Football, and sport in general, can adapt its historical role in the heart of the community to tackle current and future problems, like climate change, says James Atkins
“The power of sport” is something of a cliché. But it’s a valuable cliché – big brands believe in it, spending something like $65bn a year globally on sponsorship and advertising through sport. It’s because 81% of football fans trust brand sponsorships at sporting events, only slightly fewer than the 89% who trust personal recommendations of their friends and peers. Sporting allegiances touch people’s identities, so a message coming from the clubs and players we love reaches our hearts more effectively than other messages.
That power works well beyond the realm of persuading us to drink, or not to drink, Coca Cola. It played a role in toppling apartheid. Through taking the knee and rainbow laces, it’s helping people realise that even if someone is different from you, they deserve just as much respect as you expect from other people.
So we set out to see: can you harness that power to get people to take action on climate change?
This is an important question because other efforts to get action on climate change have been unsuccessful, whether political or otherwise.
When politicians and policy-makers try to get people to do something about climate change – reduce their greenhouse gas emissions – there are basically two things they do: make bad things more expensive (taxes, emission trading schemes), and good things cheaper (subsidies). Well, for one reason or another this approach does not seem to have achieved a lot since 1997 when the Kyoto Protocol was agreed. Even if these schemes work, there’s never really the broad-based political support to make them bite.
Tom Gribbin and I are co-founders of Planet League and before we did this we both spent a lot of time working in the field of climate change, trying to help or persuade businesses and individuals to operate more sustainably. Tom worked on a national campaign with big brands like Tesco, O2 and British Gas, working closely with Tony Blair’s office, to try and get people to fit more insulation. There are lots of reasons why people won’t fit insulation and not very many reasons why they would. It’s really, really difficult. I’ve worked for over 20 years with industrial companies across Europe, which are stuck in the same economic trap most of us are in, and seeing how they could get interested in cutting emissions. Not much luck there, either, even though there was a carbon price built into their business models.
Planet League has now run six sustainability tournaments for fans, and over 70 clubs and their community organisations are involved. In our tournaments fans sign up to represent their clubs and score goals in weekly fixtures by completing green actions which they have to evidence by uploading photos of themselves doing the action.
Some of the actions are directly about cutting emissions or using fewer resources – such as “Over the Line” – line-drying clothes instead of using a tumble dryer, or “Fergie-time Food” where you buy yellow label food close to the sell-by date to reduce food waste. Other activities are about getting out into nature, such as “For Tree Tree” which is simply about finding a tree and giving it a hug, or “On the Wing”, about spotting and identifying a bird, because there is evidence that if (young) people spend time in nature they are more likely to adopt environmentally beneficial behaviours as adults.
Our first tournament was a pilot involving six clubs and 20 families from the Midlands of England in summer 2020. Over the last two years it has steadily grown. Our latest five-week tournament which finished in mid-November involved 78 clubs and CCOs and over 70,000 actions were completed, taking the total number of actions to over 140,000 with savings of over 600 tonnes of CO2e. The winners were Northampton Town, with Manchester United Foundation coming a close second. We’ve also protected an area of rainforest the size of 5,000 football pitches, as part of our partnership with the Rainforest Trust UK, ascribing those areas of forests to the clubs whose fans had the most impact.
Planet League is not alone in this new space. Similar organisations include Pledgeball, which is based around making climate-friendly pledges, Planet Earth Games, where athletes encourage fans to take on healthy and environmentally friendly challenges, and We Play Green, established by Union Berlin’s Norwegian midfielder, Morten Thorsby.
Planet League and the others have proven that the influence of athletes and their clubs can get people to do things for the planet which they otherwise would not do. Although we don’t know how far this influence stretches, it’s a counter-case to the mainstream economic orthodoxy that people will only do things for economic reasons. It’s clear that people will do good things for other reasons, and at a lower cost than what economic policy would predict.
We’ve coined a new term for the way that sports organisations can wield their influence to bring about reductions in greenhouse gas emissions: Scope F. This is based on the model of Scopes 1, 2 and 3 in the world of carbon footprinting and measuring emissions. These scopes refer to different categories of emissions which an organisation is responsible for, direct and indirect, and up and down the supply chain. Scope F emissions and emission reductions are those which result from the influence that athletes and sports organisations have on their fans.
In the case of an influential football club with millions of fans, Scope F emission reductions can be substantially larger than reductions in Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions. While a club’s own operations might have emissions in the order of 30,000 to 40,000 tonnes per year, and so a 10% reduction would imply savings of 3,000 to 4,000 tonnes per year, a club could bring about hundreds of thousands of tonnes of emission reductions if it can encourage a portion of its fans to switch to renewable energy sources, shift transport modes or make lasting changes to their diets.
Scope F also points to commercial opportunities: no less than the creation of a new sponsorship category to add to the $65bn sports sponsorship sector. Brands can become the green fan engagement sponsor of a sports property, bringing a new revenue stream for those properties while creating reportable reductions in emissions and making a valuable contribution to tackling emissions – not only raising awareness but also stimulating real action on climate.
But none of this is enough. This isn’t being critical. It is a positive point: that there is potential for clubs’ engagement with fans to be much more and more meaningful. What is happening today is just the beginning of something which could spark a radical shift in how we perceive sports organisations and their position in society.
To give this context we have to go back over a hundred years to when football clubs were established in England. Life in industrial towns and cities in the 19th century was tough and dangerous, and mass-participation sport was evolving to give young people purpose and belonging. In 1875, two church wardens, looking to find ways to help young men in Manchester avoid gang violence and alcoholism, set up a cricket club. But there’s no cricket in the winter, so in 1880 a football club was also established. This became Manchester City Football Club.
The tradition of clubs being there to do good in the community has continued. While the players themselves don’t need so much help any more, the communities do. And throughout Europe, football clubs, large and small, are closely involved in an extraordinary range of social and environmental projects in their immediate communities. At a recent conference of the European Football Development Network, people spoke of projects in at least the following areas: energy poverty, climate action, literacy, financial literacy, diabetes, refugee integration, learning to cook, dental care, dementia care, loneliness, gender, discrimination and diversity, exercise and fitness, mental health, cerebral palsy, blindness, drug and alcohol abuse, nutrition, disability football, walking football, singing at old people’s homes, first aid awareness, training and workplace skills, creating low-income housing and running allotments. Even a small club like Northampton Town is involved in over 40 social and environmental projects.This is to say that football clubs are shaping entire communities, helping create healthier, wealthier, kinder, and more hopeful towns and cities.
There’s a particularly interesting instance in the case of Bohemian FC where Climate Justice Officer, Sean Mccabe, is masterminding a programme of Community Wealth Building in Bohemian’s community in Dublin, Ireland. Community Wealth Building is a political-economic approach with roots in the New Deal in the US, the Mondragon cooperatives of the Basque country in Spain, and, most recently, put in practice by the city of Preston in north-west England.
This implies a thrilling vision for the role of football clubs in towns and cities. As the strongest, most unifying brands, with economic clout and convening power, football clubs are vital forces for social good. They can further build on their power as anchor institutions and take over leadership on local economical and environmental development – trailblazing pathways to a low-carbon society – in a way that political forces have failed to. Because unlike the average politician, they are in it for the long-run. Typically over a hundred years old, football clubs want to last for another hundred years. They have a greater incentive for longevity and with that can impart to their people a greater sense of purpose and agency, than other urban institutions. Clubs enjoy more trust and more belief.
Moreover, their interests can be constructively selfish: they can benefit from healthy and stable communities as sources of future talent, of fans, and of political legitimacy.
Is there a risk they overextend themselves, trying to become political-economic forces when their first job is to win football matches? Yes it is a risk. Doing good stuff, doing stuff for good is always risky. But the prize is guiding communities in a successful transition to a low-carbon economy. Securing and restoring life on the planet – even Bill Shankly might agree that’s more important even than football.
But what will it take for this to happen?
We think there are at least four elements which need to fall into place.
First, the people right at the top of football need to step up. With the fact that it’s a globally important business, an important source of public entertainment, with that comes responsibility. Football execs: you’re in the hot seat, and it’s going to get much hotter soon. They need to realise that tackling climate change and ecological collapse is one of the single most important challenges we have, and that social justice is intimately bound up with that. You can’t hide any more, pretending it’s not your responsibility. We’ve shown the power football has, and the people in charge of this extraordinary social force that football is, have to raise their game. No more excuses for dodging the bullet on climate action, and recyclable cups won’t wash. We are talking about something much bigger than that.
Second, someone needs to pay. The weird economics of football mean there’s stacks of cash for transfers and salaries, and not much else. The money’s got to come from the outside. That’s probably the brands which pay to associate with football. Encouraging fans to take climate action, even being instrumental in community wealth building, does not need to cost much by comparison to the size of the main sponsorship deals. We see that new categories of commercial partnership need to open up around engaging fans on climate action and climate justice. This means co-funding clubs to play that leadership role helping their communities become more just, more resilient and ecologically sustainable.
Third, brilliant communications are needed. When you look at Nike’s World Cup ad, you’re seeking the peak of creativity in human communications. That sustains a cobbler with a market cap of $160bn. To recruit fans in taking action for the planet, and to get them to stick at it, will take that and more. We need brilliant story-telling, breathtaking, bold imagery, and life-changing calls to action.
Finally, organisations like Planet League and others – current and future – in this field, must constantly develop new products and structures to engage fans in climate action, as individuals, within their families, and within their communities. Lists of individual actions to save the planet are important starting points on sustainability journeys, but we need to move on from that. We have to find ways to help build genuine environmental citizenship, where individuals have time and wherewithal to care for each other and for the natural world, living better, healthier lives while using fewer resources.
James Atkins is the co-founder of Planet League