BASIS - The British Association for Sustainable Sport

ESL was environmentally tone deaf – Govt review must not be

BASIS Opinion Piece by Dom Goggins

The failed European Super League project had the rare quality of unifying football fans, players, clubs and governing bodies, along with sports broadcasters, journalists and politicians of all parties. There is significant, understandable anger across sport, and it has sparked a government review.

That the review is being led by Tracey Crouch, the respected and highly capable former Minister for Sport, shows that it is serious.

The backlash against the project centred on greed, fairness and the integrity of sporting competition. The fact that it was environmentally tone deaf didn’t break through in the furore – but it was another notable flaw. In this, as in its financial dimension, the proposal was a symptom of a football model that is wholly unsustainable.

Elite football is both enormously lucrative and full of debt. Broadcasting rights for the Premier League make it the Promised Land for football league clubs, offering hundreds of millions of pounds each year. The prize is so great that clubs chasing promotion are prepared to take significant risks, often overreaching on player wages. Without a benevolent billionaire benefactor, clubs can end up in big trouble.

More than half of Premier League clubs made losses in 2018/2019. All but one spent more than 50% of turnover on wages. The three newly-promoted clubs in that season – Norwich City, Aston Villa and Sheffield United – spent 161%, 175% and 195% of their turnover on wages (respectively).

This was before COVID, the disruption of lockdown, and more than a year without matchday revenues. These revenues become more central to the week-to-week survival for clubs the further down the leagues you go – hence the need for extensive loans and bailouts.

A model where even the richest clubs spend more than they earn on wages, and the poorest clubs can’t survive without handouts, is broken. The government’s review, taken at face value, aims to fix it.

The review promises to be fan-led and focused on football finances, governance and ownership.

It is vital that the review is broad enough to build environmental sustainability into the long-term policy direction for football.

There are three key reasons for this:

First, environmental sustainability is a fundamental component of financial sustainability. Clean energy is cheaper than dirty energy; sustainable approaches to water and waste are good for the bottom line.

Second, while the lockdown has been unprecedented in peacetime, the impacts of climate change at home – which sport is feeling the effects of – means that football will need the resilience to deal with more disruption in the future. Fans will soon be back at football grounds and matchday revenues will start to recover – but climate change means more matches will be cancelled more often, sometimes at short notice. This is more likely in the lower leagues, where the impact of a single postponed fixture can be catastrophic.

Third, every time they have been asked, fans have stated strong support for their clubs embracing sustainability and positioning themselves on the right side of questions around climate change and the environment.

The government’s review is an opportunity to deliver big changes in football. If it is to achieve its goals of a more sustainable model, and if it is to be truly fan-led, environmental sustainability must be at its heart.

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