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Sustainability Challenges: Climate change and the impact on sporting events

March 02 2023

Climate change is now firmly at the forefront of not only governmental policies and business goals, but is also the cause of anxiety among many, particularly the younger generation, who feel that not enough is being done to combat the negative impact of humanity’s actions. In the second feature in a series of articles in which we talk to experts about the critical issues facing the sports industry this year and beyond, we explore the impact of climate change on sports.

Sustainability Challenges: Climate change and the impact on sporting events

It has been a harsh winter for pursuits that live and breathe on snow.

The winter has been littered with cancellations for the International Ski Federation (FIS) Alpine Ski World Cup, with locations such as Garmisch-Partenkirchen having to postpone major downhill and giant slalom races because of a lack of snow.

FIS also postponed, cancelled or rescheduled men’s and women’s downhill races in Austria, Switzerland and Croatia as the warmer weather affected snow levels at most of Europe’s mountains. 

The struggles of the 2022-23 winter have not come out of the blue, though. In 2018, the European Academies Science Advisory Council (AESAC) released data that demonstrated an increased frequency of extreme weather events – both hot and cold. 

The report opens with: “Man-made climate change has been proven to have increased recent extreme rainfall and associated floods; coastal flooding due to sea-level rise; heatwaves in Australia, China, and Europe; and increased risks of wildfires with implications for humans and animals, the environment, and the economy.”

France experienced its driest stretch this winter in more than 60 years, while the canals in Venice became unrecognisable due to a lack of rain and unseasonably warm weather in Italy. 

Going downhill…

“We have seen adverse weather lead to the cancellation and abandonment of more sporting events than anything else outside COVID-19,” explains Duncan Fraser, Global Practice Leader for Sport and Entertainment at Howden Insurance Brokers. 

Fraser continues: “One-in-a-hundred-year weather events are occurring almost annually all over the world. We now have the all too common frequency of ‘too hot’, ‘too cold’, ‘too wet’ and ‘too dry’ resulting in events not taking place.”

The 2023 Australian Open tennis grand slam endured scheduling challenges due to contrasting weather conditions in Melbourne. Whilst matches at the tournament have commonly run until late in the evening in previous years to avoid the worst of Victoria’s stifling summer, this year there were delays caused by extreme rain as well as heat. This resulted in a backlog of matches that led to a clash between British star Andy Murray and his Australian opponent Thanasi Kokkinakis only starting at around 10:30pm local time before finally concluding at 4am. 

Even in sports where machines bear the brunt of the weather, extreme conditions can cause mayhem. In 2021, the Formula 1 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps was called off due to heavy rainfall and the resulting poor visibility. After two-and-a-half laps behind a safety car, the organisers admitted defeat in their efforts to get the race underway, leaving tens of thousands of fans drenched and cold in the Belgian forest. 

Indeed, in certain cases, the extreme weather associated with the location of a sporting event can have an impact on the hosting strategy. An obvious example of this was the 2022 FIFA World Cup, which was switched from its usual slot in the middle of the year to November and December in order to avoid the baking hot Middle Eastern summer temperatures.

Expanding on this point, Fraser explains how there can also be a knock-on impact on other areas. 

“Climate change has resulted in certain outdoor events not being able to obtain insurance depending on the time of year and location of the event,” he explains, before adding how parts of Florida and continental Europe have experienced record temperatures in recent years.

To watch or not to watch…

Furthermore, the climate can have a big impact on attendances at sporting events.

A study from the Danish Institute for Sports Business and the BNTNU Business School, Norwegian University of Science and Technology found that weather conditions had a direct influence on fans deciding whether to go to a game. The research found that the weather had a greater impact on the fan’s decision than, for example, a big English Premier League game being available on television, and pointed out that events where sell-out crowds are rare are more at the mercy of mother nature’s whims.

Making a difference

Owing to these tangible challenges experienced by event hosts and their partners, arguably there has already been a shift by rights-holders in recognising of the impact of climate change on sport. 

Clubs and franchises worldwide have increasingly signed up to sustainability schemes and have struck partnerships with organisations focused on climate change. Initiatives such as the recent Green Football Weekend in the UK have launched whilst sporting series that focus on mitigating the impact on the environment – such as Formula E and Extreme E – have continued to grow.

Sustainability, environmental impact and climate change have also influenced the construction of venues and stadia globally. 

The recent BMW IBU Biathlon World Championships were held at Oberhof, a venue with sustainability at its core. The venue has been modernised to minimise energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions, with heating of the buildings coming completely from waste heat generated on site. Food is also provided by local suppliers while efficient and resource-saving snow management has been implemented.

English Football League club Forest Green Rovers has plans to build a 5,000-seat stadium made entirely of wood, as part of a wider Eco Park development. The space will host companies working in the zero-carbon economy and have a focus on improving the habitat on site, as well as self-generating over 80% of all energy used. 

Making the shift

It is clear that more needs to be done by governments and sporting organisations to tackle the climate emergency – and the proliferation of long-term net-zero targets by governments and sporting series, such as Formula 1, are a useful starting point.

However, practical steps are already being taken by proactive rights-holders, competition hosts and partners in sport to ensure the sustainability of sport is pushed to the top of the agenda.

Images: Toa Heftiba on Unsplash/ Alexandre Brondino on Unsplash/ Steve Collis, CC BY 2.0/ IBU/ Forest Green Rovers


What do you think are the greatest risks facing the sports industry in 2023 and beyond?

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    Add your own comments and join in the discussion by clicking on this link.Mike Laflin