Op Ed

Should (Can) Sports Divorce Fossil Fuels?


The divest-from-fossil fuel-investments movement gained great steam in 2013. Activists on campuses across the country, organized by groups like 350.org, pressed university presidents and endowment fund managers to sell their investments in fossil fuel companies.  So far, nine mostly small colleges and universities have committed to divest or have already divested from Big Oil and Big Coal.  

350.org also worked with cities and other municipalities to pull pension fund and other investments from fossil fuels. Portland (OR), Providence and San Francisco stepped up to the plate last year with divestment commitments.

If it’s good for college campuses and it’s good for cities, does it make sense to pressure sports properties to turn down Big Oil sponsorships (Big Coal is not a big player in sports sponsorships in the US)? GSB takes a look at this question.


The Valero Alamo Bowl.  The iconic Citgo Sign in Kenmore Square, Boston, just beyond Fenway Park’s left field wall.  BP’s US Olympic Committee sponsorship.

These are but three examples of the many Big Oil company sponsorships of US pro and college sports. 350.org, aggressively pushing high profile fossil fuel divestment campaigns from college endowment funds and municipal pension funds, has not yet to take on the high-profile sports sponsorship industry.  Should it?
I’d say an unequivocal YES!

  • 350.org, and other like-minded groups, through their university endowments/municipal pension divestment campaigns, have likely played a role in increasing Big Oil’s “negatives”.  Per a 2012 Gallup poll, oil is America’s least popular industry.
    • Let’s put to the side for now whether the divestment campaigns will significantly change Big Oil’s behavior.  Making the owning of an oil company stock a shameful thing, akin to owning a tobacco stock is, on a symbolic level, a big deal.
  • The sports industry, per many GSB posts, is actively moving towards a more sustainable business model, especially on the facilities and operations fronts.  To, at the same time, be in bed with Big Oil companies — which fund climate change denial in shadowy, yet well-funded ways (publicly espousing climate denial has become an albatross so the companies go under cover) and which oppose legislation of any kind that would in any way have the effect of keeping carbon-based assets in the ground and unburned–is a greenwash.
  • Sports is as image conscious a business as there is (maybe second to Hollywood but a close second).
  • There aren’t THAT MANY sports teams and leagues in the US and only a minority have Big Oil sponsors.  Thus, the campaign to get teams and properties to jettison Big Oil sponsors can be targeted and not very resource-intense.
  • The sports sponsorship business is huge and healthy.  Per a PwC report, sports sponsorship is now a $35-$40 billion business worldwide.  Among all types of sponsorships (music, arts, causes, institutions), sports dominates.  And sports sponsorship revenue is expected to grow at 5.5 percent annually in the US through at least 2015.  While nothing in sales is ever easy, sports properties continue to find sponsors of all types, from naming rights deals to on field signage.  A public move away from a Big Oil sponsor will net great PR at the expense of foregone revenue.  That revenue will likely be gobbled up by a sponsor from a category without the negatives of Big Oil.  In fact, that replacement revenue could/should come from Renewable Energy companies.

Valero Alamo Bowl

Valero Energy Alamo Bowl at the Alamodome in San Antonio.  Oregon defeated Texas, 30-7 in the 2013 version.  Both universities have made significant commitments to fight climate change yet play in a bowl game sponsored by an oil company. (Photo Credit: DailySA.com)


The timing is right for 350.org and other groups to 1) show teams, leagues, event operators and other properties that they are enabling greenwashing through their relationships with oil companies and 2) urge them to end those relationships:

  • College football teams, representing Big 12 and PAC 12 universities with sustainability departments and sustainability mission statements, should be embarrassed to play in the Valero Energy Alamo Bowl.
  • The PGA Tour, which touts (legitimately) the sustainability and environmental milestones set at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, should not also sanction the Shell Houston Open.
  • The US Olympic Committee, supported in part by tax dollars, should not accept sponsorship money from a greenwashing, post oil-spill BP.
  • The Citgo Sign?  I think we need to leave that one alone for now as it has landmark status in Boston.  Let the Red Sox deal with the stigma of being identified with an oil company–from Venezuela, no less.


Citgo at Fenway

The Citgo sign in Kenmore Square, rising above The Green Monster at Fenway Park in Boston.  The sign has iconic status.  If it ever comes down, that’s when you know oil companies have become tobacco companies. (Photo Credit: Boston.com)


GSB will send this post to 350.org to see if they’d like to take on Big Oil and Big Sports and will of course let you know what they say.

We’d love to hear from YOU!


Please comment below!
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  1. Most activity by large oil companies is on public lands leased by either our government or other governments. The citizens of those governments (we the people) are the beneficiaries through paid oil leases. The oil companies as lessors are required by our government to pump oil or default on their contracts and lose their leases. Governments can buy back those leases or stop issuing those leases. Let’s put in government green minded politicians! Let’s direct our anger at those who are empowered to make change. Divesting oil investments by public funds is a disservice to intended beneficiaries and will have zero effect on the behavior of those companies and will hurt the beneficiaries of those who divest.
    The sports industry publicly renouncing fossil fuels is an excellent thought, as the exposure of sports is far greater than its economic impact. Many of these teams espouse green strategies through the front door while profiting through back door fossil fuel financial deals. Sports franchises need to look past their bottom lines and make decisions based on their conscience.

  2. Thanks for the comment, John. Question: Divestment from oil companies (and coal) hurt beneficiaries only if the replacement investments fare more poorly than oil/coal, right? If the divestment is significant enough to depress prices of oil/coal stocks wouldn’t there be a strong likelihood that investments in other sectors would outperform oil/coal, thus making things better for beneficiaries? In any case, I definitely agree that the sports industry can make a big impact by divorcing itself from Big Oil…perhaps a bigger impact than the divestment efforts on campuses and in municipalities.

    1. Theoretically yes, if there were no buyers for oil stocks, then the prices could be artificially depressed from their economic realities. This was not achieved in other divestment campaigns and is even less likely to be achieved for these massive companies which are owned globally. There’s a better chance that the democrats and republicans will walk hand-in-hand than divestment of oil companies actually having an effect on stock prices. People like the easy villains as it absolves them of their own complicity.

  3. It seems to me it’s a multi-factorial problem (how could changing the way we power the planet be anything but). And, yes, it’s up to the people to demand of their elected leaders and of the corporations they support (or not) that the government and the corporate world move quickly away from the burning of fossil fuels and towards the scaling up of clean energy. But that does not absolve Big Oil at all. By their funding of climate denial (once clearly out in the open, now via shadow groups, made possible by Citizen’s United), by their lobbying/buying of elected leaders to oppose a price on carbon, and likely a gazillion other like activities, they’ve shown themselves to be Tobacco-Company-like. People have their own culpability when it comes to tobacco (they smoke!), but does that absolve the tobacco industry for decades of denial, obfuscation, and outright lying in order to sow doubt about the link between lung cancer and their product? I think not.

  4. Any company which like the tobacco companies purposely distorts the truth and even bends or breaks the laws needs to be held accountable…we need to ensure that we have those legal hawks in our government to maintain the laws and rules of engagement rather than relying on vigilante groups and street justice.
    All should read the Royal Dutch sustainability report. While their slate is far from clean, the company lays out very clearly that at our current rate of progress, tolerable climate change will not be attained.

  5. In this arena (hehe) sports is much like any other industry. There has to be a clear motivation to make this kind of fundamental change. Perhaps the only motivator for sports is a groundswell from fans. Is this possible? I hope so…

  6. Candy–my main 2014 goal for GSB is to increase fan engagement around green issues. Our next post will lay out how we plan to do this.

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