Back in January, GreenSportsBlog posted “The University of Colorado: Making Green From Green”, a story about how new sponsorship revenue flowed from the greening of the Athletics Department. Buffalo Sports Properties, a division of Learfield Sports, provided much of the sales and marketing muscle behind those deals. Perhaps Learfield, one of the two main players in the college sports marketing/sponsorship sales world, seeing the rapid growth of green sports on campus, was trying to establish a green niche as a key differentiator vs. its main competitor, IMG College? After this week’s announcement that Learfield is working with Koch Industries, the privately-held conglomerate that, among other things, has lavishly funded climate change denial, on a significant college sports marketing sponsorship, we have to say the answer to that question, at least as of now, is a NO. But GSB believes Learfield can turn that no into a YES.
GreenSportsBlog is not naive.
We know the Greening of Sports is not going to happen overnight. Sports teams and venues will legitimately green themselves on the one hand, while, on the other, take sponsorship dollars from companies involved in industries that are exacerbating our carbon/climate change problem.
That said, we were saddened by the Tuesday announcement by Learfield Sports, the marketing and sponsorship sales arm for some of the most prominent university athletic departments in the US, that it “has launched a multi-year, integrated national sponsorship platform for Koch (pronounced “Coke”) Industries, Inc. as [Koch] embarks on a broader initiative into collegiate sports marketing…Learfield Sports, which manages multimedia rights for nearly 100 collegiate properties, secured the broad-based sponsorship program for Koch with its 10 university partners involved — Iowa; Iowa State; Kansas State; Minnesota; Oklahoma; Oklahoma State; SMU; Texas A&M; Texas Tech and Wisconsin.”
While not a “greenwash” (saying you are green but acting in ways that are contrary to said greening) on the part of Learfield (they are, to be clear, not professing to be green), they are assisting Koch’s and, it must be said, the universities’, greenwash. Learfield is playing both sides of the green marketing/sponsorship fence. That is troubling and, in GSB’s opinion, not a wise business decision.
THE GREEN SIDE OF THE FENCE
On one side of the fence, Learfield, through its Buffalo Sports Properties Division, has done a stellar job of bringing corporate sponsors with strong green/sustainability credentials like BASF and Boulder-based Eco Products into the CU football and/or basketball sponsorship fold. Particularly impressive was that Buffalo Sports Properties didn’t merely sell the sponsorships; they schooled themselves on a variety of sustainability-related topics, including how the athletic department facilities team manages recycling and composting. Seen through the Colorado lens, one could imagine that Learfield “gets it”–with the “it” being that green is the way sports is inexorably going (i.e., NHL’s Carbon Neutral Season, Solar on the Philadelphia Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field, and many, many other examples, as readers of GSB well know) and that they could get more business from other greening universities by being the leader in green collegiate sports marketing.
THE DARK SIDE OF THE FENCE
But, with the Koch Industries deal, Learfield planted itself on the dark, anti-green side of the fence. Here’s why:
Since you’re reading this blog, you likely are aware that Koch Industries presents itself, in the Learfield press release and elsewhere, as a company that has “earned more than 930 awards for safety, environmental excellence (GSB emphasis), community stewardship, innovation, and customer service.”
If, as per the press release, Koch really wants “Learfield to help tell its story to the dedicated college sports fan base and university communities” shouldn’t Learfield tell the full Koch story?
That telling would have to include “Koch has secretly funded groups denying climate change to the tune of $67 million since 1997. The company is the 3rd largest holder of Canadian tar sands oil leases, among the dirtiest oils on the planet. And Koch, through its Americans For Prosperity political action group, is leading the fight against the expansion of the solar power industry in Florida.”
Aerial view of a portion of Koch Industries-owned Canadian tar sands oil extraction operations in Alberta. Koch is the 3rd largest holder of Canadian tar sands oil leases. (Photo credit: EcoWatch)
But the press release doesn’t say that. So this is a greenwash (Koch is a paragon of “environmental excellence”, no mention of the other, “brown” stuff), one to which Learfield’s brand is now attached.
How does Learfield Sports explain its seat on both sides of the green-sports fence? GSB would love to get their take on this so we emailed the following 3 questions on Wednesday to Learfield Sports’ Jennifer Dolan, author of the press release, and Roy Seinfeld, their Executive Vice President, National Sales:
- Did Learfield ever give a deal with Koch Industries’ a 2nd thought, given the company’s environmental record?
- Is Learfield concerned about the reaction from current university partners that are aggressively promoting their athletics departments’ greenness?
- Is Learfield, along with the participating universities, concerned about student protests that will likely arise from this deal?
On the last question, Learfield, Koch and the university athletic departments it is sponsoring should look to the student and faculty led protests at Florida State University (“UnKoch My Campus”) in 2014 over donations from the Charles Koch Foundation as a harbinger of things to come. True, the number of protesters at FSU was relatively small but, and this is a big but, “UnKoch My Campus” had nothing to do with FSU sports–they largely were about the potential for Koch Foundation donations to the university leading to undue influence in the Economics department and in the hiring of a politician, supported by Koch contributions, as FSU President. Now Koch, with Learfield’s help, is going into the much higher profile world of big time college sports–which may have high rewards (huge visibility) and also potentially big risks (big protests with huge visibility.)
GSB has not heard back from anyone at Learfield Sports regarding those questions as yet but welcome their response. If we do get on the phone, GSB would be happy to share some ideas as to how Learfield can plant itself firmly on the green side of the fence:
- Make the Koch deal a one-off; do not renew it.
- Once the Koch relationship ends, make a public statement that Learfield Sports will be THE Green Collegiate Sports Marketing firm, which means it will:
- Never do another deal with a fossil fuel company
- Green its own operations (energy efficiency at its offices, green energy purchases, etc.)
- Build a Green Consulting arm that will help athletic departments green themselves and, of course sell green sponsorships
You may say “Learfield would have to give up serious coin to do this.” Perhaps. But such a move would be akin to CVS’ decision to remove tobacco from its store shelves. Yes, they’ve cost themselves tobacco sales but they made the calculation that those losses would be more than offset by increased brand loyalty from customers who share anti-tobacco values. Judging by its stock price performance since eschewing tobacco, CVS’s calculation is paying off. While GSB doesn’t have access to Learfield Sports’ financials (it’s a subsidiary of privately held Learfield Communications), we are confident it would gain far more in new revenue from new, ever-greener minded university partners and sponsors wanting to associate with them than they would lose by forgoing the Koch deals and others like it. GSB is happy to have this conversation with Learfield Sports.
“UnKoch My Campus” protests at Florida State University (Tallahassee) in November 2014. (Photo credit: Inside Higher Ed)
Finally, about those ever-greener minded university partners…the universities participating in the Koch deal are also engaging in a massive greenwash (“We’re Greening Our Football Games! We’ll Take Koch Cash!!!) What is up with THAT?!?! GSB will reach out to the athletics departments on this list that have made a big point of greening their games, like Minnesota and Wisconsin, for their thoughts on the Koch deal. Green groups on those campuses will also be contacted. So watch this space for more on this story.