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UK football unites to highlight climate change emergency over Green Football Weekend

February 10 2023

For the past three weeks, fans all over the United Kingdom have been invited to score ‘Green Goals’ for their clubs, highlighting the urgent need for football, and indeed the wider sports industry, to address climate change.

UK football unites to highlight climate change emergency over Green Football Weekend

The inaugural Green Football Weekend was the brainchild of a small group of leading sports organisations keen to tackle the challenge.

Two of the leading organisations behind the initiative have been keen to stress to clubs that their reach among fans, as well as their own direct actions, can make a significant impact.

Pledgeball and Count Us In

Pledgeball is a unique concept designed by Katie Cross whilst playing football for her local team in Bristol that was initially tested on her teammates and supported by her family. Within a few years, Pledgeball has established itself as one of the leading engagement platforms for football clubs across the country, with fans pledging to undertake sustainable actions in support of their clubs. The cumulative amount pledged to be saved determines their standing within the Pledgeball League table, and the team who’ve pledged to save the most at the end of the season is crowned champion: Simple and yet brilliant in its fan engagement concept.

With the Green Football Weekend, the Green Goals were scored over a three-week period leading up to a major weekend of activations across England and Scotland, from Berwick to Torquay, engaging fans and clubs alike to think more sustainably.

Pledgeball was ably supported by its fellow activation company, Count Us In, co-founded by Justin Forsyth, with the latter organisation calling on “all humans” to take on “an issue that affects the entire planet… climate change is really a human issue. And we humans can do something about it.” The organisation encourages people to take a step, to take on an action and to make a difference by helping to reduce their impact on the planet.

Support

Supporting these two organisations were UK media giants Sky Sports and BT Sport, who used their collective platforms to engage fans over the Green Football Weekend.

A range of activities engaged celebrities and footballers alike in taking on challenges in the aid of scoring Green Goals. Sky Sports pundits Jamie Carragher and Karen Carney challenged BT Sport’s Robbie Savage and Steve McManaman to take on Green Football Weekend’s ‘Layer Up Challenge’ to put on as many tops as possible in 30 seconds, with the BT Sport team narrowly beating the Sky Sports team. This challenge was promoted to fans all over the country encouraging them to wear more layers, rather than using more fossil-fuel energy in winter months.

Brentford defender Ben Mee, who was engaged in the Sky Sports coverage, said:

“I became interested in reducing my carbon footprint mainly from having children, and thinking about what the future could look like for them. The climate and sustainability are topics we all need to be talking about. Green Football Weekend is a great initiative. It's helping drive the conversation, inspire action and show that we can make a difference when we all come together.” Ben Mee, Brentford defender

Embracing the challenge

Sky Sports has fully embraced the climate action issue with it’s Sky Zero commitment to help fans look after the sports they love and make sure there is a sustainable future for sport and the planet. Throughout live matches taking place over Green Football Weekend the Sky Sports commentators made reference to the campaign and advised fans how to get involved.

In addition to Sky Sportsand BT Sport, the BBC also supported the campaign across their media platforms with presenter Gary Linker encouraging fans to get involved throughout the weekend.

“We know that football has the power to inspire and move millions and that's why Green Football Weekend is such a brilliant, yet simple idea. By us all acting together, we can drive even bigger change" Gary Linker, ex-footballer and BBC TV Presenter

At its core, though, the weekend was about the fans. The Football Supporters’ Association encouraged its members to get active and to engage clubs all over the country, whilst the English Football Association (FA) provided its full support.

“We recognise the influence football can have on raising awareness about subjects that impact the whole of society. We all have a responsibility to take Climate Change seriously and we hope initiatives like this will change attitudes and really get people thinking about how they can make tangible changes in their lives to be more green.” Kelly Simmons, FA Director of the Women’s Professional Game, stated:

Messaging across the event included encouraging the UK’s 36 million sports fans to come “together to build their ambition and action on climate change” whilst adopting three climate-friendly actions:

  • Reducing their shower time to four minutes.
  • Having two meat-free days per week.
  • Turning the thermostat down by 1 degree

Reducing shower times to four minutes across the country could save the carbon equivalent of planting 58.9 million trees per year, while there is a potential saving of over £1,000 per year from a household’s annual bills by adopting all three climate-friendly actions.

Organisations driving change

The sustainable movement has been growing at a significant rate in the last few years in the UK and many of the leading organisations driving this movement were involved in supporting the event and helping to engage players and fans alike.

Partners of the event included Athletes of the World, BASIS, The Church of England, Common Goal, County Football Associations across the country, Extreme Hangout, Football for Future, Football Manager, Forest Green Rovers, High Impact Athletes, Let’s Go Zero, Minute Media, National Trust, Opta, Possible, The OSCAR Foundation, Rainforest Trust UK, RSPB, Sport Positive, Students Organising for Sustainability, Supporters Direct Scotland, Transform Our World, UN Live and WeAre8 and We Play Green, whilst Pledgeball’s platform was connected to Planet League’s to provide the scoring.

Initial promotion of the weekend focused on 80 clubs being engaged in the programme, with expectations of 60,000-plus Green Goals being scored. However, this was surpassed with over 84,000 scored by fans from 125 clubs across England and Scotland.

Commenting on the event, Pledgeball Founder Katie Cross said:

“The amount of support for Green Football Weekend from clubs, fans, governing bodies was far beyond what we expected and is incredibly encouraging. The appetite for everyone, individuals and organisations, to address sustainability is there and what GFW did was make this visible: sustainability has to be prioritised in all of our decision making.” Pledgeball Founder Katie Cross

Champion performance

Manchester United were crowned Green Football Weekend champions, in part thanks to huge engagement through local schools, with a total of 17,545 Green Goals, significantly ahead of second-placed Leicester City and third-placed Leeds United.

Fans of every single Premier League team scored over the weekend, contributing 63,166 goals out of the 84,034 goals notched in total.

In the top two divisions in the women’s game – the Women’s Super League and Women’s Championship – 21 of the 24 teams had goals scored for them.

Burnley fans scored the most goals in the men’s English second-tier Championship with 1,350, closely followed by Queen’s Park Rangers with 1,281. Twenty-three of the twenty-four Championship clubs had goals scored for them, amassing 7,793 green goals in total.

Port Vale, in League One, finished sixth across all clubs, with 4,037 goals, almost totally thanks to one of their players, Funso Ojo, who challenged fans to score more Green Goals than him and David Wheeler from Wycombe Wanderers. Vale played Wycombe in the league on the Saturday of Green Football Weekend.

Lower leagues

Fans were active across the lower leagues, scoring goals for 22 out of 24 clubs in League One and 19 out of 24 clubs in League Two. Sixteen English non-league clubs registered fan-goals with a total of 294 goals scored.

Outside England, 12 Scottish clubs registered goals, including seven from the Scottish Premier League. Celtic amassed the most, with 33 goals, while there were two teams from the Scottish Championship, two from Scottish League One, none from Scottish League Two and one non-league Scottish team, Berwick Rangers, which recorded 27 goals. In total, 220 Green Goals were registered across Scotland.

However, there were numerous other sustainable activities that took place across the weekend.

Sustainable activities

From the Premier League, Tottenham Hotspur, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Liverpool, and Aston Villa all announced activations, with Wolves launching their new sustainability strategy, ‘One Pack, One Planet’ – as reported in more detail on this website.

Liverpool, who were playing Wolves over the weekend, travelled by bus using sustainable fuels to reduce carbon emissions by up to 90%. Tottenham fans took part in over 60 green activities, including making a meat-free meal, walking to work, and taking on the new ‘Layer-Up Challenge’ with World Cup winner Cristian Romero, women’s team defender Amy Turner and club ambassadors Michael Dawson and Ledley King.

Turner, who took part in the making of the Green Football Cup, said: “Clubs have such an important role to play in driving progress on climate change, and there’s so much for us all to do. It’s exciting to see Green Football Weekendbringing together the power of fans and clubs together to take action and make a difference. That’s how we can have real impact.”

“Clubs have such an important role to play in driving progress on climate change, and there’s so much for us all to do. It’s exciting to see Green Football Weekendbringing together the power of fans and clubs together to take action and make a difference. That’s how we can have real impact.” Amy Turner, Tottenham Hotspur's Women’s Team Defender

One of the key features of the weekend was a symbolic green armband, which was worn by over 40 teams during their matches. The Liverpool men’s and women’s teams were among those to support the gesture, along with the likes of Southampton FC Women, who also gave out wildflower seeds during their home match and provided sustainability tips, as well as offering vegan food discounts and tasters at all food stops.

Ben Latty, the Commercial Director of Liverpool, who were recently proclaimed as one of the most sustainable football clubs in Europe said

“Green Football Weekend aligns very closely with the ongoing work of Liverpool Football Club’s sustainability initiative The Red Way… As always, we’re acutely aware of the responsibility we hold as a global football club to help inspire and encourage positive behaviour change.” Ben Latty, Commercial Director, Liverpool FC

Championship initiatives

In the Championship, Birmingham City marked Green Football Weekend by announcing the results of its recycling scheme with club partner, Biffa, with organic recycling rates having nearly doubled and glass recycling increasing almost fourfold.

Meanwhile Norwich City invited players to walk across a Green Football Weekend handshake board with the ball sitting on a green plinth during their home match with Burnley. They encouraged their fans to make climate-friendly actions with discounts on vegan pies, old merchandise and reusable items in the shop.

Millwall also launched the ‘Lion Living’ initiative, focusing on its club mascot, the lion, an endangered animal, to promote the urgent need to protect natural wildlife and the environment. In addition, Bristol City, who launched ‘Project Moonbeam’ in August 2022, offset their travel and hotel accommodation and subsidised supporter travel, encouraging fans to think more about their carbon footprint.

Further down the league ladder, Crewe Alexandra unveiled an ambitious scheme to create a covered car park and a solar farm, with 3,000 solar panels. Swindon Town appointed former player Michael Doughty as the club’s new chief sustainability officer, while Lincoln City re-launched their Green Leaders Programme, encouraging 14 to 18-year-olds to learn more about sustainability.

Even non-league Lewes FC went vegan over the weekend in addition to their community garden project and their installation of solar panels.

Partnership goals

Sustainability was defined by the United Nations in 2015 through seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17th SDG is defined as ‘Partnerships’ – at the core of the sustainability movement, and it is widely agreed that it is impossible to act alone when dealing with the enormity of the climate issue.

Partnerships were at the heart of the Green Football Weekend and, as Count Us In Co-Founder Justin Forsyth observed in his Linkedin post shortly after the weekend:

“Building these radical collaborations across multiple organisations is very hard. For them to work everyone needs to leave their organisational brand needs and egos at the door. But when they do the benefits are enormous and the sum is much greater than the parts.” Justin Forsyth, Co-Founder, Count Us In

Forsyth added:

“[The] air campaign on TV and the wider media is a game changer to build momentum and reach millions but it is the ground campaign in schools and communities, people to people, that is the key to people taking concrete behaviour change action. The two strategies together are a powerful cocktail of change.”

With reference to fans, he stated that

“engaging the moveable middle – people who are not experts or activists – is very powerful as a change strategy. Fan power! They have real agency not just in reducing their carbon footprint but in driving wider system change. When they get on the pitch decision-makers in football and wider in business and government really notice. They are the secret weapon of system change in my view.”

Forsyth concluded by saying:

“Football, and sport more widely is a very powerful way to reach millions of people. It meets people where they are at. With the splintering of traditional media and the breakdown in trust with more established organisations reaching people through things in their lives they love is a change maker.” Justin Forsyth, Co-Founder, Count Us In

A force for good

What many have suspected for a long time has been proven by Green Football Weekend: That sport is a powerful force. Used as a collective voice, empowering and engaging athletes and fans can create change and action.

Harnessing this energy across all sports and in all countries has the potential to make a real difference. But it has to be genuine, transparent and sincere – as Green Football Weekend proved to be.

The next question is: What happens after Green Football Weekend? Do clubs continue to drive their sustainability programmes and do fans continue to make pledges and to actively reduce their carbon footprints, inspiring families and friends to follow?

Green Football Weekend spokesperson Sarah Jacobs said:

“It was incredible to see the energy of the footballing community coming behind Green Football Weekend – from fans scoring more than 80,000 green goals and clubs across the divisions holding greener games, to the leagues supporting green armbands. It really blew us away, and is an amazing foundation as we start planning for next year's Green Football Weekend, which we hope will be even bigger in ambition, scale and impact.” Sarah Jacobs, Green Football Weekend spokesperson

What’s next?

What could the second edition of the game-changing weekend look like? Could it expand beyond football to engage followers of rugby, horse racing, tennis, golf, hockey, netball, and other sports? Could it go European, or even global, engaging fans in countries across the world?

Or maybe it should not just be allocated to one weekend. Wimbledon, arguably tennis’ most famous Grand Slam tournament, initiated an environmental day in 2021, and by 2022 had sustainability embedded throughout the event. Perhaps Green Football Weekend could become Green Football Season? The opportunity to have a transformational impact on climate and the planet is the aspiration of Green Football Weekend – as it should be the aspiration for the rest of the global sports industry.

One thing is for sure: Organisations like Pledgeball and Count Us In, with the backing of their assorted partners, will not let clubs and fans let the grass grow under their feet – or at least not without ensuring it is done sustainably and with a long-term vision.

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