Sports have a unique power to bring people together and mobilize community. It’s a power that could be used to address the growing climate crisis.
Watching the most recent Olympic Games awakened a familiar feeling. A certain pride bubbled to the surface as Erin Jackson won a gold medal for the U.S., and that feeling remained as several other athletes broke records and placed in their respective sports. Within that pride of place, of country and team, there was also a powerful sense of unity.
It’s the same conjured emotion I got last week when a close friend revealed they’re a Red Sox fan. As a Yankee fan myself, we tousled around a friendly rivalry but shared an immense love for the game. I recall a fight I had with an ex after the Patriots beat the Seahawks in the 2015 Super Bowl. Eventually, we made amends, chalking up the intense emotions to the high stakes, noting that winning and losing were the nature of the game we both loved so much.
This approach and reaction to competition and division are quite unique, a phenomenon found in few places. Our socio-political sphere is contingent on this division, brewing a forceful and seemingly impenetrable partisanship that often locks our systems into a place of stagnancy. We’re seeing this divide and subsequent impediment to action with the climate crisis. However, with 79 percent of Americans wishing the U.S. would switch to alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar, and with over half of both political parties stating that climate change is a real and present issue that requires action, we’re at the will of a government intrinsically and monetarily tied to oil and gas.
The climate-related protests and calls for action seem to be one-sided, however, and often painted as a “leftist” issue, working to further impede action taken to solve the problem. Yet with it being the crisis with the largest net cast for impact, it ought to be a topic of utmost concern. With a government and certain media groups working to further create a divide, where can we turn for unification? What about a sports bar on a Sunday afternoon? Or a Thursday night game? Somewhere people gather for a single purpose, with the hope of watching their team win, without wondering about the political ideology of the person next to them. Could a shift in sustainable practices on the behalf of sports teams unify and engage a population enough to subsequently inform policy and allow for system changes?
“The nature of sports is very interesting. We are individuals who have unique ideas, values, and identities. However, when we group together in large masses — as can be seen in the context of sports teams — we create a collective identity,” says Ashley Lourens, Mental Health Counselor and Head of Wellbeing at Plumm Health. “The group becomes our safety and it becomes part of our identity. A similar phenomenon can also be seen in sport [fans]. If you support a team, you often refer to your team’s position as ‘we’ in conversation, aligning the team’s successes and failures with your own.”
Around 17.3 million people can be expected to watch a broadcasted football game, with about 16 million attending in person games each season. One to two million people tune in to a single NBA game, with about 17 million at stadiums throughout the season. NASCAR and Major League Baseball boast millions of fans every year as well, with soccer steadily growing in popularity in the United States. With such a wide fanbase, the likelihood of a shared perception is high, especially if there’s continuity across teams, networks, and stadiums.
Professional sports teams can be active leaders in addressing the climate crisis
At present, few teams in the U.S. and abroad are actively shifting their practices. The Forest Green Rovers, a League Two U.K. Soccer team, is the “world’s greenest” and first UN-certified carbon-neutral Soccer club. They offer vegan food at the stadium, an arena powered by “100% green energy electricity and carbon-neutral gas from Ecotricity” that also has green grass, made possible by the collection of rainwater. The NHL’s Seattle Kraken play in a net carbon arena, using recycled rainwater for the Zamboni, which runs on electricity rather than fossil fuels. The Philadelphia Eagles have solar panels that provide the energy for most of their stadium activities, and the Sacramento Kings harvest solar energy for all of their stadium’s needs.
The efforts of the Seattle Kraken alone are expected to save their home city 50,000 gallons of water a year. These teams do more than just play in a stadium within a city; they also impact the surrounding areas. While it might be more carbon-conscious to split the map of the U.S. down the middle and switch up the divisions in order to reduce the energy expenditure spent on team travel (where the majority of sports’ carbon footprint stems from), a more realistic measure is changing the practices at home.
As it turns out, these sustainability efforts have impacts on these teams’ communities. The Pittsburgh Pirates started an initiative in 2008 called, “Let’s Go Bucs. Let’s Go Green,” which began a recycling program focused on diverting waste from landfills, as well as composting efforts and community outreach aimed at encouraging local Pittsburghians to engage in sustainable practices. The Seattle Kraken also hosts Environmental Justice Panels, including actionable steps for fans to take. The Forest Green Rovers helped host a beach clean-up this past May. By engaging with their community, they’re fostering climate education beyond the boundaries of their stadiums.
While many of these efforts are substantial and admirable, they often lack urgency and, sometimes, genuity. As of 2022, the Pirates are still sponsored by Teco People’s Gas. Arco Southwest, an oil company, and Chevron sponsor the Sacramento Kings. It begs the question: is oil money funding these green efforts? If yes, the sustainable practices aren’t negated, per se, especially as community influence is considered, but the notion of morality is raised.
The Forest Green Rovers are sponsored by Ecotricity, “Britain’s greenest energy company,” Candriam, “a sustainable global asset management company,” Player Layer, which is responsible for their bamboo-made uniforms, and Skoot, a ride-share app. Being certified by the United Nations, the Rovers are sustainable on a few different levels, including where they get their money, which funds their online and in-stadium advertising. Meaning, that their audience sits in a carbon-neutral arena and might see a banner for Sheese, a vegan cheese company. On the other side of the world, Kings’ fans will sit in a 100 percent solar-powered stadium and go home to watch a Chevron-sponsored video clip of their favorite players having conversations in a car in the online series, “The Winning Drive.”
Efforts do shift sustainability practices. We witness this with Olympians joining forces with COP26. Watching your favorite team or athlete care about the planet is bound to impact how a fan approaches their own eco-consciousness. “Influential sports teams, players, people, and leaders of the organization are under constant surveillance and scrutiny, which means their values and actions can influence the masses. So, if you wanted to inspire climate-change activism, the greatest place to start would be through the sports players and clubs who represent it,” Lourens says. “If fans see teams they admire and support partaking in climate activism, they will make associations with their own identity and sense of belonging, and that’s how we see activism start to grow.”
Franchises do have the power to cut their carbon footprint while influencing their fanbase to do the same, but by stopping short of refusing money from the biggest proponents of the climate crisis, they work to affirm parts of the status quo for that same fanbase. This seemingly subtle insistence to follow the same path works to prevent full shifts in the sports industry and the world at large.
It can be difficult to refuse mass amounts of money from multi-year corporate sponsorships. The New England Patriots must have felt that way when they decided to sign off on a $2 million JetBlue Airways sponsorship in 2019, despite being the only NFL team with two private jets. However, shifting to full sustainability is more lucrative than these franchises might think.
The Forest Green Rovers increased their sponsorship revenue by 50 percent. Other companies who are shifting their own climate practices want to seek partnerships with sports teams that reflect those missions.
“We are seeing brands have an ever-increasing focus on ‘Environmental, social, and governance in regard to their investments, so it might be that sports organizations are losing out on sponsorship revenues if they aren’t doing enough in regard to sustainability, and therefore their ethos doesn’t match that of the brand looking to partner,” says Claire Poole, Founder and CEO of Sport Positive, an organization aimed at accelerating sustainability in the sports industry. “Vice versa, as sports organizations continue to do more in the area of environmental sustainability, they will attract brands that mirror these efforts and may encourage brands to do more themselves. The power of sport to drive wider change in other industries and society cannot be underplayed.”
Within that, a fully green team communicates to their fanbase that we’re too far along in the climate crisis to make room for negotiables.
According to the United Nations, “athletes and teams can serve as role models to their supporters. They can use their elevated social status to educate individuals and communities on climate change, motivating them to change their lifestyles for the betterment of the planet.”
Avoiding catastrophic and irreversible temperature rises directly benefits sports. Extreme weather patterns, including storms and heat, can cancel games and put players and fans at risk. On the global level, sports contribute the same amount of emissions as a medium-sized country, making their responsibility for transparent and effective climate policies tenfold. On a singular level, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics emitted 3.6 million tons of CO2 alone. Around 30 million people tuned in to watch the events. During that time, Exxon spent $19.3 million on 233 greenwashed ads. So as that powerful sense of unity began to wash over millions of people who were rooting for their respective country’s athletes, an opportunity was missed, one that could have informed, activated, and shifted the needle.
By anyone’s calculations, $19.3 million is a large sum of money, but by the United Nations’ Climate Report’s calculations, the climate crisis is an immense and present problem, one that could be fought in part by proper education and advocacy across all industries. Poole continues, “We need sports to be more ambitious than ever, especially those that have the resources to invest in systems change to leverage the power of sport beyond the stadium or venue and into communities.”
We simply can’t afford to put these changes off until next season.