Sport needs clear boundaries when it comes to climate commitments and partnerships. Regulation should be part of the conversation
Who should be allowed to own and control a football club, or any other sports property for that matter? It’s not a question we often ask about other businesses in other sectors, but it’s conventional wisdom that sports teams have a cultural and emotional value way beyond the dollars and cents they generate (or, in many cases, don’t generate).
It’s a topic that the UK government has been pondering for a year, and, through its recently published white paper, ‘A Sustainable Future – Reforming Club Football Governance’, has decided that some form of regulatory action should be on the table when a group or individuals throw their hat in the ring to acquire one of British football’s beloved institutions.
A new owners and directors test has been put forward as a method to safeguard clubs from being purchased by unsuitable parties. This test will address three key elements: 1. Making sure prospective owners have sufficient integrity, honesty, financial soundness and competence; 2. A legitimate source of wealth; and 3. Robust financial plans for the club.
The latter two are clear, but the first point leaves room for ambiguity. How can sufficient integrity and honesty be quantified? Does it extend only to the person or group vying to take control of the football club, or the industry that they are part of?
Manchester United, the team with the most league titles in English football and a cultural behemoth, is reportedly up for sale. There are two main bidders – the oil and gas connected Qatari billionaire Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani and Sir Jim Ratcliffe, founder of the petrochemical company Ineos that has interests in a number of sports, from cycling to sailing.
Individuals and groups with past involvement in bankruptcies, a history of dishonest dealings, specific unspent criminal convictions and suspensions or bans from other sports will be heavily scrutinised and, likely, be banned from owning or controlling a football club.
Could – and should – there be a similar criterion in place that assesses the core business of the prospective new owner to determine suitability? As the foundations and structures of football continue to be threatened and impacted by climate change (one in four of England’s 92 league teams can expect climate-related partial or total flooding of their stadiums by 2050), is it reasonable for oil and gas companies, or individuals who have profited from fossil fuels, to be appointed custodians of football clubs?
It’s a discussion point that can be argued one way or another but the fact is that climate change is a material issue for sport – not something on the periphery. How we address (or fail to address) the climate crisis in the present and upcoming years will have a significantly material impact on the health and viability of sport. The industry as we know it is in the balance, and that’s no exaggeration.
For that reason, it’s probably time for sport to entertain the notion of establishing a climate regulator to make important calls on issues like greenwashing and the extent to which massive polluters are allowed to be involved in an industry that their activities harm, while holding organisations in sport to account for their own climate commitments and actions.
While there are supporting frameworks like the UNFCCC Sports for Climate Action Framework, and lots of excellence guidance, there is a failure at most levels in sport to take a coordinated approach to climate change, indicating a need for greater governance mechanisms.
In an excellent edition of the Unofficial Partner Podcast, Shaun Whatling, chief executive of sponsorship consultancy Redmandarin, rightly pointed out the discrepancies between Liverpool FC’s excellent work to achieve the ISO 20121 event sustainability management standard and the fact that its men’s team took a 33-minute flight from Newcastle after a league match shortly afterwards (a large chunk of the podcast explores sport’s shifting relationship with the oil and gas industry).
A climate regulator for sport could take difficult decisions out of the hands of clubs and federations by imposing rules around travel, energy and other operations aspects like procurement, for example. It could also help those within sport – as well as those watching on – understand what is legitimate and what is greenwashing.
In the same way that the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority ruled that Lufthansa’s ‘protecting the planet’ advertising campaign had been misleading and misrepresented the airline’s carbon footprint, the climate regulator could perform a similar function when it comes to sustainability claims made by sports organisations, either in isolation or with commercial partners.
Is it misleading for oil and gas giant Shell to claim that it will “accelerate British Cycling’s path to net zero” when its own path to net zero – through investments in renewable energy – has been dubbed misleading itself?
When more than 400 snowsport athletes call on the International Ski Federation (FIS) to do more around climate action, but FIS “disagrees” that its sustainability efforts are “insufficient”, who’s right? And what should be done to determine that?
While free-marketeers generally push back against regulation, claiming that more red tape will stifle growth and innovation for sport, evidence suggests that providing a defined set of parameters can actually ignite innovation. Last week, I had the pleasure of being part of the judging panel for the SportPro Hackathon in which university students from all over the world presented ideas to improve the ‘triple bottom line’ (people, planet, profit) of sport. In this third edition of the Hackathon, the more stringent set of rules and criteria generated a more thoughtful and creative range of ideas.
So what would the sports climate regulator be responsible for? To my mind, at the very least, developing universal requirements around travel, approaches to carbon emission reduction and greenwashing (whether that’s organisational claims or climate unfriendly partnerships) – as well as exploring appropriate consequence for those that fail to comply.
Putting the stick to one side, the carrot is the potential to rebuild sport in a progressive, innovative and nimble way. It could revolutionise the way we approach partnerships and, from a technical point of view, accelerate the industry’s adoption of pioneering technologies, such as a blockchain ledger that transparently showcases sports organisation’s progress in terms of carbon reduction.
Climate regulation has the potential to enable all of this, improving sport and safeguarding its future. It’s time we started talking about it.
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