Project Long Game: Innovative new sustainability initiative taps into the power of sport and community in Ireland

April 13 2023

An innovative new project in County Meath, Ireland, has laid out ambitious plans to empower local sports clubs to act more sustainably, paving the way for grassroots sport to play its part in delivering a sustainable future in Ireland and beyond.

Project Long Game is a collaboration between Meath County Council, Meath Local Sports Partnership, and Impact 3 Zero, and is the first local authority collaboration anywhere in the world that is aimed at tackling and promoting sustainability through sport. Collaboration and cooperation sit at the heart of the project: by drawing on perspectives from local government and local sport, the project can address local needs while working to solve a global problem.

The central aim of Project Long Game is to empower local and grassroots sports clubs both to develop their own sustainability programmes and to educate and promote sustainability in the community. Through a three-phase approach set to last three years, the project, which kicked off with a launch event in January, aims to put sustainability squarely on the map for local sports clubs. At the end of the programme, it hopes to provide lessons on how stakeholders can come together to meet the needs of both people and planet.

Local sport and sustainability in Ireland

County Meath is the home of a wide range of sports clubs and organisations, from the ‘big three’—Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), rugby, and football—to smaller sports such as target shooting. As is the case across the wider sports industry, while some organisations have already been thinking through their sustainability initiatives, others have not yet begun.  ‘Sustainability was on the radar, but not necessarily on the agenda,’ says David Gilroy, elected member of Meath County Council and one of the organisers of the project.

The team behind Project Long Game understood that sport, which so often sits at the heart of local communities, is in a prime position to promote sustainability in its broadest sense, connecting the social, economic, and environmental elements. But they also saw how some clubs, faced with climate jargon, limited resources, and busy schedules, did not know where to begin. The team wanted to address this gap. ‘We’ve got to get to the point where we are acting to really amplify and maximise the social and community benefits of sport, whilst also acting responsibly and positively towards the environment,’ says Patrick Haslett, Managing Partner of Impact 3 Zero.

Project Long Game follows in the footsteps of other initiatives in grassroots sport that have demonstrated what can be achieved at a community level. Birmingham County FA, for example, have developed their own sustainability programme, ‘Save Today, Play Tomorrow’, and are signatories to the UNFCCC’s Sport for Climate Action Framework. Project Long Game will join a growing number of local sports organisations that are drawing on sport’s strengths in the community to develop sustainable solutions for the future.

The Project’s central aim is to ensure access to sport for future generations, while also empowering sports organisations to play their role in supporting the environment, the local economy, and the local community. The three-stage process towards achieving this goal began with a launch event, followed by a twelve-month pilot project with clubs across the County.

Launch event: energising the community

The project was officially launched in January of this year at an event in Navan, County Meath. The launch featured local, national, and international speakers and representatives from Sport Ireland, the GAA Green Clubs Committee, Canoeing Ireland, and the British Association for Sustainable Sport, among others. The event aimed to ‘educate and inspire’, and provided an opportunity for local club members, volunteers, and sportspeople to come together to learn and ask questions.

Speakers included Thomas Byrne, Minister of State for Sport and Physical Education, who acknowledged the role that sport has to play in embedding climate-positive actions into local communities, and Una May, CEO of Sport Ireland, who discussed Sport Ireland’s Campus Masterplan.

Sessions that followed covered topics including ‘An Introduction to Sport and Sustainability’, ‘Grassroots Movers – Sustainability for Irish Clubs’, and ‘How can Meath sport be a leader for sustainability?’. Discussion spanned sustainable stadium events, the economic benefits of sustainable behaviour, the role of athletes, and the importance of small actions and the taking the first step.

Crucially, the day ended with breakout sessions, giving participants an opportunity to ask questions directly to event speakers. It was this space for open discussion and collaboration which, Haslett says, ensured that attendees left feeling truly engaged. ‘The discussion space ended the day on an immensely positive high,’ he says.

One of the key takeaways of the event was the need for all clubs, big or small, to start somewhere. The next stage of the project hopes to help clubs identify how they can begin this journey.

Pilot stage: working with clubs for real change

The next step of the project is a twelve-month pilot programme, which will launch next month.

Eighteen clubs across eight sports will be selected to take part in the programme. The teams will cover County Meath’s six municipal districts, and GAA, rugby, and football will all be represented, as well as other smaller- and larger-sized clubs. This way the project will be able to develop peer support ‘hubs’, and develop guidance that covers clubs and organisations of all sizes.

The key goal for this stage of the project is to establish the carbon footprint of County Meath’s sport, and to align this with local and national emissions and climate objectives. Beyond this, the project will work with organisations to help them recognise the positive sustainability work they are already doing, identify areas for improvement and development, and provide them with tools and guidance to address them. Areas for discussion will cover all the pillars of sustainability, including how to reduce club energy costs, how to increase member participation, how to strengthen community value, and how to build sustainability-focussed partnerships.

Crucially, the work will cover both social and environmental pillars. ‘We’ll be working with clubs to evaluate where they are, reduce their impact, and accelerate their positive impacts, social and environmental,’ says Haslett. As sports clubs are inherently community-centred, the project aims to help them to extend their community responsibility to responsibility around the environment.

The energy and enthusiasm garnered by the breakout sessions at the end of the launch event enabled people to open up and ask questions, and the pilot will continue that energy. ‘We’re trying to take away the jargon and to make it relevant,’ says Gilroy.

To date, Project Long Game has received support from some key players in Irish sport, including the GAA, Sport Ireland, and the Minister of State for Sport and Physical Education Thomas Byrne. The National Governing Bodies of several sports, including Horse Racing Ireland and Canoeing Ireland, have also backed the programme. The project team hope that more will follow.

From local to global

Once the pilot programme comes to an end in 2024, the Project Long Game team hope to have developed teachings, a toolkit, and ongoing guidance that can be applied to clubs in County Meath and beyond. The team hope that the lessons they learn will be able to feed back to national governing bodies, and that solutions will be scalable nationally, and perhaps even across the world. ‘We’re local, but we’re also national and international, because these governing bodies and structures exist everywhere,’ says Gilroy.

By emphasising the role that sport plays in local communities, the Project hopes to empower clubs to develop their own climate-positive actions and social programmes. Crucially, these actions will not only meet national and international climate targets such as the Sustainable Development Goals but will also help clubs to meet their own social and economic needs.

The true strengths of Project Long Game are its openness and enthusiasm, its commitment to partnership and collaboration, and its focus on empowering people to take the first step. ‘We’re not looking to reinvent the wheel—we’re looking to turn it,’ says Gilroy.

Over the next year, Project Long Game will highlight sustainability lessons that clubs of all sizes can learn, and stakeholders across sport will be paying close attention. It remains to be seen whether the sports world can draw on the power of community to ensure a sustainable future, but initiatives such as these are leading the charge.

Patrick Haslett from Impact 3Zero will participate in InSport Education and Global Sustainable Sport’s Sustainability in Sport virtual learning course on April 17-18. Click here for more information.

Read moreBethany White

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