News: September 2018

Athletes are uniquely placed to motivate individual behavioural change among their fans in support of the fight against climate change

Michael Pedersen moderated a plenary session on athlete and fan engagement in the fight against climate change at a Sport and Climate Change Summit in New York City, USA. Co-hosted by Global Crisis Information Network (CGINET) and Sport and Sustainability International (SandSI), the Summit took place on 21 September 2018. It brought together approx. 100 participants from numerous sport organizations and other organizations representing various stakeholders of sport.

The plenary session on athlete and fan engagement in the fight against climate change was titled “How Sport Could Be Made Effective Influencing Fan Behaviour”. The session was focused on identifying challenges related to engaging athletes and their fans in the fight against climate change and on evolving good practices in terms of impactful ways of doing so. The session had the following panellists:

  • Jennifer Hershey, Vice President of Operations, Jujamcyn Theatres; Founding Member, Broadway Green Alliance
  • Robin Raj, Founder and CEO, The Citizen Group
  • David Fenton, Chair and Founder, Fenton Communications

Jennifer Hershey emphasized that there are a lot of similarities between sport arenas and the Broadway stage, not least in terms of having a unique platform for stars to reach many people. One particular challenge in terms of engaging stars is the general perception that being a tree hugger is not cool. While people on stage have big egos, sometimes it is actually just a matter of asking them to become engaged that gets things moving forward. An example of an effective solution is each theatre production on Broadway now having a green captain, who follows green guidelines and leads green initiatives. Using stars is such a powerful platform, but their message can only be effective if there is an element of fun to it.

Robin Raj highlighted that sometimes athletes do not feel that they can authentically advocate on climate change because of limited knowledge. Effective solutions are based on partnerships between athletes, teams and team owners and on scientists and communicators working together to bring the message down to the personal fan level. Philadelphia Eagles is a good example of a sport organization pursuing such an approach. Not only is the message framing very important. It is also important to involve agents of professional athletes. A combined top-down and bottom-up approach has the biggest potential in terms of impact. Focus and persistence are required. Athletes connecting authentically to something that is meaningful to them creates the biggest role model ripple effects, for example by linking positive food solutions to the performance of their own bodies. There would be a great value in relevant stakeholders working together to develop a messaging playbook for athletes. A noteworthy example of an integrated model, which leans on evoking pride and fun among fans, is the first carbon neutral Super bowl in San Francisco. It was based on fans pledging on own commitments, allocating money to a local charity and subsequently becoming eligible for winning attractive fan prizes.

David Fenton pointed out that the main challenge is that the general public is not engaged in climate change and is not fully aware of its danger and what to do about it. Surveys indicate that just 12% of US citizens know that there is scientific consensus on climate change. Only 20% think it is urgent to address the issue. Similarly, just 15% of Chinese citizens think that climate change is going to affect them in their lifetime. In the US, there has never been a public education campaign at any scale to reach the public about climate change – and so, people do not understand how climate change is going to affect their main careabouts such as family, income, security, health and country. Since nobody is speaking out on climate change in a way that reaches citizens, athletes too do not feel compelled to do so. Furthermore, climate change is not an issue that is easy to communicate. As opposed to repeating simple messages, scientists make it complicated and refrain from repeating themselves. In a US context, climate change also remains a partisan issue.

As far as effective solutions are concerned, David Fenton stressed that psychologists have established that people think about climate change in the same way as they think about death and dying. They simply do not like to think about it. If the climate change threat is put in the context of a positive message about all the tremendous progress made, though, people can accept it. Yet, a sense of urgency needs to be added to avoid complacency. Only simple, emotionally connected and repeated messaging to fans work. It is particularly important to link the messaging to people’s careabouts instead of talking about the environment, the planet or the earth. It is also important to touch people’s hearts. All successful social movements in history are ultimately moral. Any campaign ought to start by focusing on green energy, because this particular solution has mass unified public support.

Throughout the session, participants were offered opportunities to indicate their views through voting on a pre-defined set of answers to key questions related to the session. They also had amble opportunities to share perspectives and questions related to the discussions among the panellists. During the voting, the highest number of participants indicated that the biggest challenges in terms of engaging athletes and their fans in the fight against climate change are a) insufficient athlete engagement support from sponsors, sport organizations and event organizers and b) athlete fear of facing public criticism because they could be seen as having a life style that is not very climate friendly. Closely related, the highest number of participants indicated that the most impactful ways of engaging athletes and their fans in the fight against climate change are through fan campaigns in the context of specific sport events, based on athlete voices and including social and on-site media, which are focused on a) engaging fans, i.e. in fun ways such as through competitions with prizes like used athlete gear and “back-stage” time with athletes and b) fan action, i.e. through tools such as the Citizens Climate Pledge (individual commitment to reduce personal carbon footprint by 50% in 10 years).

In the context of the plenary session, Michael Pedersen briefly outlined a project that he is leading in his role as Sport Lead with CGINET. The project is focused on engaging athletes in motivating individual behavioural change among their fans in support of the fight against climate change. Specific activities have been carried out with some of the best skiers in the world at their world championship in Finland last year. Five additional sports are looking to lead similar activities in the context of their world championships in the coming years. For further information about the project, see article and video links furthest below.

Keynote speakers at the Summit were as follows:

  • Amy Davidsen, Executive Director of The Climate Group, North America
  • Viacheslav Fetisov, UN Environment Patron for Polar Regions; UNESCO Champion for Sport; former NHL player voted for International Ice Hockey Federation’s Centennial All-Star Team; Member of Russian State Duma; and former Russian Minister of Sport

There were two other panel sessions at the Summit. One of them comprised a discussion between the two Hall of Fame NHL Players Viacheslav Fetisov and Mike Richter with a focus on the initiative called “The Last Ice Hockey Game on the North Pole”. The other one was focused on showcasing how North American sport organizations show leadership by investing in climate mitigation and the Sustainable Development Goals in Africa. It brought together senior representatives from New York Yankees, New York Mets, National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), Major League Soccer and US Tennis Association/US Open.

For further information, see: