The Rising Tide of Sustainability in Sport

December 07 2022

In the last 30 years, sport has seen an exponential growth in the number and size of sports events – and no more so than in the historically rich sport of sailing.

The Rising Tide of Sustainability in Sport

The growth in sports commercialisation and the growing demand for cities and nations to host major sporting events in order to promote their presence on the global stage and for sponsors to showcase their brands to an ever increasing global audience, has seen a huge explosion in the sports events industry.

Sport has many benefits. It is used to encourage participation amongst an increasingly inactive population. It helps to build communities, provides economic benefits in terms of tourism and helps to promote trade and investment. But this has all come at a high environmental cost, particularly for our oceans and marine environments.

International presence

From the early days of the Americas Cup in 1851, sailing has become a globally recognised sport with an international presence. Sports with this level of participation have been key to helping economies and communities bounce back as they emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. Sports attendance was forecast to generate global revenue of more than US$27 billion this year and amateur participation in sport has skyrocketed.

The combined footprint of sport participation and viewership is enormous, with over half of the world’s population attending, participating or watching sport, and with this set to increase, its footprint is heavier and more widespread than ever.

It is hard to comprehend a world without the Olympic Games, or a FIFA World Cup or the annual Wimbledon tennis tournament or the Super Bowl. However, we must ask the question: can we justify the environmental impact of our saturated sporting calendar? The sailing industry has woken up to the impact that sport is having and the need to create a more sustainable future, not only for sport but for the planet as a whole.

It’s not all plain sailing

Sailing provides a perfect example of the ecological footprint generated by large sports events. A single regatta requires the presence or construction of boats, vessel storage, and viewing platforms and facilities, all of which encroach on our green space.

Food and water need to be sourced and packaged, and waste disposed of, for the thousands of participants, organisers and spectators. Moreover, studies have shown that when attending an event spectators consume more than on a normal day – particularly alcohol. Transport to the venue generates carbon emissions, and that’s before motorised support and spectator vessels on the water are taken into account. Engines don’t just burn fossil fuels; they also give rise to noise pollution. And this is all from a single event in a single sport.

While international sports federations acknowledge that there are environmental costs to sport, few organisers have made significant progress towards addressing them. This was reflected in a 2021 review of the sustainability of Olympic Games between 1992 and 2020 that showed no consistent improvement to their environmental impact over this period. This is despite the International Olympic Committee (IOC) having a climate positive commitment. For context, in the non-Olympic year of 2019, the carbon emissions of the IOC were equivalent to the yearly electricity consumption of nearly 6,000 homes.

So, what can sport do to improve? In a world where greenwashing is rife, sustainable solutions need sound science. There is a significant need for research on the precise environmental impact of each sport so that  sporting federations can put appropriate mitigations in place.

Making waves

Sailing is charting new waters, creating a particularly eye-catching glimmer of hope. As a community, they are embracing the environmental challenges of ever-increasing popularity by building meaningful relationships between participants and the very environments that put the wind in their sails.

This approach is championed by Sail Britain, an organisation making waves by connecting people from all backgrounds with the ocean. Speaking about their expedition programme, Oliver Beardon, Founder and Skipper, explained: “Seeing is believing, and there is nothing quite like being in the marine environment to appreciate the challenges it faces. Sailing allows direct access to the ocean and provides an environmentally friendly platform for viewing marine life.”

He also believes that increasing people’s engagement with sailing can have other benefits. “Having a closer relationship with nature is good for our wellbeing and mental health,” he added. “The sailing boat is a close-knit social space where people work together for a common goal while being in tune with the elements. It’s also brilliant fun and teaches everyone new skills!”

Sail Britain image: Sailors on board the expedition yacht, Merlin

Sail Britain image: Sailors on board the expedition yacht, Merlin

This extends into professional competitive events. SailGP, the world’s first climate-positive sport and entertainment property, are focusing on balancing their increasing popularity with their environmental conscience. By developing an Impact League whereby athletes compete not only on the water, but also in their sustainability, SailGP picked up the Ambition & Impact Award in the first edition of the BBC Green Sport Awards.  Working with scientists, they are also looking for ways to effectively mitigate their future impacts.

SailGP image: F50s race in front of offshore windfarm

SailGP image: F50s race in front of offshore windfarm

“SailGP is focused on minimising its environmental impact as a priority,”
“Through changing the way we operate as a sport, integrating clean energy technologies, and driving behavioural and educational programmes, we achieved a 29% reduction per event in our carbon emissions for our latest season. Within our event power provision alone, we have achieved a 56% reduction in carbon emissions per event versus our baseline year.” Tom Verity, Operations Transition Manager at SailGP

SailGP is demonstrating that sports can use their increasing global coverage and participation to showcase sustainable solutions

“If major sailing events can rethink the way that they operate to have a more symbiotic relationship with the environments in which they race, these events can only be a positive catalyst for change in sustainability,” Verity added

Now in their third season, SailGP are pushing further, with an aim to be 100% reliant on clean energy by 2025.

Global spread of SailGP events over the past three seasons

Global spread of SailGP events over the past three seasons

Perhaps the next chapter in sailing’s great history could be a legacy in sustainability. Finding solutions to address the emerging environmentalism as sport continues to expand will require collaboration. Tangible benefits can only arise with the collective effort of scientists and sports stakeholders. SailGP is proving that sport can achieve both success and sustainability. Maybe it’s time to put scientists at the helm.

Comparing number of vessel entries between the first and most recent of some of the most internationally renowned sailing events

Comparing number of vessel entries between the first and most recent of some of the most internationally renowned sailing events

SailGP released its inaugural Purpose & Impact Report last month to showcase the environmental and social successes and challenges it has faced in its second season. The full report – which can be accessed here – underpins SailGP’s ongoing commitment to embed sustainability and social diversity into the fabric of sport. It has been developed to report transparently on progress and inspire other sporting properties and businesses to take action.

For a closer look at the expedition programme Sail Britain offers, please click here

This article is the first in a three-part series on the rise in sports and the science of sustainability. Check back soon for the publication of the next article in the series.

About the authors


Cathy Hobbs is a PhD student at the University of Exeter researching ways to mitigate the impact of large sports events and leisure on the marine environment. She has a particular interest in anthropogenic noise pollution.


Clemency White is a PhD student at the University of Exeter. Her research focusses on how underwater noise pollution impacts the behaviour of juvenile sharks.

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