to be a difficult juggling act for many organisations. 

This friction appears to be at the heart of sport’s hesitency to go all in for environmental sustainability. There’s a fear that change will reduce quality and opportunity.

The results of the survey tell a more optimistic story, though, with 70% of respondents believing that growth and sustainability don’t have to be mutually exclusive in sport. A reframing of growth was a consistent suggestion made by those taking part.

“Rather than focus on quantitative growth sport should shift towards qualitative development that benefits society and in turn brings the sports industry rewards in the long-term,” said one respondent.

But how can sport put that into practice?

“Reduce scale, encourage VR, make better political and humane choice for host cities and countries, and use sustainability and social justice as the major guiding principle for organising major events,” added another.

A third respondent suggested the creation of a “social contract” between rights holders and fans, with the former providing the latter with “signposts” to help them play their part, and sports funding linked to sustainability criteria. 

“For the sports industry to grow while reducing its pressure on the Earth’s environmental boundaries it needs a new approach that cascades down from the international federations through funding incentives to national federations, leagues and clubs,” added a fourth.

“It needs to be an approach that puts ethical decision-making at the heart of business operations, which would see sports entities make decisions that lead to growth in a manner that is considerate of social and environmental issues. Can we use renewable energy instead? How can we make this equipment using recycled material? How can we deliver social and environmental value through our sponsorship?”

Ultimately, it has to make financial sense and avoid negatively impacting the quality of the product.

At the SportsPro Live Conference earlier this week in London, much of the chatter was around deepening relationships with fans and how to do so. Of course, the now ubiquitous conversation around NFTs were present, but in more than one session rights holders and brands explained that sustainability and purpose were key to strengthening bonds with people by caring about what they care about.

Claire Cronin, the chief marketing officer for McLaren Racing, explained that a focus on sustainability was key to fostering fan loyalty, and every potential partner was scrutinised under the microscope of how they could work with McLaren to improve people’s lives.

It was a sentiment echoed by Steve Elworthy, the chief executive of Surrey County Cricket Club, who said his organisation was being positioned as a “social enterprise” more than a traditional sports clubs with it’s focus on social and ecological stewardship.

Indeed, he told delegates at the conference that Surrey CCC had recently established its own Values & Culture Board that focuses specifically on diversity, equality and inclusion and ESG (environmental, social and governance) issues, with a dedicated executive responsible for its contribution.

“What people value has changed and we have to reflect that,” said Elworthy. “Sustainability is high on the agenda.”

This could be the starting point for reimagining and futureproofing the sports industry; a sports industry that is still robust, financially viable and attractive, but genuinely and systematically works to reduce its environmental footprint.

In the coming months through our content on The Sustainability Report, we’ll try to put the pieces of the puzzle together to paint a picture of what that landscape could look like. We’d love you to come along for the journey.

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