Neill Duffy has graced the pages of GreenSportsBlog several times, most notably for his work as Sustainability Director of the San Francisco Bay Area Super Bowl 50 Host Committee. Since then, he founded and serves as CEO of Purpose + Sport, a purpose-led marketing and sponsorship agency. Neill is very bullish on the future of top brands investing some of their sports sponsorship and advertising dollars on programs that have a social and/or environmental purpose. Neill and Advisory Board member Tony Ponturo, formerly the VP of media and sponsorships at Anheuser-Busch, talked to GreenSportsBlog about the move to purpose that is underway and how the business of sport is, and isn’t yet, embracing this opportunity.
GreenSportsBlog: Neill, what do you mean by your company’s name, Purpose + Sport?
Neill Duffy: Well, using the “+” sign was very intentional. I wanted to connote the notion of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
GSB: Kind of like 2 + 2 = 5 and that being the right answer.
ND: Exactly! When you add purpose to sports you get amplified results for all involved.
Neill Duffy, CEO, Purpose + Sport (Photo credit: Purpose + Sport)
GSB: And how did you and Tony connect?
Tony Ponturo: Well, in 2010, the St. Louis Sports Commission and National Sportsmanship Foundation launched the Musial Awards, to honor the athletes, male and female, who exhibit the best in sportsmanship, just like the legendary Cardinals Hall of Fame outfielder from the 1940s-60s, Stan “The Man” Musial. While not a member of the commission at the time, I consulted with them and have remained a fan of their work. Neill and my paths crossed when the National Sportsmanship Foundation asked Neill if he could help take the awards beyond St. Louis to more of a national footprint. They also introduced Neill and I to each other We talked a lot more about socially responsible business and how sports needs to move into this space more aggressively as he was in the process of building Purpose + Sport. So it seemed like a natural fit for me to take on the advisory role earlier, which I did earlier this year.
Tony Ponturo, Purpose + Sport Advisory Board Member (Photo Credit: Purpose + Sport)
GSB: Got it. What a great pairing of expertise. So give our readers the Purpose + Sport elevator pitch…
ND: Happy to. Consumers increasingly expect corporations to stand for something more than just profit…and in turn corporations are responding by embracing purpose as a management philosophy. The business of sport has however been slow to embrace this move and that’s where we come in. We’re all about inspiring the business of sport to do good and do well. We provide purposeful strategic, commercial engagement solutions to sports sponsor, properties and non-profits to help them show up more meaningfully and remain relevant to the fans.
GSB: I guess I buy that, but with a bit of an asterisk. I mean, do consumers really care that the companies from which they buy their sneakers or cars do good?
ND: Absolutely. And the number that do is going up, especially among younger consumers. For example, the 2017 Cone Report found that 78 percent want companies to address important social justice issues and that 87 percent will purchase a product because a company advocated for an issue they cared about and 76 percent will refuse to purchase a company’s products or services upon learning it supported an issue contrary to their beliefs. Corporations are starting to get this. According to the April, 2017 State of Marketing survey from Salesforce.com, about 2/3 of the most successful marketing managers today are “purpose driven.” Companies that make sustainability — in the broadest, “environmental, social and governance” sense of the word — core to their brands really do engender greater brand loyalty among their consumer bases. It’s that simple. The problem, as we see it, is that, until now, sports have lagged the broader market in embracing purpose. In fact, not a single sports team, event or federation makes any list of the most purposeful brands.
GSB: That’s a real shame. What are the reasons, do you think?
ND: Firstly, there is a lot of inertia in the sports business system to continue doing things the way they always have. Why would we want to change something that’s working. Secondly, people have been so caught up of late in chasing the next piece of shiny technology that’s going to enhance the fan experience – the app that tells fans which restroom line is the shortest – that they’ve lost sight of the equal if not greater importance of the message…I’m a great believer in the message being as important if not more important than the medium. But, like I said earlier, that’s changing. Mars, which advertises heavily on sports, recently announced that it is committing $1 billion to a climate-focused messaging campaign. I’ll be surprised if this commitment doesn’t carry through to their sponsorship activation.
GSB: I saw that—it is FANTASTIC. Tony, you were at the center of the sports marketing-sponsorship-advertising nexus for more than two decades at Anheuser-Busch — you were VP of media, sports and entertainment marketing from 1991 to 2008. You ran the Busch Media Group, with 150 people, commanded a $600 million budget, worked with leagues, and teams and the rest. So how come more leading sports sponsors haven’t done the type of thing Mars is doing?
TP: My take is that sports haven’t seen the need just yet — but like Neill is saying, that is changing. One reason they haven’t jumped in may be that most sports fans have been men and, and, this is a generalization, but most male sports fans don’t care that much about a team’s social responsibility profile. They basically care about one thing: wining the game. Women sports fans, on the other hand, are much more socially conscious.
GSB: And since women sports fans, as a cohort, are growing…
TP: …It follows that the number of teams doing good will grow, as will the number of brands sponsoring pro-social programs — no doubt about it. In 2016, I taught at a conference at NYU on “Leadership, Social Responsibility and Sports.” We conducted focus groups there and found that women routinely mentioned a team’s social responsibility profile as being important drivers as to their attitudes about the team and their sponsors. ND: And, given the current US federal government’s hostility to environmental sustainability and other pro social programs, business should step into the breach and take a leadership position on purpose — a big chunk of the public is hungering for this.
GSB:…”Greed is GOOD!” said Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in Wall Street…
ND: Exactly…that was the ethos back then. Since about 2000, the importance of purpose has been rising in that longitudinal study…People — men and women —are saying in greater numbers that while I need to do well, society also needs to do well. It’s just that sports need to get with the program. We saw something similar in the late adoption of operational sustainability by the teams and leagues which lagged what was happening in the corporate sector by 5-10 years.
GSB: How do you think most fans, male and female, will react purpose-themed sports initiatives.
TP: Fans tend to question “purpose” initiatives at first but, I believe, over the long haul, they’ll get on board.
GSB: So where does Purpose + Sport fit in?
ND: We aim to accelerate the process, deepen the impact and build business for sports sponsors, property owners and non-profits via Purpose-driven programs. We will show them how to bring to life doing good and doing well.
GSB: Can you give some examples?
TP: The Musial Awards are a good place to start. The 2017 version takes place on November 18 with an edited special airing in December. We are helping the Commission increase the awareness and value of the Awards beyond the St. Louis area. Our job is to bring the Awards’ focused, powerful message — that sports has the power to get people to take positive action and that fans and viewers will care — to broadcasters across the country, get them to say “YES!” to airing them. Having a national audience rather than a regional one is so much more appealing to most brands.
GSB: On the one hand, I imagine that a TV show about athletes who do great things in the community will have broad appeal. On the other, I’m guessing that Stan Musial’s name doesn’t mean much for Gen Xers, Millennials and Gen Zers…
TP: You’re right…People who are under 45 don’t really know Musial, outside of folks in St. Louis. So we’re focusing on making the awards themselves relevant to broadcasters in Atlanta, Los Angeles, New York, and beyond. Right now, there are around ten awards offered, with the big one being the Lifetime Achievement award.
ND: We’ve been able, by showing the value of and interest in “purpose,” to take the awards from St. Louis only to 39 markets. Our aspiration is to eventually find a national broadcaster to see the value in the awards and for national advertisers/sponsors to do so as well.
GSB: Congratulations on getting to 39 markets. It seems to me that, getting a national broadcaster, along with national advertisers and sponsors, to see the value of the Musial Awards tis a logical next step for Purpose + Sport. Good luck. Let’s move over to Green-Sports specifically. At the 2016 Summer Olympics opening ceremonies in Rio, there was a 5-10 minute vignette on climate change. A global audience of an estimated 1 billion people saw this. NEWS FLASH: THE WORLD DIDN’T STOP SPINNING!! But in North American sports, there hasn’t been anything remotely like that at the Super Bowl, College Football Playoff, etc. Why are sports leagues, even those that are greening aggressively like the NHL, loath to talk about it? Loath to run PSA’s on actual broadcasts of actual games?
ND: Wasn’t what Rio 2016 did great?
GSB: LOVED IT!
ND: I haven’t seen any insights around how viewers reacted to this segment but, for me, it made perfect sense. It was very relevant given the importance of the Amazon to global climate. Kudos to the IOC and Rio 2016 for supporting the decision by the creative directors for the ceremony – Fernando Meirelles, Daniela Thomas and Andrucha Waddington – to include this piece on climate in the ceremony. My sense is that the North American pro and college sports leagues take a very tactical approach to the greening of their events and view it more for its operational efficiency / cost reduction benefits than anything else. This mirrors what happened in the business sector more broadly where sustainability started off being about improving efficiencies before evolving to be viewed as a strategic imperative that could be engage customers and other stakeholders for competitive advantage. My view is that the business of sport is beginning to change their view on the role that environmental sustainability should play in their organizations — and that means telling environmental and climate stories to their audiences and fan bases not just being green behind the scenes. Another important part to his story is the role that the television producers play. Many of the producers involved today across all the major broadcasters have been doing what they do for decades. They have a tried and tested format that has worked for them and they are loathe to alter it. They seem to be prepared to remain relevant and up to date when it comes to the technology they adopt but are much less current as to the messages they convey. As fresh eyes and hearts start to infiltrate the ranks of the producers, I think things will start to change.
Aerial view of the climate change vignette during the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio (Photo credit: Huffington Post)
GSB: Do you think teams and leagues are afraid of the politics of environment/green/climate change?
ND: When I worked with the 34th America’s Cup Event Authority in San Francisco (2013), the words “climate change” were taboo within the organization despite the fact that we had made a legally binding commitment to the City of San Francisco that we would deliver a carbon neutral event. At the time, the leadership of the Event Authority was concerned that any discussion around climate change would be polarizing. Two years on from this event, at the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee, also in the Bay Area, we spoke openly about reducing our impact on climate change. Why were we able to do so? Thanks to bold leadership that celebrated rather than ran from the fact that Bay Area is a place where the acceptance of climate change is a given. It’s interesting to note that despite the Trump Administration’s position on climate change, Americans believe now more so than at any time in history that global warming is as a result of human activity and that the effects have already begun. This should give leagues, teams, athletes and sponsors the confidence to embrace this issue and I think we will as a result start to see more of them…
GSB: A la Mars…
ND: Exactly…We will see more of them openly aligning with the issue – particularly those where there is a direct link between the climate and the sport involved…winter sports, golf, sailing. In fact, Purpose + Sport recently advised a team that are preparing an entry for the 2021 edition of the Volvo Ocean Race on their purpose strategy. We brokered a partnership between the teams and Conservation International around a purpose very closely aligned to climate change and its impact on ocean health. I think this is a sign of things to come.
GSB: I hope and actually believe that you are right.
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