How Sports Organizations Should Think About Sustainability and ESG Issues

    “I’d say 2020 is the year everybody got religion.”

    So I plucked this out of a more extended response from Aileen McManamon, discussing sports organizations and their role, activities, and opportunities in driving progress worldwide. Be it sustainability, diversity, social justice — the power and, in many ways, the responsibility of brands in sports and beyond came to the forefront in the last few years.

    McManamon is a Cleveland native (and big fan of Cleveland sports) and therefore has witnessed the fracturing of the Cleveland Browns fan base when they brought in the embattled quarterback Deshaun Watson. That’s just one of many examples in which the most loyal, unconditional customers of all — sports fans — have had a reason to question their fidelity to their favorite teams and athletes. That represents a wider trend throughout society of employees and consumers of companies not turning a blind eye, no matter how passionate their fandom and support.

    “It’s not a blind loyalty…We’re becoming more critical,” said McManamon who founded 5T Sports Group, which helps sports properties, partners, and event sites drive impact. “And now it’s evolved even more forward because we know this particular generation of fans has a greater affinity to the athlete than they do to the team…You make space for even athletes that you’re not particularly a fan of, you might have never seen them play, but you just love what they stand for.

    “So this is an interesting evolution of that is that what we find is the more that someone stands for, the more drawn people are to that.”

    Something else happened the last few years, too, as organizations witnessed and participated in the broad reckoning of a multitude of issues in the country and the world — many brands tried to cover all of it. To make statements, promise results, and declare their stance on just about everything that the populace seemed to have an opinion about.

    But statements catch up, so while it’s easy enough to put out said statements, consumers and fans today are skeptical of just statements. Statements without action are meaningless and oftentimes can even be detrimental. So how does an organization know where to allocate its scarce resources, attention, and genuine efforts?

    “If you’re in conversations with your fans on social and if you have a good presence on social and you’re following that conversation, you’ll know what they care about more, and what they care about less,” said McManamon discussing the importance of listening to and knowing your fan base. “And when something happens in your community, you better be there on it, right?”

    Sports teams and athletes really do have an outsized role in their community and the world. While the companies and athletes themselves have a modest bottom line, relatively speaking, their influence and the passion they inspire are unmatched. And the good news for the power players in sports is that doing good for the world is also good for business, now more than ever. But the incentive goes beyond driving customer or fan loyalty and beyond some sense of self-righteousness or even genuine altruism — it’s a matter of survival, in many ways. McManamon talked about how sports ecosystems — the teams, the locales, the venues, the economies — are microcosms of society, and therefore they have the ability to be a testing ground, proving ground, and force for progress.

    “The sports industry is a component of everything going on. It’s still relatively small; as large as the sports industry is it’s still a small component of the overall economy,” she explained. “But the platform that they have is quite substantial. Where they should approach [sustainability goals] from is by saying, ‘We’re not doing this because, ‘It’s a nice thing to do, or it’s the right thing to do.’ You’re doing it at this point to preserve your business on the environmental side.”

    Sports also have an outsized influence because there exists within sports an incredible capacity to unite. The prince and the pauper can still talk about that great game last night, and fans can agree that the rival team in the state sucks, regardless of those fans’ political leanings. That power goes beyond a broadcast platform, McManamon explained, making a salient point. And when you can harness that fandom fire and activate it in a directed manner, you can achieve an outsized result.

    McManamon said it well: “Sports are not just kind of a stage broadcast platform, but also a unifying platform. When we go to see sports, that’s where you’re gonna see a professor and a plumber sitting next to each other, or a Republican and a Democrat…people are sitting side by side that are coming from very different backgrounds, but in that moment they’re united in that passion for the [team], everybody’s pulling on that same rope. So this is really the lever that our sports teams can use, the broadcast and the medium.”

    McManamon continued: “We’re united in our dislike for the other team…So imagine things like getting your fans all rolling on a food bank challenge…this is where some of these things fall flat; they’re like, ‘Oh, bring a can [of food] to the game’…How about, ‘Hey, let’s beat the other guys. We’re gonna do better than them [on donating food]. Our team might lose today, but this is in our control as fans.’

    “So you can really rally people around taking actions collectively. And even when it has a little bit of animosity to it, that’s okay because you have to press the emotional buttons that people respond to.”

    Sports fandom engenders a particular sort of patriotism, but modern fans want their teams and players to live up to such passionate pride. Fans want to know that their favorite team is worthy of such affection. When forces for good intersect with the communal, competitive nature of sports, the world is better for it.


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