It has become almost cliché to refer to athletes as role-models. The arguments about whether sportspeople are obliged to carry themselves a certain way off the field have raged for some time now, with no clear answer.
But one thing is indisputable: athletes are the most important individuals in any sport. It’s them who the fans come to see. They are literally worshipped for their talent, grit, determination, loyalty and ability to entertain. No matter where you sit on the role-model argument, you can be sure that these men and women have influence over large swathes of the population.
Michael Pedersen, founder of sports governance consultancy M INC. > change the game, is banking on that unique player/fan relationship to be the catalyst for behaviour change when it comes to climate change and environmental stewardship. In collaboration with Tapio Kanninen, formerly of the United Nations and now president of climate change organisation Global Crisis Information Network, Pedersen is on the brink of launching pilot projects in five different sports to recruit athletes as climate change ambassadors to engage fans about the severe, but often overlooked, issue.
“Sport cuts across traditional societal dividing lines,” he tells SSJ. “There is so little trust in governments, business and civil society these days. But when your favourite athlete speaks up a little, that’s powerful.”
Pedersen’s mission is to educate athletes about how they can create positive behaviour change in the people they influence. He has already achieved results following a successful pilot project during the 2017 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in Finland, where together with Protect Our Winters (POW) Finland, he encouraged competing athletes to participate in a video highlighting the importance of tackling climate change through everyday behaviours.
The 45-second clip was shown to spectators at the event, who were then asked to take questionnaires. The study found that not only were professional skiers adept at making powerful statements about climate change, but fans were receptive to those messages.
But trying to find athletes who (a) have the time and sufficient fan support, (b) the motivation to get involved with societal issues, and (c) the credibility to talk about climate change has proven to be a significant challenge.
“Professional athletes are often very young and they’re focused on their competition and their training. So it’s a bit of a hard sell to knock at their door with an issue like climate change,” Pedersen explains. “We also appreciate that not all athletes are widely perceived as credible ambassadors, so there are quite a few challenges finding the right athletes.”
He adds: “Climate change is also a bit of a sensitive issue when compared to other societal issues. You can quite easily advocate for human rights and campaigns against racism, but when it comes down to an issue like climate change, the first thing that happens when athletes ask people to change their behaviour is fans will want to know what the athletes are doing themselves.
“That’s when it actually becomes very difficult to engage top athletes in sports where there is a lot of money because they tend to live lavish lifestyles. If you’re flying around the world in private jets it’s very difficult to come across as a credible climate ambassador asking normal people to reduce their footprint.”
Climate Citizens Pledge
The balance, says Pedersen, is finding athletes who have a big enough following that the message can create an impact, but also have the credibility. To maintain credibility, athletes taking part are being asked to take the Climate Citizens Pledge devised by Kanninen and other partners, in which they commit to reducing their carbon footprint by 50% over the next 10 years. It’s the same pledge that the athletes will then ask the fans to make, with the support of measurement tools and practical ideas about how they can reduce their footprint.
But what’s in it for the athletes? It’s true that they have to be persuaded to get involved, and Pedersen has two strategies.
“Firstly, we’re opening their eyes to the value of engaging positively in addressing societal issues,” he says. “This can broaden and deepen their fan engagement, and therefore their potential value to sponsors. Beyond the most popular sports they’re all fighting for sponsorship, and this is a concrete thing that can help them in competition for limited sponsor money.”
The opportunity to develop a career before they retire (often at an early age) in the realm of the sports development sector is also presented as a benefit of getting involved in the project.
During the next 12 months, five pilot projects in different sports will commence to coincide with their respective World Championships, although Pedersen is not yet in a position to reveal the sports taking part. While skiing was an obvious choice for the maiden pilot project (with the sport intrinsically linked to the weather, and therefore climate change), Pedersen said the new sports that have signed up so far are slightly more left-field.
“You would expect sports that are carried out on snow, beaches and water to be most receptive because they can see and feel climate change, but we’re actually also getting a lot of interest from indoor sports – particularly indoor team sports,” he says. “That’s an interesting challenge because there is no clear or obvious direct link between some of the sports and climate change like there was with the skiers, so that’s something that we need to be a bit smart about.”
Following that, the team will scrutinise the results and build on what they’ve learnt, trying to make the programme more “sophisticated” during each evolution. And expanding the project means finding more athletes and sports that are interested, suitable and impactful at spreading the climate change message.
“At the end of the day you might have an idea about who would be particularly interested in your topic, but you just don’t know,” he admits. “There are sports federations that you think on paper should really care about this issue, but if the people in charge at the time don’t see the link or the value, you can forget about it.
“Then you’ll find other sports where people are particularly aware or passionate, not so much because of their sport but other reasons. That’s maybe why we’ll end up with an interesting mix.”
And who tends to be the most aware and passionate people in sport?
“Recently retired athletes are typically the ones who are most passionate,” he says. “But then, when you get to the administration level where you often have a much older generation of sport leaders in charge, that’s a different story. Many of them don’t fully appreciate how sport is a beautiful reflection of society and how it is particularly well-placed to take on societal responsibilities. They tend to be more focused on delivering good sport events only.”