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 | 30-06-2022


Sport and sustainability – status quo, opportunities and challenges


Sustainability is still one of the most discussed topics in 2022. This area will shape daily life, behavior and social interaction in the long run and is therefore also a rapidly growing part of the sports business. But when it comes to sustainability, sport often lags behind the demands and necessities.
The international sports rights marketer SPORTFIVE recognized the outstanding importance of sustainability for the sports business and its own business model at the beginning of 2021. With the advice of fors.earth and timesarechanging, a strategy was developed that explains how sustainability will influence the actions of SPORTFIVE internally and externally in the future.
In this PLAYBOOK, Dr. Alexis Katechakis, Dennis König, Mario Lucan (Executive Director Product Management and Sustainability at SPORTFIVE) and Max Sorst (Senior Specialist Sustainability and Sponsoring at SPORTFIVE) talk with moderator Lisa Ramuschkat about why sustainability is so important for SPORTFIVE, how the strategy and measures were developed, what to look out for when it comes to sustainability and how the SPORTFIVE partners reacted to the initiative.

The interview has been slightly abridged and edited for readability.

Alexis, why does sport have such a good leverage effect for sustainability?

Dr. Alexis Katechakis: There are always two perspectives in companies: 1. Where and how a company can minimize the impact of its actions – the famous footprint. 2. Where, ideally, it can have a positive impact and generate benefits for society or at least for various stakeholder groups. This is where sport has a huge advantage compared to other sectors of the economy, because firstly it reaches a very wide spectrum of society – from the illiterate to the university professor, from the day laborer to the billionaire, from the steppe in Africa to Greenland, where people get excited about sports.
There are also a lot of emotions involved. Sport really has the potential to actually convey the issues of sustainability through emotional appeal.

Mario, when did you realize that there was no getting around the topic of sustainability in the sports sector?

Mario Lucan: At the beginning of last year, we realized that there was no getting around this topic and that the time has now come to deal with it in the sports industry as well. First of all, it is about the fact that we as a company, as an employer, as part of the economic system, have a task and need an attitude on this topic, because it is also a general social discourse that is being conducted and there is also a great focus on it. On the other hand, in our role in the sports business as an intermediary – as a mediator – between companies on the one hand and sports platforms (clubs, associations, athletes, events) on the other hand, we are committed to to have an opinion and to be able to provide advice regarding such topics that affect society as a whole and have a high level of attention and relevance in the sports industry. And we look at it from these two facets and realized last year that it is very good and very important that we look at it and that there is still a lot to do.

Sounds very exemplary. Dennis, would you go one step further and explain to us how the topic has really been received by clubs and associations. What is the status quo that we are looking at?

Dennis König: Like Mario, I would take a little time travel through the last few months. When we looked at the status quo, very few sports organizations have dealt with sustainability professionally. We had a broad understanding of CSR, but there is definitely a distinction between an understanding of CSR and the sustainability strategy. What you noticed a year ago was that in the sports context, the media discussed topics that had not been discussed before – e.g. the flight of the German national team from Stuttgart to Basel, where suddenly the ecological footprint of this trip vs. the regeneration time of the players stood and both specialised press – such as Kicker – as well as Spiegel took up this topic and discussed it. And if you look further, it was shown again in the media towards the middle of the year – e.g. in the context of the European championship with the Rainbow Colors discussion, which was suddenly completely new, but also the press conference of Ronaldo, who took the Coca Cola from the press conference table and said: "Drink water." And in the middle of the year, you saw that early adopters – the first to realize that sustainability is, as Alexis said, relevant to business – showed how you can approach the whole thing strategically. SPORTFIVE opened the door – also together with SPONSORS – and identified sustainability as business-relevant with a strategic approach. And then in September last year there was the question of what was happening at the SPOBIS – the mood barometer where the entire industry meets. You could tell in advance that they were looking for someone who could say something about sustainability and other topics, and then afterwards you saw that the topic of sustainability was very present on the stage – the priority topic. And much more exciting at such a congress is what happens in the corridors, away from the stages, in the evenings during the discussions at the bar. There you noticed that most sports organizations understood how important the issue of sustainability is and that they have to deal with it in order to understand the complexity and not only minimize risks, but also seize opportunities.

Max, you as a Senior Specialist at SPORTFIVE are responsible for this topic. Why did you get support and how did it come about that you decided on fors.earth and timesarechanging?

Max Sorst: When we started, we asked ourselves: What can we do and deliver ourselves and where do we need help, since the topic of sustainability is very large and complex and we and our colleagues approached the topic with an intrinsic motivation – without a studied, professional background. And of course you can learn a lot, but you can't just acquire years of experience. Then it quickly became clear to us that we wanted professional support, also to include objectivity and an outside position. And then we went through a very classic pitch process. Starting with requested professors from Berlin, through individual entrepreneurs and agencies. In the end, timesarechanging and fors.earth were objectively the best. And after the past year, we are all very happy that it turned out that way.

Alexis, can you show us the selectivity or possible parallels compared to the economy – to what extent is the topic of sustainability dealt with in these two areas.

Dr. Alexis Katechakis: There are two levels there too. We have been dealing with the topic of sustainability for 20 years and it has become more and more strategic over time. It has reached more and more industries and companies. In the beginning it was mainly the chemical industry, then energy producers and for several years trade has been very strongly represented here. We didn't have the sports area on our radar at all. By working with timesarechanging, we have seen what potential there is in terms of the reach and impact of the sport.

Why wasn't that so clear?

Dr. Alexis Katechakis: Because it didn't affect the sports industry that much. SPORTFIVE has also slowly approached the topic, as they have noticed that sustainability issues are becoming increasingly important in the sponsorship landscape, since companies are behind it for whom sustainability issues have become business-relevant. And business relevant means these issues really impact the products and the services that these companies offer. And then they start to look what kind of partners are suitable for what we want to bring forward. And the experience that we bring from other industries can be transferred very well to the sports sector because these mechanisms are always very similar. And a very important aspect, which Mario also mentioned, is that people also notice: These topics have something to do with their personal lives and also have the expectation that companies – now also the sports sector – will take care of them. And there is an incredible amount of clout and potential. And that's what we're working on – as we sit here – to leverage this potential.

Mario, would you like to go one step further: What materiality has SPORTFIVE identified for itself in this topic? Perhaps you can explain briefly what that means in concrete terms.

Mario Lucan: The first thing we understood was that if we as a company don't deal with it, we won't be able to play our role in advising rights holders credibly. Therefore, at the beginning of the process, the question was: What facets does this have for us? And which concrete fields of action result from this. And an important facet is the internal one – as a company, as an employer – to build up credibility and also to identify one’s own essentiality – i. e. where we can have an impact.
The other facet is that of partners (rights holders). And the next that of the companies. In search of our essentiality, with the help of fors.earth we then realized: We cannot do everything. In workshops we identified the topics in which we as SPORTFIVE can subsume specific measures using the framework of the 17 UN SDGS. And the first thing that became clear relatively quickly was that SDG 17 – partnerships to achieve the goals – is inherent in sport: athletes enter into partnerships with coaches, we broker partnerships between platforms and sponsors, etc. This goal acts as a bracket for us. In the end, however, we identified 3 specific fields under which we subsume our specific measures. These are: 1. Thriving Planet, 2. Level Playing Field Equal Opportunities – and diversity, the proportion of men and women is just one facet. 3. Health and empowerment, because only physically and mentally healthy employees bring something to the company.
And for each of these three fields, we added an SDG to make it even more granular. But then it was especially important including an internal and an external perspective, i.e. what do we do for our employees and as a company and where do we try to do something in the areas in which we are active (we have 21 offices in Germany ¬– accordingly also 21 social communities / environments in which we move) and how we can also animate externally. To give an example: We will make time units available to employees so that they can carry out projects that are close to their hearts and that fit our goals. That can be a trainer activity, a coaching or something similar."


Max, can you give us 1 - 2 case examples that you have already implemented with rights holders?


Max Sorst: With FC Augsburg we first took stock of what they are already doing in the area of sustainability, in order to then jointly develop a strategy including club attitude and identity and to convey this to the outside world. Based on this, partners were involved and sustainable sponsoring products were developed or existing products were further developed. So, the club has a strategy and identity and based on that we talk to partners – or after FC Augsburg announced this, many partners also approached us – that is of course the best case.


Dennis, what is the biggest lever in the sports business that can also be used to achieve the greatest impact?

Dennis König: That is reach that you can use to attract attention and responsibility. And emotionality, which is like a putty and which makes the reach valuable and leads to involvement and commitment.


Mario, what do you plan for 2022?

Mario Lucan: We had to learn to be patient first. We are always very reactive, but then very quick to implement things. We first had to internalize this marathon analogy, which is often used in the area of sustainability, because we don't want to be tempted to implement things that are not yet fully developed. On the other hand, we want to act quickly.

Dr. Alexis Katechakis: If I may add that briefly: That also has an advantage. As I said at the beginning, we work for very different sectors and in some it takes a long time until something moves (energy producers, chemical industry, automotive sector) while the sports sector is fast once people understand it and set a framework. And we as a society need these impulses and emotionalisation. So slowing down in order to orientate oneself and not get lost in the swamp of sustainability, yes, but it's also good to move forward with speed and that also suits the sport.

Mario Lucan: We don't have that exclusively. We already claim the role of a front runner for ourselves, since we started quite early in the sports business and have developed a lead that we would like to maintain, on the other hand we also see that this speed of reaction in sports-business in general comes to fruition. Because that's not a task that we can solve alone – neither SPORTFIVE nor the FCA or any other sports organization. If we keep the overall goal in mind, we will only be able to do it if everyone moves.


Back to the question: What do you have in mind for 2022, Mario?

Mario Lucan: Two examples from the internal world: Since the beginning of the year, we have had a department of five people that is dedicated to dealing with sustainability. This is a basic prerequisite for being able to get something moving in the three pillars with the subordinate SDGs and measures. We are in the process of developing an activity calendar to enable everyone from the company to participate. First of all, we will look at a measure once a month, an anchor point – e.g. the World Clean Up Day – for which we then call for participation. We have started to collect our CCF (Corporate Carbon Footprint), it has almost become a hygiene factor, you don't get any applause for it – but it's part of it. Externally, we have started to enter into discussions with rights holders on the subject of building an attitude and identity in order to be able to draw these conclusions in sports sponsorship. With the partner companies we work on analysis mechanisms to find out where the company stands – we call this profiling. We have people who know how to read sustainability reports and identify which SDGs the company is dealing with. They give us insights that our sales department then uses to know which hook he / she has. And then we'll see how that ultimately matches up with platforms. Another external measure is that we are heavily involved with platforms outside of football. We have marketing partnerships in basketball, handball, and winter sports, and we're looking to see which platforms are already (more) mature in the area of sustainability that we'd like to include in our portfolio.


Max, you're welcome to top it off with the question I asked before. What does a project with fors.earth and timesarechanging look like using the example of a club?

Max Sorst: Look at the club, who is responsible? Is there a person responsible here – and preferably full-time and not on the side – and then to see which trades are relevant – i.e. in addition to a CSR officer – who looks after the stadium, office, staff – because it's also an important issue as employer – where is the ticketing, merchandising, catering. Where are the contacts to the city, to the region since a lot is about mobility there. What projects does the association have in the social, economic and ecological areas, because there is usually much more to it – lots of small points that nobody knows because they are in various departments, to bundle them up, summarize them and see where are things that we already have that we simply have to communicate or narrow down and check where the potential is. And then we sit down and see who and what makes sense for a start workshop, which people from the association side, from us. Then we check whether the association already has fields of action or SDGs, which short, medium and long-term goals result from this, which and how partners can be involved. And then it's important to keep at it. We see it again and again: you start, then it gets lost or if things are going badly in sports, the topic of sustainability is no longer so important. Our job then is to stay tuned, keep up the pressure and make it clear to them: This identity is independent of your sporting success and this strategic competence is important in order to be relevant in the future.


Dennis, maybe you could go back to basics for us too: What is the process that has to happen to even get to this step?


Dennis König: Organizations need a department that gets the support and mandate to deal with sustainability per se. Before that, it must be recognised: sustainability is business-relevant and we have to deal with it and on this basis we have to check which possible solutions we are dealing with. We just had the example of SPORTFIVE, where sustainability is a business-relevant topic for them. And then we checked internally what options we have for approaching the topic. And then you came up with the idea of working together with external experts on the basis of a project group in order to approach the topics in a well-founded manner, which is basically a very good way. Because what we are currently observing is that sustainability in the sports sector is becoming relevant to business because there is great external pressure. We are currently undergoing a very dynamic shift from sustainability strategy in commercial companies to communication – i.e. sustainability is being transferred to communication and sponsorships. So there are clear requirements from commercial enterprises – sponsors – to rights holders that sustainability should be integrated into sponsorships, and so far this has led to big question marks if you don’t develop a certain understanding of it. And if you have a well-founded understanding based on materiality and impact perspective, you have the opportunity to work on it. But if you take a more reactive look, for example, what are my footprint issues and try to tick a few boxes, it becomes difficult to focus and build marketing on that.