The state of sustainable travel in sport: Fans and events

February 08 2024

Last week, Global Sustainable Sport explored the current state of sustainable travel in the industry. But one key area remains: the problem of fan travel.

The state of sustainable travel in sport: Fans and events

In this second instalment of Global Sustainable Sport’s two-part investigation, we take a look at the impact that the world’s estimated four billion sports fans have on the industry’s carbon footprint — and how clubs and events across the world are beginning to tackle this huge problem.

The impact of fan transport

Fan travel is often the biggest contributor to the carbon footprint of sporting events, from individual car journeys to local games to short- and long-distance flights taken to international tournaments.

The scale of the problem is vast. Research from rail platform Trainline published last year found that Premier League fans heading to away matches by car could collectively save 4,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions every season if they switched to travelling by train.

When it comes to carbon accounting, fan travel usually falls into ‘Scope 3’: ‘indirect’ emissions that are not directly within an organisation’s ownership or control. Some estimates suggest that up to 98% of a sports event’s emissions come under Scope 3.

The problem with Scope 3 emissions is that they can be seen to fall outside of the responsibility of a sports organisation — which is perhaps why, to date, we’ve seen little large-scale action on fan and spectator travel. In recent years, however, more and more clubs and organisations have begun to gather data and promote responsible travel among their fanbase.

But how exactly is the wider industry addressing the problem of fan travel – and is this enough?

Matchdays and local travel

Travel to stadiums for weekly matches is a staple part of the life of many sports fans – but these journeys have a substantial cost for the environment.

Some clubs have begun to gather data on the concrete impact of fan travel to their games.

In 2020, Bundesliga team VfL Wolfsburg found that spectator travel made up almost 60% of their total emissions – and the club recognised that they have a ‘co-responsibility’ to influence fan’s travel choices.

Meanwhile, just last week Premier League club Wolverhampton Wanderers (Wolves) published their first environmental sustainability report, which found that the biggest proportion of the club’s emissions are caused by fan travel.

This problem extends across the industry. In 2022, analysis of the T20 Finals Day at Edgbaston found that 79% of emissions at the cricket extravaganza were caused by staff and spectator travel, while a survey conducted by Fan Mobility found that fan travel accounted for 88% of carbon emissions for ATP men’s tennis tournaments, including Chile ATP250, Halle ATP500, Båstad ATP250, and Kitzbühel ATP250.

So what are clubs and organisations doing to tackle the problem?

Getting a fuller picture of how fans are travelling, and where they are travelling from, is often the first step.

Following the results of their first environmental sustainability report, Wolves will launch a fan travel survey this month.

Many other clubs and venues, including Bristol City and Edgbaston, have issued fan travel surveys that provide a better picture of fans’ routes, opening up the opportunity to suggest or implement greener transport options.

But these surveys can only lead to change if rights-holders such as clubs then apply this data to initiatives that make more climate-friendly options accessible, like providing free public transport tickets or shuttle buses.

“The more data that any event has on its fans’ travel, the more that better informed decisions can be made,” Paul Coleman, co-founder of Fan Mobility, told Global Sustainable Sport.

Fan Mobility, which Coleman established with former world No.25 men’s tennis player Mischa Zverev, helps clubs to use data analytics to implement travel initiatives that work for their specific fanbase.

Other events have also implemented data-gathering strategies.

During last year’s Go Green Game, the team at Edgbaston applied the results of an earlier survey to map ‘hotspots’ for fan travel. They then worked with National Express West Midlands to offer free transport to spectators as well as shuttle buses from Birmingham New Street station.

Technology is increasingly being deployed to address the specific issues associated with fan travel, including the need for data to create personalised, sustainability-focused travel plans for spectators.

For example, You. Smart. Thing., a travel demand management platform, works with organisations and events to create low-carbon travel plans that are curated to suit the needs of each fan or user.

“Data is essential to measure and understand fan behaviour,” says Alex Townshend, Sustainability Consultant at You. Smart. Thing (YST). “Organisations need to understand current behaviours to execute initiatives and reduce environmental impact.”

Data collated through YST’s dashboard can be used to calculate Scope 3 emissions and understand travel behaviour in more granular detail.

Promoting these sorts of technologies and surveys, as well as creating incentives for fans to use them, will be crucial if clubs are to gather the data they need. Down the line, prizes and rewards can also be extended to fans making greener travel choices.

“It is of fundamental importance to create a seamless experience for the fan to travel more efficiently, to link the fan travel with the sport or team experience,” says Coleman. “The more the fan adopts lower carbon travel options, the more points and prizes that they can win.”

Last month, English Championship club Watford announced a new sustainability platform, developed in partnership with Lowr, which will help the club understand its fans’ travel choices while also offering prizes to fans who log their journeys. The platform will integrate into the club’s existing fan app.

Clubs can also incentivise cleaner travel by making public transport more accessible.

Fans travelling to home matches of Bundesliga club FC Köln, for example, can use their matchday tickets on public transport up to four hours in advance of the game, while Borussia Monchengladbach has introduced free public transport for all match ticket holders within 300km.

Other clubs also focus on simply signposting public transport options. A representative from English Championship club Millwall, a signatory to the recently launched Sustainable Travel Charter, told Global Sustainable Sport that the club prioritises “clear and useful communication” on public transport.

“We pride ourselves on giving supporters clear updates on public transport to make sure it is as easy as possible for match-goers to use, instead of driving or any domestic flights from further UK cities,” they said.

Meanwhile, more general campaigns to promote public transport can raise fans’ awareness of the need to travel more sustainably.

Last summer, Sky Sports partnered with the England & Wales Cricket Board and The R&A to encourage fans to walk, cycle, lift-share or use public transport when attending The Hundred cricket tournament and The Open golf event.

In the same year, Protect Our Winters Europe, a network of skiers and snowboarders from ten countries, launched its Mobility Month initiative to promote and track sustainable travel options.

The trouble with international tournaments

International tournaments create huge demand for fan travel, with thousands of sports fans flying across the world to see their teams compete.

Fan and athlete travel combined made up a huge 83% of the emissions generated by the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, while fan and team travel during last year’s Rugby World Cup in France was estimated to have made up around 85% of the tournament’s total emissions. During the 2022 FIFA World Cup, held in Qatar, fan and athlete travel generated 1.9 million tonnes of CO2e.

The Summer and Winter Olympic Games also generate huge carbon emissions through international spectator travel. At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – which took place in 2021 with virtually no spectators present due to the COVID-19 pandemic – carbon emissions fell by 800,000 tonnes.

So, what measures are tournaments putting in place to change the status quo?

As with regular local and national games, event operators and organisers can incentivise cleaner fan travel by collaborating with local public transport networks.

At the IBU World Cup Biathlon in Lenzerheide, Switzerland last year, hosts collaborated with Swiss Railways to provide free public transport all over Switzerland as part of the event’s ticket price. At the IBU World Championships in Oberhof, Germany, last February, organisers similarly included free public transport within 50km as part of the ticket price.

Plans for this summer’s upcoming UEFA Euro 2024 tournament in Germany have also long included an emphasis on cleaner travel, largely through a partnership with Deutsche Bahn.

In June, organisers announced that ticketholders will be able to buy discounted national long-distance tickets for travel within Germany, while a discounted EURO 2024 Interrail pass will also be available for those travelling from 32 countries across Europe.

Increasing access to public transport can reduce local and regional travel, but reducing flights to further-flung tournaments – such as last year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand – is a tougher challenge.

The only way to meaningfully reduce the impact of flights may be to rethink how and why tournament hosts are chosen.

During the Women’s World Cup last year, Frank Huisingh, founder of Fossil Free Football, told Forbes that, when it comes to choosing World Cup locations, “FIFA should focus on countries with lots of existing infrastructure and good public transport connections between host cities.”

This ‘compact’ approach to international tournaments is one way to reduce the environmental impact of fan travel, as well as encouraging local fan participation through fan parks and viewing zones.

Is this all enough?

There is clear demand for change from sports fans. Research conducted by Trainline found that 73% of football fans who travel to away matches want to reduce their travel-related carbon footprint.

But Coleman of Fan Mobility pointed out that there is also commercial value to promoting green travel, as accessible transport options can open up events to a wider fanbase. The organisation’s study of the Chile Open revealed that the event could have sold 8,000 more tickets with improved access to public transport.

“Our work discovered that events are actually missing out on ticket sales for those who can’t be bothered with the travel,” he said. “Once travel assistance is provided, we can increase revenues whilst reducing the use of cars for lower carbon travel alternatives.”

But while clubs and events may individually be overcoming revenue concerns, developing partnerships, gathering data, and implementing incentives for their fans, many believe that the problem will ultimately require top-down regulation.

Sarah Wilkin, CEO of Fly Green Alliance, told Global Sustainable Sport that the challenges must be supported by government action.

“It’s big work, it’s long term, it costs money,” she said. “We know the system and policy work is happening [but] budgets need to be assigned and aligned with governments too.”

Fan travel has a vast footprint, and despite individual examples of positive action – of which sport is seeing a growing number, including many in the past year – it’s clear that the industry needs to see wide-scale structural change. This means addressing tournament locations, developing key government and infrastructure partnerships, using data effectively, and making greener options cheaper and more available to fans and spectators.

As more and more clubs turn their attention to fan mobility, perhaps this year could be the beginning of a new era for greener fan travel – though we have a long way to go.

Read Part 1 here.

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