The economic and social impact of sports teams has been well documented. A run in the playoffs, a cup final win, or simply, an increased profile through new celebrity investment (as we’re seeing with Wrexham in the UK) does more than motivate the team. Whole communities have seen increased prosperity, happiness, and success on the back of sporting excellence.

The affinity fans have with their sports team of choice is deep and abiding and, in the age of the influencer, the position and stance teams take on social and environmental issues can and does have a far-reaching impact. Iconic images from the 1968 Olympics and Black Lives Matter and LGBT advocacy are two notable examples of the social impact of sports.

But what of the environment? Traditionally sports teams have been known for sizeable carbon footprints, energy consumption, and generation of waste. Historically there have been questions asked about the provenance of merchandise. However, we are seeing change, and for sports teams and leagues there is a genuine opportunity to not only embrace change but to drive it forward and benefit commercially.

One interesting example from the English Football League is Forest Green Rovers Football Club. Largely unknown outside of its fanbase and diehard aficionados of lower league soccer, Forest Green is the world’s first carbon-neutral football club. The cynics could easily dismiss this as a PR exercise (as many will do with Ryan Reynolds’ and Rob McElhenney’s investment in Wrexham) but Forest Green has commercial merit. Increased visibility and awareness can build a fanbase among those who find a connection through shared values rather than just what goes on on the pitch. However, what’s even more interesting is that Forest Green is playing in English Football’s League One for the first time in their history (for non-UK-based readers this is English football’s third division – go figure!)

Maybe there’s something in embracing environmental sustainability in sports…

Some of our recent consumer research suggests consumers have become significantly more concerned about environmental issues than they were prior to the pandemic. Interestingly, they also hold the opinion that companies in the public eye (not government or private individuals) should take the lead in addressing environmental concerns. For sports teams this presents a real opportunity to drive deeper fan loyalty and, in an age where the attention of younger consumers is harder to capture, appeal to the fans of the future.

To achieve this, sports teams and leagues will need to be pragmatic. First, an honest assessment of what can be changed is critical. The nature of a team's travel is unlikely something that can be changed, however things within a stadium or training facility are well within a team's control. The types of concessions, the origins of merchandise, the choice of sponsors, and materials used across all operations are also all on the table.

Similarly, meaningful commercial sacrifices will need to be made. Performative actions won’t cut it for increasingly ESG-conscious consumers and sports fans. Teams and leagues will be judged by the company they keep and aberrant behavior by personnel will need to be dealt with swiftly and decisively. The notion of ‘moments of truth', once so prevalent in the travel sector, comes into play again. The controversy around the choice of Qatar for this year’s Soccer World Cup is a stark warning. It will be interesting to see how this translates commercially.

Developing and executing an ESG strategy must be a multi-year commitment that is transparent and measurable. This strategy will need to be broad-based, but early areas for attention could include:

Changes to merchandise and food to reduce environmental impact
This might include favoring localized sources within 100 miles or shifting away from animal products to plant-based, which require 90% less water and land to produce. Early adopters include the Los Angeles Dodgers, where you can get Beyond Burgers and Sausages, plus tempeh nachos; the Texas Rangers and Chicago Cubs offer Oatly soft-serve, among other vegan options; the Golden State Warriors and New York Mets have each dedicated concession stands with entirely vegan menus. 

Operational changes improve waste/landfill diversion, energy management, recycling, and product management
Stadia and arenas are largely closed-loop environments, where nearly all food and beverage is purchased and consumed on-site, making them near-perfect environments for waste diversion. The Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena currently use this principle to divert 90% of waste generated at basketball games and other events from landfills and incineration. This achievement involved implementing compostable materials, post-game sorting, elimination of single-use plastics, and partnering with metals and glass recyclers. Similarly, West Ham United collects and sends all plastic, cardboard, wood, paper, aluminum, pallets, and ink cartridges for recycling, while all food waste is sent to an anaerobic digester.

Improved water management strategies
Minnesota United’s Allianz Field uses harvested rainwater and snowmelt that has been filtered and treated with ozone and UV light not only to water its field, but to also launder clothes, and flush toilets.

Carbon footprint measures around energy production and usage
We’re already seeing increasing use of on-site solar and wind power generation, low-energy fixture designs, and local collaborations for mass transit. In addition to Forest Green mentioned earlier, Philadelphia’s Lincoln Financial Field as well as the MetLife Stadium in New Jersey have roofs and parking lots lined with solar panels.

Aspiration and intention aren’t enough for today’s conscious consumers, so there is little doubt that these and other strategies will become more widespread. Teams and franchises will have to take action and make a sizeable financial commitment to make changes over a reasonable but aggressive timeframe, starting with low-hanging opportunities and leading up to the operational and structural changes. As part of the commitment, there should be a measurement of impact and public sharing of successes, all of which can be amplified through the common identity shared with fans, communities, and even sponsors.