OpEd: Leveraging Sports as a CSR & Sustainability Platform

The America’s Cup will make sustainability a core tenet of the event

By Neill Duffy

Is there a way in which major sports events can embrace sustainability to deliver significantly more impact for the benefit of the planet and while improve their own performance and the relationship with the local community?

I like to think there is and that’s the idea I’d like to share with you here.

The roots of the idea

This idea for me has its roots in South Africa in the mid 1990’s when a new country was born, the Republic of South Africa.

At that time, I was privileged enough to witness, first hand, the power of sport and the media to heal a nation when Nelson Mandela donned the No. 6 rugby jersey of Springbok Captain Francois Pienaar right after the Springboks had just beaten the New Zealand All Blacks in the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup.  At that moment, 40 million people that had previously been divided became one nation.

The experience started me out on my journey of exploring just what might be possible when major sports events, brands, and NGO’s come together to engage with fans, through their passions, with the intention of making a real difference in the world.

Nelson Mandela’s donning of the Springbok jersey in 1995 symbolized the birth of a new nation.

Fast Forward
Fast forward 15 years and we find ourselves living in a world where the issues that we have to deal with as a global community are more pressing and top of mind than ever.

The good news is that many sectors of society are starting to wake up to the challenge… and the opportunity that exists in embracing a sustainability-led model. Businesses are embracing sustainability at an accelerating rate. Consumers are too. But sport is lagging behind.

We need big solutions to address these big issues and I believe major sports events have a big role to play, and can play a much more significant role than they have to date. I’m talking about sports teams doing more than just greening their events or raising philanthropic money to support worthy causes. I’m talking about teams embracing sustainability at the core of their DNA using the power of their engagement platforms to inspire millions of people to do the same.

But, before we take this idea any further, lets consider a few trends that create the perfect environment in which this idea can thrive.

Sport represents a devoted, attentive audience of billions worldwide

Major Sports Events as an engagement platform
The growing importance of major sports events in the world today from an engagement perspective is a reality.

While acknowledging the fact that sports teams and leagues not perfect and have many challenges of their own to deal with, the reach and impact that major sports events have on the lives of billions of people around the world is undisputed. In a funny way, the things that are wrong about professional sports often seem to add to their intrigue and appeal.

To give you a sense of the scale involved consider these numbers from 2011:

  • There were over 42,500 hours of live sporting events on U.S. national broadcast and cable television
  • And advertisers spent almost $40 billion on advertising during sports coverage on U.S. network TV and Cable, with the biggest spender spending over $420 million
  • In October alone, 35 million people downloaded 460 million video streams from online sports sites,

And in 2012,

  • 250 host broadcasters from 220 countries will pay in excess of $1.7 billion for the rights to broadcast the London 2012 Olympics in a few weeks time

And its not just about media. Millions of people attend sporting events every day of the year. The top 10 sports leagues around the world attracted over 200 million spectators in 2010/2011.

Sponsors spend a huge amount of money on sponsorships on sports – IEG predicts that almost $50 billion would have been spent globally by brands on sponsorship in 2011 alone.

These broadcasters, advertisers and sponsors clearly know something or they wouldn’t be spending as much money on sport as they do – what they know is that major sports events deliver tremendous value as a platform to engage with millions of viewers and spectators to build bands, communicate messages, sell stuff, motivate their employees and more.

The rise of the Global, Socially Conscious Consumer

People around the world are thinking more and more about how they can influence things and behaving accordingly.

Recent findings by a global Nielsen survey indicate that the majority of consumers, today, express a general preference for companies making a positive difference in the world.

Two thirds of consumers around the world say they prefer to buy products and services from companies that have implemented programs to give back to society.

  • 62% prefer to work for these companies
  • 59% to invest in these companies
  • 46 percent say they are willing to pay extra for products and services from these companies

The research also provides insight into the issues that consumers care most about:

  • 66% care most about environmental sustainability
  • 56% about improvements to science, technology and math education
  • 53% about the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger as a priority

So, the good news is that fans are more ready than ever to engage in dealing with these issues we face, through their wallets and the decisions they take.

Sports CSR and philanthropy
Many major sports organizations do already “give back” to the community through CSR and philanthropy- led activities.

The Olympic movement has for years put its weight behind issues like World Peace, Sport for All, Development through Sport, Education through Sport and Sport and the Environment.

Many of the U.S. sports leagues, the NBA the NFL and MLB for example, do important work in their local communities and raise hundreds of millions of dollars in the process for charities and causes that they support, which tend to be very locally relevant to the organizations concerned.

More and more sports organisations are also considering their operational impact on the planet and, thanks to initiatives like the Green Sports Alliance in the USA, much progress is being made in reducing sports’ environmental footprint – the so called “greening” of sports events and venues.

So, the extension beyond philanthropy and CSR should be a relatively easy one for sport to make.

Business expects it
When a business like Wal-Mart announced to the world that it was embracing sustainability we all knew something big had changed forever.

The business sector is embracing sustainability at an accelerating rate recognising both the necessity in terms of their long term viability and the operational and business benefits that can flow from doing so. There are numerous studies that now show that there is a correlation between companies that lead in sustainability and those that report higher profits and stock value.

Businesses expect their partners to support them in their endeavours. Major sports organisations that ignore sustainability will become a risky sponsorship proposition. A sports organisation’s commitment to sustainability has now become one of the evaluation criteria used by sponsors in deciding whether to offer a sponsorship or not.

The perfect ingredients
So, it would seem that the stars are aligning to deliver greater impact through sports:

  • In sport, we have an engagement platform that reaches billions of people around the planet, is already predisposed to acting responsibly, has access to many valuable engagement assets and is always looking for ways to grow its business
  • In fans, we have a growing pre-disposition to support businesses that make a positive difference in the world
  • In businesses, we have a growing expectation that partners support their efforts to embrace sustainability

What we need next is a new recipe – or business model – to encourage major sports events to take these ingredients and leverage them for maximum impact – both for the benefit of the planet but as importantly for their own businesses too.

That new recipe could be based on major sports events changing their business model from one where:

Where sustainability focuses on delivering social, environmental and economic impact through a partnership with NGO’s, Brands and the Fans and all activity is totally integrated into the DNA of the sports organizations business model.

Opportunity: The 34th America’s Cup

One major international sports organization that is adopting this new approach is the 34th America’s Cup.

The organisors of the America’s Cup, the worlds premier sailing event that next takes place in San Francisco in September 2013, have begin to embrace the ideas that I’ve shared with you here and the event provides a great case study of how these ideas are being put into practice and are currently working.

A transformation of the America’s Cup is now underway to make the event more relevant to a broader audience – and therefore more commercially viable.  The idea is based on three core pillars:

  • making the sport more exciting to watch by showcasing the best sailors on the fastest boats,
  • making the sport easier to watch and easier to understand by providing fans with unrivaled access to the action be it through the media, online or physically at events, and
  • making sustainability – the delivery of social, environmental and economic impact –  a core element of the event

In the process, the organisors have repositioned the America’s Cup to be more than a sport.

The important lesson here is that the organisors of the America’s Cup don’t treat their commitment to sustainability or ocean conservation as merely a CSR or philanthropic activity. Its part of their DNA.

Every aspect of the event’s organization is affected from the energy and resources used in delivery, the impact of the event on natural habitats, the way in which communities are included in the event and stakeholders are engaged around it.

Some examples of how this plays out in practice for the America’s Cup include:

  • more efficient boats having been acquired for use by officials during the races – although these were more expensive to purchase than the type of boats traditionally used they use 50% less fuel resulting in a net cost saving to the event while also having a lower emissions footprint.
  • A number of ocean health related NGO’s have been invited to partner with the event through the America’s Cup Healthy Ocean Project and collaborate with the organizers across their various engagement assets to further their cause. In the process, a value exchange takes place that benefits all parties.
  • A ban on single use water bottles at event venues and the provision of water refilling stations and sale of re-useable water bottles. These initiatives have not only reduced the events’ plastic footprint but have also created an opportunity to generate revenue that would not have otherwise existed through the sale of re-useable water bottles and sponsorships linked directly to the initiative.
  • The America’s Cup Sustainability Credit, an innovative new sustainability funding vehicle has been created that will be marketed to fans, sponsors and vendors. The funds raised through the sale of these credits will be applied to various event sustainability linked initiatives… all with a view of helping the America’s Cup achieve its objective of delivering a model sustainable sport event

By integrating social, environmental and economic impact as well as ocean conservation, the organizers of the America’s Cup have been able to reframe the conversation they have with their stakeholders – the fans, the sponsors, the City, the vendors, the employees, and therefore their entire business model.

Getting the recipe right

In order to get this new recipe right, there are the four questions that sports organizations need to be asking themselves:

  • How can they shift their business models by treating their relationship with the planet and the communities that they interact with as a BUSINESS DRIVER as opposed to a MORAL RESPONSINILITY
  • How can they best align their assets with the impact they wish to have to ensure that it is as relevant as possible focusing on maximizing the environmental, social and economic impact that they are able to delive
  • How can they re-engineer the delivery of their events from cradle to cradle so as to minimize their negative environmental and social impacts
  • How can they best measure their impact…..so that they can demonstrate the RETURN FOR THE PLANET that they are able to deliver

The prize….

  • major sports organizations themselves will benefit –  financially and operationally, and…
  • so too will the planet and the communities with which sports organisations interact with as a result of the increase in the scale  and depth of IMPACT that major sports events will want to deliver.

Neill Duffy is Chairman of Tribe Management, a “for purpose” business that raises capital in all its forms – financial, social, brand and other – for the benefit of organizations with a social and/or environmental mission or aspirations to build one. Tribe has a special interest in harnessing the emotional, communicative and commercial power of sports, entertainment, media and celebrity to engage with fans and demonstrate the power of sustainability for positive change. Tribe provides advisory and fundraising services to the America’s Cup Event Authority on its “More than a Sport” and “Healthy Ocean Project”. Neill is based in San Francisco, California, USA. neill.duffy@tribemanagement.eu


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3 responses

  1. Great post Neill and I wholeheartedly agree about the potential of sport as a vehicle for change but there are serious challenges to overcome.

    I spent eight years in Premier League football at Everton FC from the CSR side of the fence, and also managed our national amputee football squad for a few years and have seen first hand the naivety across the whole sports industry.

    There are growing pockets of excellence across the business of sport, but I’d suggest the leading trend is about purest revenue generation from a traditional perspective for the increasing less accountable private ownership.

    Much educational work to be done at clubs, governing bodies, sponsors and the fans (consumers).

  2. What about Sustainability Rules = Sport?  Let’s get the top sustainable product standards out there and then business will know which game they are playing and consumers will know who to for.  Now there’s a game I’ll pay money to watch.

  3. Great article! As the Co-Founder of Sustainable Surf, I couldn’t agree more that sports are the best way to tell the “Sustainability Story” to the general public.

    Surfing in particular is a good sport for this, since it is very popular and influential on youth culture. Equally important is that surfing itself is directly threatened by CO2 emissions in multiple ways. Quite literally, sea level rise will drown out surf breaks, and ocean acidification is causing the extinction of coral, where the best waves in the world are located.

    The good part is that the solutions to these problems are made more fun if they are associated with surfing and other sports. So let’s do it!

    Kevin Whilden

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