Brands with strong sustainability stories should look to their most expensive and visible marketing platform to truly make their mark.
Sports sponsorship in North America is estimated to hit US $16.37 Billion in 2017 (ieg).
The top ten spenders, who combine for $2.3 billion (14%) of that have a few things in common, none of which you’ll find surprising:
They are Business-to-Consumer (B2C) companies.
They have partnerships with multiple professional leagues and teams.
They advertise and activate heavily around those partnerships.
But here’s something perhaps you didn’t know: All have also invested heavily in responsible business practices, such as decreasing their energy and water demand, developing more environmentally friendly-packaging and using fair labor practices. They all have detailed, articulated goals, aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. And they issue detailed, substantive ‘sustainability reports’, alongside their annual reports to share their progress and achievements.
Much of what the top ten sports sponsorship spenders are doing to protect the planet is truly, truly impressive, and should in no way to be underestimated or underappreciated.
But here’s something they don’t do: effectively leverage their substantial investment in sports partnerships toward those goals. In other words, put their mouth where their money is.
But it’s time.
And here’s why.
The Greenwashing Backlash Has Subsided
Brands who began promoting their environmental efforts years ago quickly found themselves on the defensive. The long reach of the citizen journalist exposed areas where companies’ business practices were less than stellar, or pointed to gaping holes that had yet to be addressed. There was a quick retrenching on the ‘green communications’ front, no matter how advanced and notable their efforts were.
But even the most strident climate activists began to acknowledge that collaboration, rather than confrontation, was the better path forward, and that the largest manufacturers, shippers and stuff-creators were critical to moving forward on urgently needed solutions if they brought even some of their weight and influence to bear.
Consumers have also become a more understanding audience and saying ‘We get that it’s a journey. If you are transparent with us about your faults, we’ll acknowledge your progress.’ So companies have begun to cautiously step forward again to share how they are minding their resources,
But still, most of the ‘Sustainable Brands’ continue to share their efforts largely within the ‘green community’ of like-minded companies and environmental professionals.
For real momentum to get going, these marketing budget endowed firms need to step out onto a larger public stage. And really, there is no larger stage than sports.
But how does that fit together? How is it logical to talk about conservation in a palace of excess?
Glad you asked. Let me tell you a story.
The Magic of Emerald City
Once upon a time, in the faraway Emerald City, a handful of professional sports teams and venues pondered their bottom lines and their place in their community, and formed an alliance. The Green Sports Alliance. This motley band of slightly off-the-radar teams (let’s face it, sports dynasties of the Pacific Northwest would be a very slim book) began comparing notes on efficiency measures in back-of-house operatons (concessions, lighting retrofits). Seeing incredible savings (documented in their first Gamechangers reports), they invited others to learn how they were doing it and held their first Summit in 2011.
And these teams represent a brand strategists’ dream:
a high-profile, credible, value-aligned, multi-faceted messaging platform.
Joe and Jill Q. Public Do Care
And they show it with their wallet.
As the movement has grown, the Green Sports Alliance is increasingly looking to the ‘front of house’, to share their efforts with their fans. To gauge sports fans’ thoughts and expectations, they commissioned Turnkey Research to determine how much Joe & Jill Q. Fan care about the planet. And even the green sports folks were surprised at the results: an astounding 81% indicated they are concerned to very concerned about the environment.
In another study, Natureworks, a company providing compostable cups, plates and utensils, provided some additional terrific insights to tie teams’ environmental efforts right back to their bottom lines.
Finally, a Cone Communications report (among several others) has revealed that 43% of consumers believe that individuals will be most effective and have an important role to play in acting responsibly and stemming climate change. Many of them simply aren’t sure what they can or should do – but given direction they are ready to do it.
And honestly this shouldn’t be all that surprising. Sports stems from community, belonging, banding together. Many sports fans are parents, coaches, volunteers. Of course they have deep ties to their surroundings – people and place – and feel natural stewardship and shared responsibility for that.
In a shift a few years back, the Green Sports Alliance opened its doors to corporate partners, hoping to bring allies into the work to reach fans. And several terrific companies have stepped in: BASF, UPS, Constellation, nrg and Dow. All of them are doing some solid activation with their sports sponsorships. And while their efforts are laudable, these are not lifestyle brands with everyday influence.
The allies we are missing still? The top ten – or even the top twenty – spenders in sports.
The top content generators, amplifiers and activators.
The companies who, day in and day out, have the most direct, loudest and most frequent conversations with consumers.
The ones who urge us what to be, how to live, tell us what’s cool.
So to all you extraordinary brands who are keeping up a brisk daily pace to be the best, to capture consumers’ hearts and minds, I’m calling on you.
It’s Time to Speak Up.
Bring us your skilled copywriters, your cutting edge marketing tools and your budgets. We have fans who will follow us anywhere, take on any challenge, show up when we ask and bring their all to the cause.
Let’s work together to find some creative and entertaining ways to help fans work, live and play in a way that protects and strengthens their community for many potential championship seasons to come.
We just need to make it fun. And simple. And competitive. Because that’s what they come for. That’s what you come for. To be present in the moment that counts.
Which is every moment.
Is it a challenge? Absolutely. Just like every single season, every game, every play is a challenge. But the key is a strong playbook. And together we can create that.
Like a team of coaches with key expertise in various aspects of the game, we need to come together to coach our fans – and communities – toward some very worthy goals.
So, top ten, we need you to get in this game. You know who you are. The auto manufacturers. The alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. The apparel makers. The wireless service providers.
It’s time to put your mouth where your money is.
Happy to hear your take. And stay tuned for our next installment on this topic – the Joe Maddon edition:
Try Not to Suck (at Environmental Messaging)
And hey, if you are looking to join this tribe, you can find us in Sacramento June 27-29 checking out the very cool, very LEED platinum, very digitally hip Golden1 Center – home of the Kings.
Three is a magic number. Yes it is. It’s a magic number. All you Schoolhouse Rock grads can hum along.
For those not in the know, sports have always embraced threes on the field/court/rink/track. The Triple Crown in horseracing, triple-double in basketball, hat tricks in hockey and the epically elusive triple that has kept hundreds from hitting for the cycle in baseball. It turns out, the front office is becoming as enamored of the three as the lockeroom, as countless franchises and leagues have embraced a triple-bottom-line approach to managing the business, that is putting equal emphasis on profits, planet and people, in their pursuit of success.
The State of Green
Next week marks the 5th installment of the Green Sports Summit, the annual conference of the teams, leagues, facilities and universities who are forging a smarter, more resilient path to maintaining a competitive advantage in their operations – gameday and beyond. What began as a like-minded group of clubs and venues in the ever-tree-loving Pacific Northwest has now blossomed to over 200 members, committed to sharing numbers, experiments and pushing one another to greater efforts in driving costs and carbon footprints downward while remaining committed to providing exceptional fan experiences.
So it seems like as good a time as any to reflect on each of the major North American leagues’ ‘State of Green’.
The graphic above gives you a quick visual rundown of where each of the leagues currently stand in terms of team awareness/engagement in responsible operations, but it doesn’t really tell the whole story. At the league level, we have had early innovators who have plateaued in their commitment and laggards who have leaped ahead with great gusto.
The percentages associated with each of the leagues refer to the number of clubs in the league who also maintain an individual membership in the Green Sports Alliance. Nice to see MLB batting .750. Hockey and basketball teams are also posting up playoff-worthy stats, and hopefully moving toward conference champ levels. The NFL seems to be in a position that describes the league itself – a bit lagging on the social leadership front (despite a few shining stars – more below). And perhaps most surprising of all, the MLS. With an outdoor summer season, a veneration of natural grass surfaces and a disproportionate fan base of 18-34 year olds who are arguably more environmentally aware, it’s a bit of an eye-opener to see them with a relegation-level number of engaged clubs.
The great news is that all of the major U.S.-based leagues are members of the Green Sports Alliance, an organization dedicated to “Leveraging the cultural & market influence of sports to promote healthy, sustainable communities where we live & play.” The pretty good news is that many of their individual teams are as well. But as you can see, there is still room for improvement.
But a parent can only do so much with its adult children – so to gain some insight into these participation numbers, we feel its best to start with a look at their most fundamental relationship’s influence and guidance to date. In this post, we characterize each league’s approach and most notable efforts to date.
The critical thing to remember is that we are making candid observations about what has been undertaken to date and not ‘grading’ each of them – every action undertaken by these leagues is noteworthy and commendable. We hope our exploration will ignite their innate competitiveness to move the ball down the field even more.
Strategy synopsis: League Leadership, Continuous Improvement, Strong Acknowledgement of Individual Clubs’ Efforts
The league was the absolute forerunner and a early champion of leading all its clubs by providing practical resources for greening operations. They established the first ‘Greening Advisor’ in 2006 in collaboration with the NRDC to guide clubs toward resources, and Commissioner Bud Selig was recognized for his active advocacy in providing league office resources to all member clubs. MLB has certainly played a role in encouraging its franchises to adopt and share best practices, though the 81-game schedule and lower ticket prices are likely also a factor in incentivizing clubs’ efforts to root out efficiencies in operations. It didn’t hurt that Green Sports Alliance chairman, Scott Jenkins, was coming from MLB, but other early leaders including Joe Abernathy of the St Louis Caridnals, Brad Mohr of the Cleveland Indians (now working his mojo for the Cleveland Browns), and the Phillies and Twins organizations were equally instrumental in leading the way with novel energy, water and waste management solutions.
Strategy synopsis: Unified Voice, Fan-Facing Communications, Community Connections
A league with a similar, aggressive early move on greening, the NBA Green Week remains one of the most visible with fan-facing efforts, starting in earnest in 2007. Whatever the NBA does, it does with the entertainment and celebrity factor in mind. While individual club efforts are less celebrated than the league-branded and promoted Green Week, the Portland Trailblazers early, aggressive stewardship of their facility and their community is notable. This could well be that Blazers owner Paul Allen who also owns the NFL Seahawks, was an instigator of getting the original clubs together to discuss energy savings options. The league’s began by doing environmental assessments of its offices and the NBA Store. One small, but remarkable outcome was eliminating BPA from its licensed products – 4 years before the US FDA required this. NBA Green Week was started in 2009 with a heavy and very public focus on community service projects involving health & greenspace, specialty apparel and PSAs featuring players. The NBA has done the most effective job of harnessing star power in its community-directed messaging. Additionally innovative, they have taken their sustainability values with them overseas, incorporating responsible event practices and associated fan-messaging into the NBA EuropeLive Tour.
Strategy synopsis: Clinical, strategic and unrelenting. Taking it to the boards.
While arriving a bit later than its peers, the NHL has taken no small measures since beginning its NHL Green program in January 2010. Moving as fast and forcefully as its game, just shy of 2 years later the league’s stewardship of investment and commitment to greening all of its events, its own operations and those of ALL 30 member franchises led to the 2011 Beyond Sport ‘Sport for Environment’ Award. This recognized the greening of its Draft, Winter Classic, All-Star Game and Stanley Cup Championship, the establishment of a Greening Advisor, but more importantly a dedicated team to put all 30 clubs through en environmental audit, and experimentation with new technologies on behalf of all its venues to guide their investments and upgrades responsibly. It also acknowledged the adoption by all 30 teams of the ‘Rock and Wrap It Up’ food recovery program. Again, to emphasize – all 30 clubs. Astonishing, really, for a league that has had two significant work stoppages, including the loss of an entire season. Other firsts include the first League Sustainability Report, issued in 2014 and the first league level Official Energy Provider with Constellation Energy. It doesn’t hurt that they have a passionate spokesman in Andrew Ference and another in former New York Ranger great, Mike Richter, who now runs a venture capital firm investing in clean technologies.
The next step will see how these very significant and substantive actions are translated to fans – and beyond.
Strategy synopsis: First mover with strong influence potential, several superstars, must lead strongly to keep pace
As with many things, the NFL has been a pioneer, and this is true on the sustainability front to some extent as well, with greening of the SuperBowl going back to 2000. Improving the environmental aspects of championships and all-star games is no mean feat, as they are moving feasts, with multiple venues, stakeholders and local regulations changing every time it comes around. Their focus has been in five key areas: solid waste management, material reuse, food recovery, sports equipment and book donations and greenhouse gas reduction. The man at the head of the parade is Jack Groh, Director of Environmental Sustainability for the NFL, who begins speaking with the host city and organizing committee up to three years ahead of the event to move the needle as much as possible with the various moving parts. And measure and report it each time. As of 2011, the league has also been addressing responsible management of its three primary offices in Manhattan, Culver City and Mount Laurel, New Jersey. The league also benefits from having one of the earliest pioneering teams in all of sports ‘greening’ in the Philadelphia Eagles. Their efforts date back to 2003 when building Lincoln Financial Field (where a guy by the name of Scott Jenkins was in charge). The Eagles are committed to becoming the first net positive sports facility, by generating more energy than they use. SuperBowl 49 was the first played under LED field lighting reducing the electricity demand there by 75% (and eliminating that tricky blackout problem). SuperBowl 50 has an even more broad-ranging plan with its dual commitment to sustainability and social impact, but these need to be showcased more prominently. In fact, the last 4 SuperBowls have made it a point to proclaim themselves loudly the ‘Greenest Super Bowl Ever’, bringing the topic front and center while millions are watching, fan and non-fan alike. The annual one-upmanship of this claim is a laudable practice under Mr. Groh’s leadership.
While the NFL may have been the earliest league onside, it has not been as aggressive as other leagues in pushing the ball down the field or in field coverage through stewardship of its franchises. Then again, they may well have the most difficult owners to wrangle.
Strategy synopsis: Read and react. Looking to the yeoman to report back.
The new kid on the block, and with many items to manage as the league continues to grow and develop, but to our minds the one with the most to gain, and the fan base most likely to reward their efforts and fully engage and amplify both team and sponsor messaging (18-34 year olds). While the league has a ‘Greener Goals’ designated initiative under its broader MLS Works community relations program, at present this is in transition while a number of new MLS partners settle in to their chosen activations.
In truth the league has learned it may be best to take its cues from the best practices that emerge from its teams and fortunately there are a fair few doing some terrific community-based work. The Portland Timbers #StandTogether Week is a terrific example of combining social and environmental measures with a week full of projects that has fans and non-fans alike working with players, front office and mascot on community improvement projects. Portland was also the site of the 2014 All-Star Game where a strong recycling initiative was on tap. The rival Sounders play in the very responsibly managed CenturyLink Field and have emulated their Cascadia rivals with their ImpactSeattle program, also focused on a series of community projects centered on a single week and partnered with existing non-profit organizations. These are smart in several ways – the single week enables the club to get player participation up and simplifies this for the players. It also provides the media with several options to provide profile. It helps the club manage the partner relationships & requests, and finally it provides a solid focal point for the supporter groups and the community-at-large to direct their energy and time. It’s easily incorporated into the clubs’ existing media buys as an ad ‘snipe’ or tag in radio and TV. Naturally the social media on the lead-up and in the activity capture is also easier to manage and more impactful.
The LA Galaxy are celebrating their 20th anniversary with the 20 for Twenty campaign, consisting of 20 community service projects focusing on human and environmental health over the course of the 2015 season.
The MLS would do well to take note of the simple, yet effective framework of these team initiatives: they leverage their more ‘accessible’ players’ willingness to go out into the community and the mobilization capacity and fanatical civic pride of their supporters groups to reach into the community providing both tangible service outcomes and connection to the casual and non-fans of the club. This is what we’d call a triple bottom line impact effort (social good, environmental gain and club ROI on marketing and likely sales).
We are the champions, my friends
So who’s winning? We all are for now, but you know you’re only as good as your last outing, so we look forward to reporting significant ball movement by all of these leagues heading into the 2016 Summit.
Over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll be going into greater detail on the actions of each of these leagues’ franchises in a framework that provides both an assessment and decently fair context for comparison. Hopefully, we’ll give you enough stats and insight to draft your fantasy green team.
As sports facilities around the world invest millions to improve in-stadium technologies (including Wi-Fi, Beacons, and giant HD screens) all to increase fan engagement through the use of handheld devises, Old Trafford has taken a step back and said “not so fast.”
The biggest news in college sports in 2014-2015 will no doubt be the brand new 4-team playoff system at the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) level. Another story that merits significant attention is that the Zero-Waste Movement (i.e. diverting 90% or more of waste from landfill via recycling and composting) is gaining real traction at stadia and arenas across the country. We take a look at 3 schools moving towards the Zero-Waste route this season:
If you think about it, it’s remarkable how the NFL has been able to expand itself into the behemoth sport entity that it is today. In the beginning, the NFL practically went an entire work week without satisfying their fans core desire – games. However, we all know in the 1970’s that changed with Monday Night Football (MNF). The NFL built momentum with MNF and it gave fans something to look forward to, after arguably the most loathed day of the week.