Five takeaways from the BASIS conference

Mary Pearson

Mary Pearson

It is said that over 30 billion people watched the FIFA World Cup in 2006, and if that sounds like there’s some double counting going on, there most definitely is. But it’s no exaggeration to say that sports draw huge audiences, with major events like the Tour de France, the Olympics and the World Cup regularly reaching audiences in the billions.

Whether you’re a fan or not, the sport sector clearly has exceptional global influence, and with such power comes great responsibility. BASIS stands for the British Association for Sustainable Sport. It’s a not-for-profit organisation that has been providing expert support and guidance to sports clubs, venues, and governing bodies for over a decade. Their goal is to help the UK sports industry and community understand their environmental and social impacts and harness the influence of sport to build a sustainable future.

We took the opportunity to attend the 2023 BASIS Conference at Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol to learn more about sustainability issues in sport and the innovative ways that sport is connecting audiences to the sustainability agenda. Here are a few favourite bits.

1. ‘Greenhushing in sport is an own goal

If you haven’t heard of BASIS before or the many interesting sustainability initiatives happening in sport, you’re not alone. As the plenary session speakers pointed out, there is often a reticence in the sport sector to shout about sustainability goals and achievements, for a few reasons. One is to do with impostor syndrome: a fear of overstating performance and being the target of criticism.

Another is related to the culture of competition and the idea that any resource not 100 per cent focused on winning is wasted effort and a betrayal of fans. Yet, as many examples during the conference proved, sporting activities provide excellent platforms to lead by example, and action on sustainability truly resonates with fans. I think we speak for many of them when we say: please stop greenhushing. We want to hear much more from sport on sustainability.

2. We got a kick out of Climate Clubs

‘Just imagine if we all cared half as much about climate change as we do about our sports teams.’ That’s the vision of Climate Clubs, a not-for-profit adventure in art, sport, and climate change activism. The conference featured an exhibition of their culture-jamming football flags in which club logos are re-cast as climate change messages such as ‘Manchester Underwater’ (Manchester United) and ‘Forest Fires’ (Nottingham Forest). It’s a bit like a Brandalism project for sport. We like it, and we like their other projects too, including The Premier League Air Quality Table and Wildflower Fireworks, their idea for a range of silent fireworks packed with wildflower seeds.

3. Sports called time on problematic sponsors in the past — and can do it again

Tobacco firms began targeting young sports fans with cigarette cards more than a century ago, and tobacco sponsorship remained intimately tied to sport until the early 2000s when it was finally kicked out of Europe and the UK. No one regrets this decision, but now there’s a new assortment of questionable brands, sectors and regimes seeking to enhance their images by association with sport.

One of the most interesting sessions at the conference explored these ‘sportswashing’ issues, including the paradoxical relationship between British Cycling and Shell. Organisations like the New Weather Institute are highly critical of fossil fuel sponsorship in sports and point out through their Cool Down and Badvertising campaigns how insidious and destructive high-carbon advertising is, within and beyond sports.

There is also growing concern over the involvement of gambling and finance in sport sponsorship. This season, for example, 40 per cent of Premier League team shirts are sponsored by gambling companies and a further 25 per cent by firms providing financial services including online trading and cryptocurrency. Awareness of the reputational risks of relying on controversial funding sources is key, and it was interesting to hear how organisations like the European Sponsorship Association are working to establish and share codes of conduct and best practice for the sports community.

4. Big news is onside

It’s heartening to see major media organisations helping to spread the word about sustainability in sport. Well-known television presenters Jonathan Overend and David Garrido closed out the day with reflections on how the media is connecting sports fans with important climate change and other environmental and social issues. For more from them, check out their podcasts, Emergency on Planet Sport and Playing for the Planet.

5. Golf is good for birdies

Absolutely inexcusable pun aside, one of the best things about the conference was the chance to meet in person our contacts at The R&A and the GEO Foundation. We’ve been working on a few projects with The R&A Sustainable Golf team over the last year, and it’s been a great opportunity to get to know a sports governing body with a deep commitment to sustainability. They demonstrate this in many ways, from showcasing sustainable practices at world-stage events like The Open, to building a comprehensive body of research and expertise in environmentally-sound greenkeeping practices, to their ongoing partnership with the RSPB. Golf is good for birdies, indeed, and has a governing body that’s showing true sustainability leadership in its industry.

We know the score a bit more after BASIS 2023 and look forward to hearing about more world-changing sustainability actions from the sport sector. If you’re interested in our help with sustainability strategy and communications in sport or the many other sectors we’re working with, get in touch.

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