The coronavirus pandemic forced the major Australian sports leagues — like their counterparts in virtually every other country around the world — to shut down and then restart in ways that would have been unthinkable only a year ago.
A trio of researchers asked: What if the Australian sport industry could apply the same urgency and innovation to climate change?
That triumvirate — Brett Hutchins, Professor of Media and Communications Studies, Monash University (Melbourne); Libby Lester, Director and Professor, Institute for Social Change, University of Tasmania; and Michael Ambrose, Research Team Leader, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Canberra — decided to examine the carbon emissions of the country’s major men’s football leagues: the AFL (the top flight of Aussie Rules football), the National Rugby League (NRL) and soccer’s A-League, as well as Australia’s Super Rugby (Union) teams.
For Hutchins, this research on climate is a logical extension of his work at the intersection of sports media and political, cultural and economic issues as well as Lester’s focus on media and the environment.
“I’ve spent the last 20 years digging into how Australian sport deals with gender, race, and media ownership concentration,” Hutchins said. “Libby — with whom I’ve collaborated for over 10 years — has delved into a range of environmental issues, including the media’s role in the Tasmanian forestry conflicts that involved logging at World Heritage sites. So, it was natural to us to combine our expertise to study how sports in Australia impacts climate change.”
Getting funding for the study was not easy.
“We proposed an investigation into sport and the environmental issues to the Australian Research Council in 2018 but it got vetoed,” recalled Hutchins. “There was an undisclosed and controversial Ministerial intervention that impacted our project and 10 others, all of which were based in the social sciences and humanities. In the case of our project, it is interesting that a climate change denying government happened to reject a project dealing with the environment and climate change. We persisted because investigating and mapping the relationship between sports and the environment has never been done in Australia. But we finally got approval on the third go in 2019.”
A small-scale study that analyzed air travel-related emissions for the final four rounds of 2019 regular season games informally kicked off what will ultimately be a funded three-year project. The author of the book Greenwashing Sport, Toby Miller, is also part of the team.
Not surprisingly, leagues that are more regional in nature have lower air travel footprints than those that encompass the entire country. And those leagues’ emissions are dwarfed by the Super Rugby teams that travel beyond Oceania:
AFL: The 18 teams, which span the continent, produce about 10.4 tonnes of CO₂-e per team.
A-League: The league’s 12 teams average 10.7 tonnes of CO2-e, slightly more than their AFL counterparts, due to having a squad based in Wellington, New Zealand.
National Rugby League (NRL): Largely concentrated in the eastern states of New South Wales (Sydney is its major city) and Queensland (home to Brisbane), its 16 teams averaged around 5.7 tonnes of CO₂-e, by far the lowest of the four leagues.
Super Rugby: The four Australian teams averaged about 21.9 tonnes of CO2-e, thanks to road trips Argentina, Japan, and South Africa.
The results led the researchers to consider how leagues could rearrange their schedules to reduce the number of flights taken during a season.
In an October article in The Conversation, the trio offered that “many teams are located in the [southeast coast corridor of] Newcastle-Sydney-Wollongong (plus the Canberra) and [the southern cities of] Melbourne and Geelong. So, visiting interstate and New Zealand teams could play two or three fixtures in these locations before returning home. Depending on the [league], similar arrangements are possible in southern Queensland [a state in mid-east coast], Adelaide [south central coast] and Perth [Western Australia along the Indian Ocean]. ”
The researchers also suggested that the leagues could organize teams into geographically proximate conferences. This might mean that, per The Conversation piece, that “Melbourne-based AFL or A-League teams, and Sydney-based NRL or A-League teams, might play each other more often in front of large crowds in their home city.”
Hutchins, Lester and Ambrose opined that even minor reductions in travel-related carbon emissions are worth investigating, and publicly showcasing, in an effort to spur more serious environmental efforts by leagues and teams.
But that’s only the start.
According to Hutchins, sports leagues and teams in Australia, New Zealand and beyond need to message the need for serious climate action to their fans.
“Sport has an important role to play by reaching beyond the converted on climate, connecting with new audiences who may not already be convinced but are open-minded,” Hutchins asserted. “This is especially important in a country like Australia, which has a conservative government that refuses to deal with the impacts of climate change and is in the pocket of the fossil fuel and mining industries. For this to happen, sport — meaning teams, leagues and athletes — and the media that broadcasts and covers the games must combine to say, ‘this is important,’ with a loud, consistent voice.”
Hutchins and his colleagues plan to do what they can to spread the word in Australia over the next three to five years through media appearances, articles — both in academic and consumer media — and perhaps a book.
GSB’s Take: It is great to see that Hutchins, Lester and Ambrose are 1) analyzing the carbon footprints of Australia’s four major football leagues, and 2) making recommendations on how to make reductions.
What’s even more impressive — and important — is that the authors realize that reductions won’t mean much unless teams, leagues, mega events, and athletes work with their media partners to broadcast the urgent need for and benefits of climate action via public service announcements (PSAs) and other messaging.
When will that happen? There is no time to waste. Linking COVID and climate would be a powerful way to do it. Now it’s up to the media, and sports properties to step up.
Tokyo Olympics, anyone?
Photo at Top: Zach Tuohy of the Geelong Cats (black and white stripes) in action during the 2020 AFL Grand Final match against the Richmond Tigers in Brisbane in September (Photo credit: Matt Roberts/AFL Photos/Getty Images)