Fans, football, fear and the path to systemic change  

Fans, football, fear and the path to systemic change  

Supported by Gareth Bale and Mastercard, Pledgeball is hoping to facilitate lasting climate-positive behaviours in those connected to the world’s favourite sport

In front of 90,000 roaring fans, 22 players will forge their legacies on European football’s biggest stage at Wembley Stadium in the UEFA Champions League final between Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund on Saturday. Few sports events draw as much attention as this one. As sustainability becomes increasingly crucial, imagine the impact if a player used the occasion to promote a sustainable message.

But can we expect athletes to do something like that in what for many players will be the biggest match of their lives? Regardless, expanding international tournaments and fixture lists, raising the barriers to sustainability around them, means that fear still persists in speaking out. 

Retired since 2023, this fear has subsided somewhat within Bale, evidenced by his involvement in Mastercard and Pledgeball’s Champions Innovate Pledge League, where Bale has himself pledged to drink plant-based milk alternatives.  

“The stage that we have is so massive,” says five-time Champions League winner Gareth Bale.

“It’s important that we all try to set personal goals for the things that are important to us,” Bale adds. “It’s why I’ve given my pledge to the Mastercard Pledge Ball, and I hope the 450 million fans set to watch the final are inspired to do the same. If football has a superpower, it’s teamwork, and I think that’s exactly what our planet needs a bit of right now.”

To illustrate what’s possible, Pledgeball suggested that if 90,000 people (the capacity of Wembley) reduced their shower time to five minutes, the emissions saved would be equivalent to permanently taking over 500 cars off the road. But new research from Mastercard and British Polling Council (BPC) member Opinium, interviewing a nationally representative sample of 1,121 British football fans between 14 May and 17 May (2024):

And Pledgeball aims to leave a lasting positive legacy on this year’s host city, London, through UEFA’s Champions Innovate scheme, its inaugural programme to find start-ups that offer solutions to enhance the social and environmental impact of the 2024 Champions League Final.

Building on its existing pledge mechanism, the Pledge League mobilises fans of Champions League teams to make sustainable lifestyle pledges. Two days before the final at time of writing, a collective saving of 21,206,527.55 kgCO2e has been pledged – equivalent to 4,610 cars being taken off the road in a year. 

Representing the collective impact of the sheer number and range of pledges thus far, Pledgeball, Mastercard and Bale launched the Pledge Ball, a football made by British artist Helen Kirkum from recycled boots that is engraved with pledges from fans, clubs, players, sponsors, charities and supporter groups. In addition to Bale’s, the ball includes pledges like:

– Developing a sustainability policy and campaign for all clubs to do the same – The Football Supporters Association

Supporting circular solutions for football boots – Will Troost-Ekong

Rallying the sports community to drive systemic change – Pledgeball

Raising awareness of football’s climate concerns through our ‘Football’s Climate Conversation’ podcast – 90Min

Pledgeball founder and CEO Katie Cross believes the organisation accelerates systemic change by directly engaging individual fans. However, measuring its impact is challenging due to the various approaches possible. In October 2023, Pledgeball launched the Sustainable Travel Charter with six football league clubs to de-normalise short domestic flights, but pick-up hasn’t yet spread to some of the bigger clubs who tend to use shorter flights more often.

Persistent fear

Proving that individuals can make impactful lifestyle changes within existing systems is challenging. Cross explains that Pledgeball’s research indicates people feel uncomfortable discussing climate change, leading to infrequent conversations. However, Mastercard’s research shows that the majority of football fans are deeply concerned about it.

Ideally, everyone would make high-impact changes like reducing flying, cutting meat and dairy consumption, and increasing public transport use. However, Cross acknowledges that this isn’t feasible for everyone. Some can’t afford major changes but can engage in sustainability conversations and start with low-impact lifestyle adjustments, preventing exclusion from Pledgeball’s movement.

This inclusion extends to athletes. At the Pledge Ball launch, Bale emphasised that “baby steps” by everyone can create a “snowball effect” of change, even if each step is small. While this isn’t a revolutionary stance, it offers a way for athletes to engage. Though the responsibility for sustainable sport shouldn’t rest solely on athletes, their influence can significantly spark change.

 “I can’t see structural change happening fast enough without pressure from the public and athletes play a key role in that,” says Cross.

The 90min podcast team observed this with their Football’s Climate Conversation episodes. “We give athletes a safe space to not feel bad about addressing climate issues,” producer Jack Gallagher tells The Sustainability Report. Partnering with Pledgeball around the 2022 World Cup, 90min now provides monthly Pledgeball updates, with Cross hosting podcasts.

The latest Football’s Climate Conversation episode guest was Nigeria captain and 2023 AFCON player of the tournament William Troost-Ekong. Gallagher describes how Nigeria, PAOK and Watford fans tune into the episode to listen to Troost-Ekong, so automatically become exposed to climate issues. 

The response to the episodes have been very good, Gallagher says, who himself didn’t know much about sustainability until the partnership. Describing himself as “far from an expert”, he credits Pledgeball for showing him that small lifestyle changes, like walking more for short journeys and eating vegetarian meals, have “improved my life instead of feeling like sacrifices.” He believes this is how sustainable lifestyle changes should be presented.

Negative illusions

Negative social media feedback has perpetuated a negative discourse around sustainability in football, as clubs are “very sensitive to vocal fans”, according to Cross. However, Ashley Brown, head of governance at the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA), suggests this perception is only part of the story.

“I think it’s fair to say that we’ve had some people who are definitely more enthused than others,” he describes. “But very rarely do we see any negative pushback people that don’t wish to accept the issue or do anything about it.”

A member-led organisation, the FSA became involved with Pledgeball after internal discussions led to searching for climate change experts to help the organisation. Climate sustainability should be on everybody’s radar, according to Brown, referring to the heatwaves and flooding that have impacted and will continue to impact both grassroots and professional football. 

The FSA set up a green working group of representatives across its networks, which Cross chairs. Working with the FSA means that Pledgeball has access to their membership across the country, encouraging FSA members to work with their clubs, highlight sustainability issues to their clubs, and effectively lobby and pressure their clubs into delivering their own climate statement.

“Without public engagement, we won’t see rapid transition, as clubs, companies, and governments will assume they can continue as usual,” says Cross. Climate Outreach highlights that certain sustainability buzzwords can be off-putting, so it’s crucial to communicate in a way that resonates emotionally.

However, clubs need resources to achieve this. Brown notes that not every professional club in the UK is well-funded, and the fear that climate-related changes are costly is often a misconception; these changes can actually offer long-term financial benefits.

A brighter future?

Gallagher believes that whether they’re deeply engaged in the subject or not, football fans can feel that sustainability is becoming more important. Issues like short domestic flights are lurking in the collective football fan consciousness as something that shouldn’t be happening, and that’s why pledges are made. 

“Pledgeball make it easy to be involved,” Gallagher says. “It’s not like they ask you to throw paint at the Mona Lisa.”

An assessment of how impactful the Champions Innovate Pledge League has been will be undertaken by following up with fans who made pledges with surveys about their committed behaviour changes. Its success will be measured by its ability to shift the perception of climate action, making it more accessible and impactful through collective effort.

While the usual Pledgeball mechanism is structured around repeat engagement in the same way fans watch football every week, Cross points out that the teams involved in the campaign (this season’s quarterfinalists) will all have fixtures beyond this campaign for fans to continue participating in. 

Looking ahead, Cross would “love” to apply Pledgeball on a wider scale across the sports industry, but stresses the importance of maintaining the organisation’s research-led approach as “the only way to check what we’re doing continues to work.” 

UEFA and the Champions League have provided Pledgeball with a top-down mechanism to spread its work, which Cross hopes will also “draw out ambassadors from the fan community” to co-develop sustainability projects with UEFA moving forward. 

“That can be something that grows together,” she says.

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