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Sustainability in Sport 2023 – Day 2: The role of sport, environmental and commercial sustainability and the need to work together

April 20 2023

Continuing on from an invigorating first day, stakeholders from across the sports industry, including host regions, venues, clubs, suppliers, consultants, the media and athletes, came together again for day two of the Sustainability in Sport 2023 course. Organised by InSport Education in partnership with Global Sustainable Sport (GSS), the course continued its discussions around GSS’s seven Sustainable Pillars of Sport, covering Partnerships, Power, Planet and Prosperity.

Sustainability in Sport 2023 – Day 2: The role of sport, environmental and commercial sustainability and the need to work together

Day one had seen lively discussions around Participation, People, and Profile, and day two looked set to build on some of the key questions that had been raised: how can sport get its own house in order and draw on its unique strengths to lead the way in driving a sustainable future?

 

Partnerships – Save Today Play Tomorrow and Project Long Game

The Partnerships session brought together speakers from two important projects: Save Today, Play Tomorrow, an initiative of the Birmingham County Football Association in England, and Project Long Game, a collaboration between Meath County Council, Meath Local Sports Partnership, and Impact 3 Zero in Ireland.

The Save Today Play Tomorrow (STPT) project is the brainchild of Richard Lindsay of Birmingham County FA. The project was represented at the course by Sarah Wilkin of Fly Green Alliance, who, through her consultancy FGA Sports, is helping Birmingham County FA develop its business model, looking to generate a return on two-year’s worth of investment in the STPT.

Birmingham County FA is one of 49 counties in England and is the only county to have meaningfully invested in a sustainable concept. It manages over 80,000 players across 100,000 clubs from all genders and all levels of ability. Birmingham is a diverse region, and the County FA is responsible for the grassroots development of football in the area.

The STPT project focuses on four core pillars: education, wellbeing, climate action and reconnecting with nature. The core aim is to focus on creating low carbon football and to educate players on climate action, nature, and being active. According to research by the Football Association of England, the Birmingham region generates around £520 million in economic growth through its social programmes, and Birmingham County FA is responsible for much of that growth.

Birmingham County FA is one of the leading advocates of climate action in the world and is ranked in the top 50 of GSS’s Global Sustainable Sports Organisations. It has won over eight awards for its project, including the BASIS Sustainability Sports Awards 2022, and featured in the Sky Sports documentary Football’s Toughest Opponent. As part of STPT it offers carbon literacy training which aims at reducing carbon emissions by up to 15%. Its Shared Value Model has been an inspiration for many organisations and Birmingham County FA are now looking to spread their knowledge and expertise across the rest of the UK and Europe.

 

Project Long Game takes its inspiration from the work that Birmingham County FA has done with STPT, and its strapline is “Working together for sustainability through sport”. The project is focused around three core pillars: collective interest, educating every child to think sustainably, and working together for a better future. The project was presented by David Gilroy, elected member of Meath County Council and a sustainability expert who is one of the organisers of the project, and Patrick Haslett from Impact3Zero, a sustainability expert and BASIS board member.

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.

The project is a collaboration between Meath County Council, Meath Local Sports Partnership, and Impact 3 Zero, and has engaged Sport Ireland, the GAA and a number of sports stakeholders, including horse racing. Meath is one of 31 counties in Ireland but has a young, dynamic population of just over 200,000, providing an ideal testing ground for this project. 18 clubs will be engaged in the first phase of the project, which aims to demonstrate the value of sustainability to the local community. The first phase will lead to the creation of a roadmap that can be taken to the rest of Ireland and that will encourage a more sustainable approach to sport whilst maintaining an emphasis on fun and enjoyment.

Project Long Game is working closely with the Irish government and Irish sport. At the launch event in January 2023 Thomas Byrne, Minister of State for Sport and Physical Education, acknowledged the role that sport has to play in embedding climate-positive actions into local communities, and Una May, CEO of Sport Ireland, emphasised the role that sport has to play in creating a sustainable future.

Project Long Game has a bottom-up, top-down approach, showing that sustainability is as important for grassroots communities as it is for professional sports organisations and governing bodies.

 

Power: The importance of strong governance in the sustainability agenda

 

The second panel session of Day Two was led by Jonny Gray from Ankura Sport and Mhairi Maclennan, founder of Kyniska Advocacy.

Ankura is a global consulting firm whose sports practice, led by Gray, provides expertise in the areas of risk and compliance. Gray opened the session with a question: What is the purpose of a sports governing body? Sport has become a trillion-dollar business, and the role of sport has changed dramatically in the past 50 years, transforming from a non-commercial, for-fun entity to the commercial beast it is today.

Gray explained how sport adopted the UN model of governance after the Second World War, with representative member nations and executives elected by its members, rather than the more commercial model of modern businesses, in which shareholders are represented by a board and managed by executives and non-executives, with the model constructed to provide good governance. As sport has transitioned from a ‘sport for good’ to a ‘sport for profit’ industry, the governance of sport has been exposed to issues such as corruption and abuse, which have been difficult to manage or resolve due to the one member, one vote nature of most federations.

This development has meant that very few sports governing bodies have installed proper checks and procedures around sports governance, and indeed few have a proper risks and audit committee established within their organisation to properly manage for risk. Gray pointed out that the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) recently established its own Risks and Audit committee, which, while a step in the right direction, is surprising, given the work that it does—it is concerning that this was not done when it was established in 1999, more than 23 years ago.

Given that sport is now driven by huge financial revenues from broadcast, sponsorship, and now betting it urgently needs to address its governance issues in order to avoid the fate that has impacted almost all the major sporting bodies like FIFA and World Athletics. Just this week the former International Biathlon Union President Anders Besseberg has been charged with gross corruption in Norway. The absence of a global governing body of sport, clear governance standards and guidelines for international governing bodies is bringing into question sport’s ability to self-govern and self-regulate.

“If ‘safeguarding’ risk exposures have not been thoroughly, objectively and recently reviewed then this should now be prioritised." Jonny Gray, Senior Managing Director, Sport at Ankura

Such an issue was highlighted by Mhairi Maclennen, a Scottish and British athlete who has co-founded her consultancy business Kyniska Advocacy to support progressive policies in women’s sport. Maclennan was the victim of six years of abuse from her former coach when she moved to study at Edinburgh University at the age of 18. She explained how his behaviour had become ‘normalised’ within her community, which created tension with her fellow athletes when she challenged it.

Maclennan went on to explain that the lack of cross-sport, cross-nation agreements means that sport is just not setup to prevent abusers circulating around different sports and different nations. The failure of sport to properly self-govern and self-regulate, and its focus on “winning at all costs”, has led to a culture of abuse and a failure to properly protect athletes. Coaches often need no qualifications, or certifications, and governing bodies have no clear guidelines on what it takes to become a coach.

In Maclennan’s own case, when she reported abuse to her governing body, UK Athletics, they were simply not set up to manage the process properly, leading to poor handling of her and her case by the authorities, causing her considerable personal trauma and stress. Through her own personal campaign with two fellow athletes her coach was finally given a lifetime ban from athletics, but there are no safeguards put in place to prevent him operating in other sports or other countries.

UK Athletics has reviewed its own internal polices and has addressed these issues following Maclennan’s case and spent over £600,000 last year on issues related to safeguarding, but the body continues to be challenged by historical cases that are yet to be resolved, threatening the financial viability of the federation itself. Indeed, USA Gymnastics, the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee and their insurers were faced with a settlement of $380 million in 2021 from the victims of convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics doctor.

As Maclennan and Gary both agreed, this is a systemic, deep-rooted problem in sport which needs urgent attention before it makes sport “irrelevant and bankrupt”. Sports’ focus on “win at all costs” and profit ahead of athlete welfare, fair play and good governance threatens the existence of sports governance as it exists today. It is a moment of inflection where sports needs to become more pro-active and less re-active. As Gray pointed out re-active is much more costly and potentially a financially fatal approach.

 

Planet: How sport can help address the climate emergency

Sport has been greatly impacted by the climate crisis, and sports events, athletes and fans are increasingly affected by extreme climate conditions including flooding, extreme heat and lack of snow due to climate warming.

Two sports that have started on their environmental journeys are golf and motor racing. Petra Kimmel, founder of Sustainable Golf, and Stephane Bazire, Head of Business Sustainability & Partnerships at Silverstone Circuits Ltd, shared the work that is taking place in their respective sports.

Kimmel, who was a journalist for over 25 years following the world of golf, established Sustainable Golf in 2019 to help golf clubs and courses to develop their sustainability programmes.

Golf has been particularly affected by increasing heat and water shortages in recent years, particularly in Mediterranean areas, and has also been affected by extreme flooding and coastal erosion.

As Kimmel explained golf is closely connected to nature, with two-thirds of most golf courses being dedicated to biodiversity, but in recent years maintenance of courses has been impacted by insect proliferation due to warmer weather and restrictions on the use of pesticides.

Some golf courses have been quick to recognise the urgent need to become more environmentally sustainable, as Kimmel noted, and a number of them have developed strategies focused on renewable energy, electrification, water management, significantly reducing C02 emissions and attempting to become free of plastics, waste and fossil fuels. Examples of this include Oaks Prague, which has become totally self-sufficient in terms of water supply, or the The Open Championships held in St Andrews, Scotland, in 2022, which was free of fossil fuels and plastics.

Meanwhile, England Golf have developed their own sustainability strategy focused on reducing C02 emissions at amateur golf events around the country through the introduction of a reporting system, whilst in Germany Golf Biodivers is working with 64 German golf clubs and four universities to develop a six-year study of biodiversity development around golf courses.

 

In a sport not closely connected to nature but closely connected to fossil fuels, the governing body of motor racing, FIA, has recognised the urgent need to address its impact on the environment, particularly around its extensive racing programme in F1. F1 is now requiring all its racing circuits to become Grade III certified by 2025, and F1 has an ambition to be Net Zero by 2030 and to be free of combustion engines.

One of these circuits is Silverstone in the United Kingdom. Stephane Bazire joined the circuit in 2019 in a new role of Head of Business Sustainability & Partnerships, having previously had roles in tennis and motor racing in Spain.

Bazire explained that Silverstone has developed an extensive sustainability programme in light of the fact it is not just the host of the British Grand Prix but is a growing venue, hosting events, conferences, and weddings 365 days of the year. Silverstone recently expanded and opened a 193-room hotel as well as an exhibition centre and a museum. Over 1.2 million people visit the circuit each year, which is in a remote area of Northamptonshire with limited transport connections. 99% of its emission are from indirect (Scope 3) sources, with 81% coming from fan travel.

Silverstone has undertaken many new initiatives in the last two years, which Bazire explained has greatly improved its environmental footprint, including a significant move to biofuels, the installation of 5,200 m2 of solar panels, 30 EV charging points, the removal of most single-use plastics and the introduction of a zero-waste policy. The solar panels will generate around 10% of Silverstone’s energy requirements, and from April 1st, 2023, it became totally driven by green energy with the adoption of green energy sources from the national grid. Generators are powered by HVO biofuels, supporting all the power needs across the 500-acre estate.

As Bazire noted, Silverstone has become a very data-driven organisation, befitting a major motor racing circuit, with a huge focus on measuring and reducing everything that has an environmental impact. They are also hugely focused on educating the fans and the public that visit the site and have trained the 10,000 volunteers, their ‘Racemakers’, on their sustainability programmes. They have also introduced schemes with Megabus, park and ride and tarin and ride schemes to reduce the impact of the 60,000 fans that travel to the circuit for the British Grand Prix every year, hoping to create a ‘Green Mile’ around the circuit.

Silverstone is clearly an example of an organisation that has seen the need to put sustainability at the core of its DNA, and Bazire exemplified this fact by saying that the circuit has set itself the target of being the most sustainable event on the F1 circuit, if not the world. F1 will soon focus on harmonising the F1 calendar to reduce travel between its events, all of which will go some way to reducing the impact of motor sports on the environment.

 

Prosperity: The business case for sustainability in sport

Sustainability is frequently viewed by many people as a cost that will impact on the bottom line and reduce profitability. Many smaller sports are faced with significant financial pressures and feel that the move to sustainability will only increase their financial burden. But as more organisations start to develop their sustainability programmes, a number of them are starting to see a financial benefit from the move to sustainability, particularly in relation to their sponsors and partners.

Discussing the business case for sustainability in the Prosperity pillar in the final session of the course was Boris Davidovski, Corporate Responsibility at Borussia Dortmund, and Steinar Hoen, the meeting director for the Oslo Bislett Games.

In 2016 Germany introduced a CSR law dictating that all corporate organisations would need to report against their financial reports. As Borussia Dortmund (BVB) is listed on the German stock exchange, this meant that BVB would need to have a focus on its social and corporate responsibilities. Given that BVB developed from a working-class background and has always had a close relationship to its community this aligned very much with the ethos of the club, and in 2017 it published its first sustainability report.

By 2019 the club had formed its own Corporate Responsibility department, of which Davidovski is one of seven permanent members of staff. Davidovski explained that his team are focused on three core areas: Sustainability, Anti-Discrimination, and the BVB Foundation, and report directly to the CFO and the CMO.

Commercial sustainability is at the heart of their sustainability programme and has driven the deep transformation that has taken place in the club in the last six years. The dynamics have significantly changed in its relationship with its sponsors. In the past the club was very much looking for support from the sponsors, whereas now sponsors are engaging on a much more even footing and in many cases looking to BVB for guidance and education on sustainability.

Davidovski highlighted how investment in a strong sustainable programme has paid dividends for BVB and has brought in a whole range of new partners from different sectors that they previously had not engaged with, driving economic growth and aligning them with the values of the club. Davidovski explained BVB’s ‘Match Winners’, five core areas that BVB has developed that connects with fans and partners:

  • Stadium and real estate: sustainable development and management
  • Fair fan merchandise with future generations in mind
  • Promoting access to education
  • Mobility: Trips to and from the stadium by fans, the team and employees
  • Sustainable events management

As BVB’s CEO, Hans-Joachim Watzke, has said, “We only have one planet on which to play football.” BVB are certainly leading the way to make football a more sustainable business, both commercially, socially, and environmentally.

 

In 2014 the ExxonMobil Bislett Games was impacted by activists from Greenpeace demonstrating against ExxonMobil’s exploration of the Artic. Steinar Hoen, who had taken over as the Meeting Director in 2007, noticed that many of its partners had started to distance themselves from the event. At the time, 35% of the event’s income came from ExxonMobil, who, in addition to being the main sponsor, also organised a number of major oil conferences around the games. The Games became known as the ‘Oil Games’, and by 2016 Hoen and the board had to make a big decision as the 29-year sponsorship deal with ExxonMobil came to an end.

As Hoen explained, the team made the decision to pivot the games by 180 degrees to become the Oslo Bislett Games and to embed three core ambitions:

  • Organise the world’s most sustainable international athletics meeting
  • Act as the leading meeting place for sustainable companies, NGOs and sports
  • Showcase Oslo’s ambitions as a sustainable and modern city.

The Oslo Bislett Games is known as the home of world records. 70 world records have been set on the track, and so this move towards a more sustainable future resonated with both the ethos of the Games and the city of Oslo.

Hoen explained how the event set out to become the ‘Eco-Lighthouse’ of sport in Norway and of global athletics. From the outset it aimed to be a ‘Zero’ emission event, attracting Hyundai as a partner, who supplied electric vehicles to transport athletes to and from training. It organised train transport for everyone from the airport and provided free bus passes to all spectators through their Games ticket. In 2017 the Stockholm event was held back-to-back with Oslo and athletes were transferred from Oslo to Stockholm by high-speed train, significantly reducing air travel emissions. The event also offset its carbon emissions for all attendees in a fun and innovative way and provided each person with some information on how each of them had become ‘climate guerrillas’.

Over just a few years, Hoen explained that the event had reduced its GHG emission by 39%, which was measured though an official ISO 14064-1 certification process. This was followed, for three years, by an ISO-20121 certification process.

The certification process had attracted new sponsorship partners and the Games worked with DNV GL on the certification process for its ISO 21121 programme. Since 2022 it has adopted new partnerships with Natur and Ungelon, which focuses on nature and youth, and has developed waste gathering programmes during the Games, conducted by a team of volunteers.

Hoen explained that the re-connection to the city of Oslo helped them develop a stronger community programme, with the stadium now used for a wide variety of public and civic events. The oil conferences of the past have been replaced by a Zero.no conference, which is run by one of the Games’ new partners, Storebrand, and the conference is now called the Storebrand “Bislett” conference.

In 2018 the Games installed 1,100 m2 of solar panels which generate 150,000 kwg of electricity per year.  Due to the significant increase in fuel prices in 2023, this investment will be paid down in six years instead of 12.

Hoen explained that the Oslo Bislett Games has not only significantly reduced its running costs in the last six years but has also more than covered the revenue it lost from removing Exxon as its partner, replacing them with its “Green family” of partners and sponsors.

Conclusions

The course provided a tremendous overview of what is happening in sport and sustainability today.

Sport is faced by huge economic, social and environmental challenges and many sports organisations are seeing the benefits of a focus on sustainability both commercially and in other aspects. Sponsors and fans are connecting with organisations that are developing purposeful programmes, creating new opportunities and new engagements.

But there is a lot to do. What is the role of a sports governing body, and are they fit to self-regulate? Should sport re-think and re-focus, evaluating what is important and how best to present itself? Is health and well-being a new opportunity? And how do we create a safer world for our athletes and does there need to be more cross- cooperation between sports and nations? Questions for a future discussion.

One clear theme that came out from every session was the need to work together, to share and to form partnerships, and to put away competition when it comes to developing a more sustainable future for sport and the planet.

 

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