Sports fans divided on sustainability issues


There is a growing divide around sustainability among sports fans, creating a challenge for sporting organisations in their net zero efforts.

The unpredictability of sustainability themes and topics discussed presents further challenges for sporting organisations attempting to implement an effective ESG strategy, according to new research. 

The research report, “Sports fans on sustainability: what do they say and what does this mean for organisations?,” analyses five years’ worth of online conversations – primarily from Reddit and Twitter – to identify trends in how fans have been posting about sustainability across four sports: motorsports, tennis, football, and cricket.

The report, by sustainability and ESG management and reporting platform FuturePlus and comparative text analytics software company Relative Insight, finds that there is a growing divide as awareness of sustainability increases, caused by increasing availability of information about environmental and social issues, athlete sustainability campaigns, and Sports Rights Holders and Sponsors using sport as a mechanism to talk about sustainability.

Divided Fanbase

The first trend uncovered by analysing online conversations is a division in fan views when they speak about sustainability issues. But, could this divide be the reason why sporting organisations are slow to embed environmental and social policies into their games?

The challenge for sporting organisations is that they must not only satisfy industry expectations to manage their sustainability impact, but also balance the desires of two competing sections of fan bases: one segment demonstrates heightened awareness of climate change and social concerns, while other fans believe that these topics have no place in the world of sports.

Social media has also given sports stars an unfiltered voice, with some weighing in on issues beyond sport. It’s common for these individuals to be told to “stick to sport” (with fans using phrases like ‘just play football’) uncovering a gulf-like divide between fans who hold this opinion across all aspects of sustainability in sport, and those who want sporting organisations and their teams to operate in a more sustainable way.

How fans talk about sport and sustainability is intrinsically linked to political and societal events. They speak with knowledge and raise uncomfortable questions for sporting organisations, which are clearly driven by the news agenda. However, in certain scenarios, they also help to define the zeitgeist, determining how a story evolves, and illustrating the unpredictability of sustainability themes in the world of sport.

Unpredictability of themes

This unpredictability as to when themes surface is demonstrated by the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar. Despite constant scenarios linking sport and human rights (regimes with controversial human rights records hosting smaller boxing tournaments, for example, or buying sports teams), the Qatar World Cup got people talking about human rights within the sport. 

However, despite this, interest didn’t necessarily lead to sustained discussions about sport and human rights. Instead of conversations increasing, plateauing, or even falling slightly, the topic shot back down at the start of 2023 as new discussions took over.  This is also true of other elements of sustainability examined within the research:

In 2021, conversations on sporting equipment were 4.3x more prevalent  when compared with other years, incorporating elements such as both footwear and balls, which were discussed infinitely more, as well as things like surfboards and wetsuits

Online conversations also referenced manufacturing 2.9x more, highlighting that both materials and volume (and the waste which comes from it) were key topics of discussion

Climate-related conversations are 1.7x more prevalent overall in 2023 when compared to 2018. Specific aspects of these discussions are even more likely to appear in these conversations, such as renewables (5.0x) and chemicals (11.5x)

Diversity, equity and inclusion is an aspect of sustainability that many people and organisations overlook. Discussions around this aspect of sport over-indexed in 2023. The word ‘gendered’ appears infinitely more in online discussions this year than in 2022, while people are also 1.7x more likely to talk about ‘trans’ athletes

A variety of topics related to sport and sustainability go through peaks and troughs. However, it’s noticeable that while each theme does have its turn in the spotlight, following the cyclical nature of the news agenda, it will often resurface. This unpredictability highlights the need for sporting organisations to adopt a holistic approach to sustainability strategies. 

Alexandra Smith, Co-Founder and Partner at FuturePlus, comments: “By recognising the fluctuating relevance of different sustainability themes from year to year, sports organisations can future-proof their plans by addressing ESG issues from multiple angles. This approach ensures that their sustainability initiatives remain adaptable and responsive to evolving fan sentiments, fostering long-term engagement and demonstrating a genuine commitment to environmental and social responsibility within the sporting world.

Taking action to address their approach to human rights, diversity, equity and inclusion, sustainable use of equipment, climate change and reducing their emissions, their impact on wildlife, how they address growing crypto trends and resolving sustainability issues around ownership, must be key tenets of sports organisations’ ESG strategies.”

Izzy Beaumont, Account Manager at Relative Insight, adds: “Using text analysis to define and quantify online conversations around sustainability in sport defines the challenge that sports organisations face when attempting to balance the desires of two competing groups of fans. While this is a difficult tightrope to walk, sports sustainability leaders like Extreme E have demonstrated how it can be done successfully.

By visualising the cyclical nature of online conversations around sporting sustainability, organisations can develop actionable improvements based on these insights – holistically improving their societal impact and enhancing their credentials when individual themes become topical in the media and among fans.”

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