Sustainability can be sport’s game-changing utility player

Sustainability can be sport’s game-changing utility player

While an isolated focus on sustainability is not a top priority for many sports properties, Leaders Week highlighted its potential ability to support a number of core objectives

“Nothing we have achieved over the last few years would have happened without James Milner, it’s as easy as that.”

Jürgen Klopp in 2022, reflecting on the utility player’s impact on Liverpool’s trophy-laden years, which included UEFA Champions League and Premier League triumphs.

Milner’s unique ability to seamlessly switch positions and make crucial contributions sets players like him apart. However, not all teams recognise the value of such versatility, often favouring specialists in key roles like centre forward, centre back or playmaker. The true worth of these versatile players often emerges in challenging situations, such as injury crises or tactical adjustments.

The sports industry faces its own significant challenge in the form of the climate crisis, with both physical risks to venues, athlete health and competitions and reputational risks for insufficient action.

Addressing this challenge in isolation is potentially not the most pressing issue for many sports leaders (with only a fraction of properties signed up to initiatives like the UNFCCC Sports for Climate Action Framework, for example), who may perceive it as distant, complex or costly. They question the return on investment, given their performance is often assessed by different metrics and their tenures are relatively short.

That said, after attending Leaders Week in London, I left with a cautiously optimistic outlook, even though sustainability received limited attention. I came away with the strange notion that sustainability could play the ‘James Milner role’ for the sports industry – adding value to and supporting a number of current and emerging strategic priorities in sport, including engagement, investment and partnerships.

In a session led by Alex Scott, BBC broadcaster and former Arsenal and England defender, and Meta’s Louise Holmes, innovative mediums like VR and generative AI were discussed as means to connect with audiences in more immersive ways. The key takeaway was the central role of purpose in these interactions. The idea of fans engaging with AI versions of their favourite athletes to discuss various aspects of sport and societal issues was put forward. This offers a personal, engaging way to connect audiences with complex and often uncomfortable issues without being overly preachy.

Holmes also highlighted the potential of VR headsets to provide immersive experiences. During a talk I gave at the Sport Positive Summit earlier this month, I put forward the idea that this could effectively bring fans closer to the climate issues impacting the sports industry, potentially inspiring empathy and behaviour change.

EY’s first Sport Engagement Index ranked sports based on fan engagement, broken down into three areas: following, participating and attending. Notably, sports with strong ties to the natural environment and sustainability, such as cycling, Formula E, climbing and wellness, were put forward as ‘ones to watch’. Cycling and Formula E promote active, eco-friendly transportation, while climbing boasts influential sustainability advocates like Sasha DiGiulian, aligning with the outdoors and natural environment.

These emerging sports must seize their growing popularity and commercialise to better serve their audiences. A sponsorship session emphasised the need for compelling, personal narratives that transition from sponsorship to mutual value. Representatives from PepsiCo, Rexona, Green King and General Mills emphasised the importance of crafting compelling, personal narratives that transition from sponsorship to mutual benefit. Adam Warner of PepsiCo highlighted the brand’s circular economy partnership with UEFA as an example. 

The panel noted a widespread deficiency in sports’ ability to construct narratives around all of their assets. Those excelling in this endeavour prioritised purpose and authenticity. Given the heightened emphasis on climate action and sustainability for a number of corporates and brands, it’s logical to strive for mutual value for both the rights holder and the brand, as well as stakeholder or societal value, benefiting both the environment and society.

We heard, during a number of sessions, that female athletes place great importance on the brands they represent. With the rapid growth of women’s sports, there is a significant opportunity for sustainability to be at the forefront, reshaping not only gender equity in sports, but also environmental justice.

During a session on evolving commercial partnerships, directors from Chelsea FC, DC United and Newcastle United FC identified three key sectors ripe for investment in women’s football: financial services, technology and destinations. These sectors either invest in or have the potential to mobilise capital for a low-carbon, equitable future (financial services), drive innovation and progress (technology), or are actively working to preserve their unique qualities by addressing climate change and environmental issues (destinations).

Victoire Cogevina Reynal, founder of the groundbreaking women’s football ownership group Mercury 13, aptly stated that thriving women’s football requires breaking conventions, abandoning men’s models and starting anew.

Building women’s football, one of the world’s fastest-growing sports, from scratch offers an opportunity to completely redefine the sporting landscape. Given the disproportionate impact of climate change on women and girls worldwide, it is fitting to prioritise this as a core value, especially within a multi-club ownership group capable of setting benchmarks and establishing new standards.

Throughout Leaders Week, the mantra was “meeting people where they are,” particularly in terms of engaging with fans and spectators. As sustainability advocates in sports, it is our responsibility to understand and integrate sustainability into the core strategic priorities of sports leaders and meet them where they are. Let’s play the ‘James Milner role’ and quietly guide our industry towards success in tackling the climate crisis.

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