The Use of CSR in Sport
Earlier this summer I came across an episode of a podcast which among other things, discussed the phenomenon of “sports washing” in sports. For those who aren’t familiar about sports washing, it’s basically a deliberate action of using sports as a political tool to improve a country’s or person’s political image (think, the Sochi Olympics or the upcoming FIFA World Cup in Qatar). This particular post is however not an opinion piece on sport washing but almost the polar opposite – the use of CSR in sport.
First, let’s open up the term CSR. CSR stands for Corporate Social Responsibility and basically covers all “the good” a company can do as part of their everyday business (or in this case, sport), e.g. working pro-bono for a charitable company or visiting patients at a child hospital. What CSR basically encourages is for companies to be more aware of their impact on society. The focus of an organisation’s (and in this case, sports organisation's) CSR work can be wide ranging, addressing issues such as education, local issues, health, gender inequalities and the environment.
Now, a CSR professional might argue that this is only part of the truth, as the term itself is multi-faceted, but for the sake of this blogpost let’s use the above explanation as we take a closer look at some CSR initiatives that sports organisations typically might engage in and how this landscape has evolved over the years.
“People are going to want, and be able, to find out about the citizenship of a brand, whether it is doing the right things socially, economically and environmentally.”
Mike Clasper President of Business Development, Proctor and Gamble (Europe)
1. FC Barcelona and UNICEF
For a five year time, the FC Barcelona jersey and the international children’s charity UNICEF logo were a given combination on the football field, as FC Barcelona’s jersey had only one logo (apart from its own club emblem) on its jersey – UNICEF’s. When other clubs, as part of their sponsorship deals, had huge corporate logo’s front and center on their jerseys’, Barcelona had UNICEF’s.
The Catalan club had previously declined shirt deals and, for five years actually paid the international children's charity UNICEF to carry their logo. UNICEF’s logo was however in 2011 put aside to make room for the Qatar Foundation’s logo as Barcelona’s huge debts meant they no longer were in a strong enough position to turn down significant income. This led to a partnership with the Qatar Foundation, worth 30 million euros a year (the Qatar Foundation is however also a non-profit organisation which has projects focusing on education, scientific research and community development) and later in 2016 a partnership with Japanese online firm Rakuten.
Now, it is to be noted that UNICEF’s logo is still visible on Barcelona’s jersey but the placement has over time changed to the less visible back part of the jersey. The partnership (which is still in effect, between the organisations started in 2006 with the FC Barcelona Foundation and FC Barcelona signing a global partnership with UNICEF. In 2016, FC Barcelona and UNICEF signed a 4 year agreement to continue their cooperation. The terms of the then new agreement involved FC Barcelona increasing its annual contribution to UNICEF from €1.5 million to €2 million. The funds contributed are allocated by UNICEF to support programmes that give marginalized children the opportunity to take part in physical education, sport and play. The seven countries benefiting from the UNICEF-FC Barcelona partnership are Angola, Brazil, China, Ghana, Malawi, South Africa and Swaziland.
The partnership between FC Barcelona and UNICEF is one of the world’s most famous partnerships in sport. It goes to show the enormous impact a sport club can have on a global scale.
2. Finnish Liiga teams and the pursuit of a cleaner game
From the world’s largest stage to a bit smaller. Just because your organisation is smaller than that of a global giant, doesn’t mean that you can’t make an impact. Whether its innovating the in-arena experience for the fans or team travel, sport clubs have increasingly noticed that they too can and should make changes and improvements to battle climate change.
Several Liiga (Finland’s first tier ice hockey league) teams have recently made commitments to battle climate change by implementing different initiatives to decrease their own carbon footprint. To this day, at least 9 teams from the league have developed some sort of initiatives to make their games “greener”. These initiatives vary from partnerships with local transport authorities to give home team fans with a ticket to the game free transportation to and from the game (hence decreasing the number of cars in the area) to teams selling fan jerseys made from recyclable material. These initiatives bring about some good-will towards the clubs but also helps bring attention to a massive problem affecting the world.
One of the most intriguing recent initiatives from Finnish Liiga teams comes from Lahti. The Lahti-based team, Pelicans have recently partnered up with the Lappeenranta-Lahti University of Technology with the aim to be the world's first carbon-neutral sports organization.
The use of a club’s local and national outreach to do good is something that can improve a club’s position in the local community but at the same time shine a light on important issues. Strengthening the bond between community and club is never a bad thing as it can also affect a club’s market position in terms of overall following and brand improvement.
However, CSR work done by a professional (or semi-professional) club should not be confused with the local work a amateur club does. One could argue that in a way, local sports organisations' whole operation is a way of CSR in on itself as sport increases the well-being and brings people together in ways few other things can. Especially grassroots organisations could in many ways be viewed as non-profit, almost charitable, companies as they bring about a sense of belonging and at least acts as a defensive line against child loneliness.
By implementing CSR in sports, a club can make itself more valuable to its community and city, which in itself helps a club to further brand itself. For huge clubs, such as FC Barcelona, the CSR work can have a global outreach and even bring about knowledge on an issue on a whole other scale than most other companies. For local clubs the use of CSR can help bring the local community together at the same time as the work can be used as an innovative tool to achieve profitable value creation.
Worth pointing out is that the use of CSR should also be looked as a means to an end, namely differentiating a club from its competition. As clubs compete for viewership and potential fans, it’s essential that a club’s image is stellar in the eyes of the general public. Lastly, it’s obvious that using CSR as a marketing tool needs to be done in a delicate way as leaning too heavy on the “look how much good we do, aren’t we great?!” is a great way to get peoples’ eyes rolling.