Sustainability and sport: the private sector’s role

Article authored by Rita Ricobelli Corradi, Sustainability and sport expert.

Sport can be more than a game and lucrative economic activity; it is also a powerful platform to help advance sustainability, not only in the public and non-profit sectors but also across the business landscape. Among its many benefits, sport’s ability to break down socioeconomic barriers, promote physical and mental health and foster social cohesion and development, is a universally recognised power that can encourage positive change. Importantly, sport has the large-scale global influence and engagement needed to help move the needle on sustainability.

Indeed, various organisations including the United Nations, governmental agencies in both developed and developing countries and non-profit organisations, have been working on how to use sport as a tool to support sustainability efforts. Yet, in many cases, a lack of resources, such as funding and multidisciplinary know-how, has limited the impact of these efforts.

To overcome such limitations and attain wide-ranging sustainable impact, sport and sustainability initiatives need to adopt a thorough and systematic approach, while leveraging the expertise and vision of all sectors. In this respect, the private sector can play a critical role as it has the financial means, and the necessary agility, know-how, and ability to focus on fresh, innovative strategies to drive forward successful initiatives and private-public collaborations globally.

When it comes to the limitations of achieving sustainable impact within the business sector, introducing sustainability strategies can be challenging and sometimes seen as a cost rather than an investment that benefits shareholders and other company stakeholders. A common way to understand the advantages of sustainability efforts in business is using a concept known as the triple bottom line. A phrase coined by business writer John Elkington in 1994, the triple bottom line refers to a sustainability framework that examines a company’s social, environmental, and economic impact. Its focus on people, planet and profit – known as the 3Ps – promotes a more holistic view of business that measures a company’s social and environmental impact as well as financial performance.

How businesses can integrate the 3Ps in sport

By taking into account the 3Ps, business entities can reap the benefits of linking sustainability and sport. For example, various sport and physical activity consumer goods companies have opted to focus on making positive social and environmental impacts as a core mission. This commitment not only clarifies and enhances business strategies, it can also help to facilitate brand promotion, awareness, recognition, and consumer loyalty. Gaining a clear understanding of the interplay between people, planet and profit can help businesses involved in or closely linked to sport to identify new opportunities for growth and reach new markets while, at the same time, making positive societal and environmental impacts.

Also, the private equity (PE) industry is increasingly focusing on environmental, social and governance (ESG), alongside innovation and the business value of sport. As such, PE funds could combine these three areas, aiming for cost efficiencies while gaining greater exposure and making a positive impact. As more PE funds invest in sport, such as soccer in the US or football in Europe and many parts of the world, the multi-club ownership (MCO) model could become more common.[i] These MCOs have a unique and valuable opportunity to link ESG and innovative strategies to, for instance, develop a best practice approach to renewable energy, water efficiency, waste management and circularity, and sustainable procurement, including the protection of human rights and the promotion of youth development and social justice. Thus, the size and scale of the PE industry along with its focus on sport puts PE funds in a commanding position to influence sustainability measures and reap the long-term financial benefits that a more sustainable sport sector offers.

Advancing sustainability through sport and measuring success

For companies that do not have a direct link to sport, the significant exposure and engagement aspects of popular sports can still allow them to make a positive sustainability impact and have a constructive marketing strategy that highlights a cause rather than just sell products. A good example is American multinational telecom holding company AT&T, which promotes gender equality progress by supporting women in sport, as well as media and entertainment. Called She’s Connected,[ii] the initiative channels the company’s scale, resources and technology to improve gender equality in sport by spotlighting the multi-dimensional nature of women athletes, specifically supporting those with careers outside of their sport or philanthropic projects.

The impact valuation of sport and sustainability endeavours is imperative to inform and guide strategies as well as to substantiate funding. This approach applies to private, public and non-profit sector organisations looking to expand the power of sport as a tool for sustainable development through financial support. Even individuals such as professional athletes, particularly those guided by a healthy wealth management strategy that includes philanthropy, have an opportunity to make significant contributions. In all cases, it is important to determine the monetary value on the social, economic, and environmental impact of sport initiatives to gain an accurate measure of success. The return on investment in these initiatives must be measured with the same precision and thoroughness applied to analysing financial information

Developing your business and sustainability approach in or through sport

Either creating or partnering with the ability to establish a strong association between a company’s product or service to sport and sustainability can provide brand exposure and awareness, operational efficiencies and other value creation opportunities while having positive social, economic and environmental impacts.

A deep understanding of sector-specific issues, including the science behind sustainability and sport and how to connect the dots between them is vital. Equally important is knowledge of international trends, as well as local contexts and cultures that provide innovative solutions to harness the power of sport in marketing and business strategies linked to the 3Ps of sustainability. In addition, sport and sustainability initiatives should include an impact valuation component to measure and convey the strategy’s economic value.

The billions of sport fans worldwiderepresent a massive community and dynamic market that can be a game changer in business and sustainable development. A company’s ability to successfully integrate sustainability in or through sport can be a powerful marketing and business strategy that not only aims to deliver a positive social and environmental impact but also provide important economic benefits at micro and macro levels.

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