Passion, Sport and Corporate Social Responsibilty


An email yesterday about the London Olympics in 2012 and the sustainable procurement programme in place got me thinking about the overlooked absenteeism of Corporate Social Responsibilty and sustainability throughout sport, or more importantly the latent potential.

With eight years at a Premier League Club I do have an almost unique exposure to the inner machinations of a world that is a twilight zone between business and sport. It is improving but a high profile and current club Chairman once told me that “football is just a vehicle to transfer Sky TV money to players and agents” and I challenge anybody to argue. What would happen if something happened to the television money? To say all the eggs are in one basket is an understatement and never a sound revenue position to be in.

UK sport and especially football, has a worthy reputation for variations of community (in football speak = narrow group of informally defined stakeholders) engagement with every club evolving its own interpretation of the role of its community programmes though with some focusing on talent identification, sales (tickets & merchandise), PR and pure philanthropy.

I was in a meeting this morning discussing the Homeless World Cup and was staggered that a Premier League club was asking for payment to it’s charitable arm for use of resources even though this particular social group fits well within their official Objects. I’ve always had an uncomfortable feeling about the proper use of charitable status and football clubs, and believe that some could easily improve their internal governance procedures and external communication to provide much more social benefit. It just helps with PR in some places with no integrated planning into the commercial positioning of the parent club.

Sport’s biggest strength can also be its biggest weakness. Passion is an over used word by marketing people to explain how they can exploit fans (and they hardly ever use the word customer) to attempt to bridge the revenue gap between merchandise sales and TV. It’s is a murky world of emotion that scares the faint hearted away from complete engagement with passionate groups, and this is the same regardless of industry, especially around those concerned with environmental issues. There are many similarities between the passion of followers of sport and those of environmental and many individual social issues with each having particularly intense groups of stakeholders willing to do all for the cause. Could the emotional attachment to sport be used to channel other pressing messages or are football fans just fans of football? I would suggest that most just want a good day out with a good result on the pitch and to return home blissfully disconnected from distracting abstract agendas, but away from the game they are all part of families and most have jobs or study. Yes, there is a very real personaility splitting effect of watching sport and I’ve seen a fair few refined corporate gentlemen descend into a red mist over a referee’s decision only to return to a more civilised persona the next day at the office. Sporting events can attract TV and live audiences of millions with almost as many vying for a space in this shop window. How can the bigger green and local issues be made more of a priority?

There is not one club (or should I be using the word ‘business’ by now? I think club is a more accurate description) globally I am aware of that has decided to strategically implement and been successful in embedding sustainability / CSR into its operation. This isn’t a huge surprise as the majority of corporates not to mention SMEs aren’t there yet. But as a comparison from sport businesses to non-sport businesses of similar size the industry is lacking in spite of their access to a uniquely emotionally charged market.

Everton flirted like a lovesick schoolboy with Davidefc-peoples-club Moyes’ instinctive ‘People’s Club’ quote but never grasped the potential for economic and social mutual benefit.

I wonder how many clubs even have an environmental policy? Yes, some clubs have made noises about wind turbines etc and Dartford do have a pretty impressive stadium.

My not so wild guess would be overall less than 10% – opportunity or risk?

If you know better please tell me!

3 thoughts on “Passion, Sport and Corporate Social Responsibilty

  1. Steve Hemsley

    Sport and CSR is a hot topic and I am the author of a report on this very subject which is published next Weds, March 25.

    Corporate Social Responsibility and Sports Sponsorship (published by IMR) covers all the topics you mention David.

    There is indeed evidence that more and more brands are turning to sport to spend their CSR budgets and moving away from purely targeting the environment or the arts.

    They realise that sport matches the business values they like to feel they reflect. These include fair play and competitiveness etc.

    The problem sports and brands have is that they have to work hard to prove to the many CSR cynics that they are acting as socially responsibly as they could be.

    The links between gambling and sport or sport and drugs, for instance, does raise questions.

    Yet sport is certainly rising up the social and political CSR agenda as a way to change people’s lives. Particularly in local communities.

    Ultimately the massive advantage sport has over other areas such as the environment and the arts is its ability to engage with every demographic. That’s young and old, male and female. Brands that want to influence through CSR will find it easier to reach young men through sport than through the arts for instance.

    Another tricky area, however, is the difficulty all sides have in measuring the effectiveness of any CSR strategy. It is ultimately a marketing platform, if a subtle one, but showing it is making a different to a community, cause and the bottom line is not always easy.

    A fascinating subject nonetheless and one which is capturing the imaginations of marketing and HR teams within businesses across the globe.


    1. davidcoethica Post author

      Hi Steve

      Thanks for the comment and I’d be keen to take a look at the report but to say CSR is ‘ultimately a marketing platform’ is dangerous and ill informed.

      At its core it is more akin to business ethics and challenging behaviours around how an organisation makes its daily decisions. It may have a reputation for being misused or misunderstood as a marketing plaform, and yes a company has an obligation to spread good news about itself and its stakeholders, but CSR has never been a mere marketing platform and never should be. If a company sets off down the superficial CSR avenue it immediately runs the risk of the whole organisation being labelled as such (greenwash anybody?).


  2. Steve Hemsley

    Perhaps ‘ultimately’ was the wrong choice of word but a strong CSR strategy helps with brand awareness, PR, brand identity, customer loyalty etc. Stakeholders expect a return from CSR as they would from any other business decision. The CSR activity around sport must be seen to countering any impact an organisation is having on the environment and community and must test and challenge the brand.

    The risks of greenwashing etc are mentioned in the report which talks about how marketing must be subtle and how the CSR budgets tend to be controlled more by the HR teams than the marketing teams these days.

    The companies involved in the Homeless World Cup, such as Vodafone and Coca-Cola, for instance, see ALL the benefits of having an impressing CSR strategy linked to sport, including from a marketing perspective. It would be wrong to pretend otherwise.

    CSR is about companies realising they have a social responsibility to the health and well-being of their communities, to which sport is very important to the local people.

    The brands with a strong CSR programme have ensured it sits snugly alongside its sustainable marketing policy which focuses on how products are sourced, manufactured, promoted and distributed.

    Rights owners are now viewing the corporate-world’s added focus on CSR as a possible route to additional funding at a time when traditional sports marketing budgets are under pressure because of the economic downturn.



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