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How sustainable are the richest football clubs in the world?

January 25 2023

The 26th edition of the Deloitte Football Money League, published last week, has provided an up-to-date account of the financial performance of the world’s top football clubs. But how sustainable are these top organisations? As total global revenue finally returns to pre-pandemic levels, reaching €9.2 billion for the first time since 2018-19, have clubs also made progress on their sustainability goals?

Assessing the top twenty clubs using Global Sustainable Sport’s ‘Sustainable Pillars of Sport’ demonstrates how progress on sustainability commitments varies hugely between the world’s top football clubs—providing models for the future as well as areas for improvement.

Deloitte Money League 2023 – the results

The Deloitte Money League, published annually, aims to be a ‘reliable independent analysis’ of the financial performance of the world’s leading football clubs. This year’s results showed an increase of 13% of total revenue compared to 2020-21, largely driven by a full return of fans after two seasons that were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall revenue split saw 15% from match day activities, 44% from broadcasting, and 41% from commercial activity.

The top twenty includes eleven English teams, four Spanish, two Italian, two German, and one French.

The top 20 clubs

Analysing the sustainability work of the teams above shows how the global football industry varies hugely across all the seven sustainable pillars of sport.

Partnerships – working together for sustainability

Only four top twenty clubs are signatories to the UN Sport for Climate Action Framework – Arsenal, who were the first Premier League club to sign up, along with Liverpool, Tottenham, and Juventus. The Framework invites clubs to adopt targets including a 50% reduction in GHG emissions by 2030 and net zero GHG emissions by 2040.

With only four of twenty clubs signed up, there is huge scope for more top teams to make a formal commitment to sustainability by aligning with the Sport for Climate Action initiative. Tottenham Hotspur, who have topped the Sport Positive Summit and BBC Sport’s Premier League Sustainability Table three years running, have also joined the UN Race to Zero initiative. However, none of the other top twenty have yet followed suit.

Other top twenty clubs have joined other official sustainability alliances, with Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Tottenham Hotspur among the members of the British Association for Sustainable Sport (BASIS). However, there is clear room for more top teams to join official UN and governing body alliances, sharing their knowledge and experience with other sports stakeholders.

Participation – ensuring sports for all

Beyond official partnerships, participation is another key pillar of sustainable sport. This is an area in which football clubs, with their affiliated foundations and academy programmes, are well-placed to encourage sports participation among all age groups.

Taking a look over the top twenty shows a range of examples of clubs encouraging participation in sports. For example, the Young Player Development Program at Manchester City allows young boys and girls to train at the City Football Academy, while the Paris Saint Germain Foundation develops sports programmes in France and abroad.

All the top twenty clubs have some form of foundation or academy programme, though the amount of public information available on these initiatives varies. Even clubs with little publicly available information on sustainability feature the work of their foundations on their websites: Newcastle, for example, do not have a dedicated sustainability strategy, but do host a dedicated webpage for the Newcastle United Foundation, which ‘offers unique opportunities for people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities to enjoy sports’. It is clear, then, that participation is one pillar that the clubs are active in and can be expanded in the future.

 

People – engaging with communities 

Closely linked to participation is people – how well clubs are engaging with communities, promoting diversity and inclusion, and running outreach and social programmes both within and beyond their home cities.

Once more, this was an area in which the top twenty clubs performed relatively strongly. All clubs have some form of community programmes, many of which demonstrated innovative, long-term engagements with local communities. For example, the ‘Sport for All’ initiative at AC Milan has engaged children and young people across the world in a wide variety of sports; the Chelsea Foundation has collaborated with Nike and Football for Future to deliver educational workshops to young people in London; and FC Bayern have opened an 100% carbon neutral pitch for grassroots players in Munich.

Beyond social programmes and outreach, however, the top twenty clubs show more limited success in promoting diversity and inclusion. Notably, while all clubs have men’s and women’s teams, not all promote both the men’s and women’s teams equally on their websites. Meanwhile, public commitment to diversity and inclusion programmes is inconsistent. Juventus have a dedicated ‘Differences Make the Difference’ campaign, which sets out to concretely address ‘all forms of prejudice and discrimination’ and has published its own podcast, ‘Sulla Razza’, on topics including colourism and intersectional feminism. Borussia Dortmund have published extensive data on diversity and discrimination, and last year held a symposium on ‘Anti-semitism and professional football’. Many of the other top twenty clubs, however, have not published or promoted specific diversity and inclusion programmes.

Planet – protecting the environment

 Environmental programmes are often the keystone of any sustainability strategy, and all the top twenty clubs have made at least a short public statement regarding their commitment to protecting the environment. However, there is a huge range when it comes to demonstrable targets, programmes, and reporting, ranging from long-term, well-developed environmental strategies to brief statements with little accountability. Only thirteen of the twenty clubs publish a dedicated sustainability strategy or annual report, while less than half have a dedicated member of staff solely responsible for sustainability.

Some of the top twenty clubs perform very strongly when it comes to planet. For example, Juventus have published a dedicated Sustainability Report since 2013/14, while Borussia Dortmund have done so since 2016/17. Tottenham Hotspur include emissions and environment data in their annual report, while AC Milan also publish a Sustainability Report.

These reports highlight some innovative environmental initiatives used across stadia and training grounds, including zero waste to landfill waste management systems; 100% renewable energy in stadia; replacing lighting with LED alternatives; initiatives to encourage fan public transport use; kits made from 100% recycled polyester; and reusable cups and cutlery across catering services.

However, some clubs among the top twenty have limited information available about their environmental commitments. Leeds United and Newcastle, for example, have limited information on environment initiatives on their websites. Manchester United have published an Environmental Policy Statement, but unlike the clubs with in-depth sustainability reports, there is little concrete data to demonstrate the entirety of the club’s environmental work. When it comes to supporting the planet, there is real room for improvement for clubs to provide more in-depth, centralised information on environmental targets, data, initiatives, and future plans.

 

 

Power and Profit – finance and governance

As well as social, community, and environmental concerns, issues surrounding financial data, equal pay, workers’ rights, and staff policies are also an important element of sustainability. All of the top twenty clubs publish their financial accounts, including Manchester City, Bayern Munich, and Chelsea, though these are not always easily discoverable on club websites. Many also publish information on board membership. This is an important step towards transparency when it comes to governance.

However, information on staff policies, gender balance, workers’ rights, and ownership structures is less readily available. Tottenham Hotspur have published a Gender Pay Gap Report since 2018, but few other top twenty clubs have done so. Borussia Dortmund have also published extremely high quality data in their annual sustainability report, including data on staff, but such granular detail is not available from most of the other top twenty clubs. To ensure fuller accountability, data on staff policies, the gender pay gap, and clear information on ownership structures should be encouraged more widely.

The Deloitte Football Money League also draws attention to profit, which is another key area in which clubs can demonstrate transparency and commitment to sustainable and responsible consumption. The League shows the high levels of revenue involved in global football: Manchester City, the highest scoring club, generated €731m in revenue in 2022, while Newcastle, in twentieth place, generated €212m. Given such substantial sums, it is critical for clubs to commit to transparency and clear reporting around revenue, profit, and tax. The recent news that Juventus had received a fifteen-point penalty for false accounting is a reminder that fans and the public should demand the highest levels of transparency if football clubs are to be truly sustainable when it comes to profit.

Profile – raising awareness of sustainability

Football clubs have an important responsibility not only to operate sustainably, but also to promote sustainability and to educate fans and members of the community on the importance of sustainable living. Only nine out of the top twenty clubs have dedicated, easily accessible sustainability sections on their websites. While some clubs effectively promote sustainability, then, others have a long way to go.

Once more, a few clubs lead the way in educating on sustainability. Liverpool launched ‘The Red Way’ in January 2021, and their website clearly lays out their long-term sustainability strategy, covering people, communities, and planet. Tottenham Hotspur also have a dedicated sustainability section of their website, detailing their actions on recycling, plastics, clean/renewable energy, sustainable transport, and water use, while Juventus have a detailed section focused on their sustainability efforts.

Others, however, including Paris Saint-Germain, FC Barcelona, Leicester City, Leeds, and Newcastle, do not have dedicated areas for information on sustainability, even when they have developed sustainability programmes. Developing clear, accessible sections for raising the profile of sustainability is one that clubs can really make an impact by encouraging their fans and visitors to act more sustainably.

 

Ensuring a sustainable future for the world’s elite clubs

By examining the top twenty clubs in Deloitte’s Football Money League through the seven sustainable pillars of sport—partnerships, participation, people, planet, power, profile, and profit—we can see both how far some clubs have come over the past decade, but also how far others have to go.

Commitment to sustainability is highly variable across the world’s wealthiest football clubs. From detailed environmental data, clear reporting, and dedicated sustainability programmes on one hand, to brief statements, minimal data, and inconsistent reporting on the other, there is a long way to go before football’s global elite are consistently demonstrating sustainable practices.

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    Read moreBethany White