Earth Day at 50

17 Sport’s Neill Duffy and Fabien Paget


GreenSportsBlog’s first “Earth Day at 50” series post, an interview with Tia Nelson, managing director for climate at Outrider Foundation, took us through the history of Earth Day. Her father, former U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) was one of the event’s founders in 1970.

We then turned our gaze to the future with a GreenSportPod interview with Green-Sports-Preneur Melissa Kalicin, founder of Oceanum Vela, a startup that saves elite racing boat sails from landfills, upcycling them into duffels and handbags.

In today’s series finale, we come back to the present and our painful coronavirus reality. Many sports organizations, teams and athletes have rightfully and thankfully gotten involved in a variety of COVID-19 relief efforts.

Once sports is able ramp back up — whenever that might be — will sports go back to its BC (Before Coronavirus) way of doing things, with “Purpose” taking a back seat? Or will doing good become core sport’s DNA?

We turned to Neill Duffy and Fabien Paget to try to answer that question. They live the “Sport for Good” ethos every day as partners in 17 Sport, an agency with a mission to “raise the game” by combining business, sport and purpose.

The Bay Area-based Duffy has been a thought — and action — leader in the purpose-and-sport space over the past two decades. He successfully showed corporate partners how they could help turn extravaganzas like Super Bowl 50 (“the Greenest Super Bowl Ever”) and the 34th America’s Cup into events that do good and do well.

Paget, based in Paris, is a purpose sports agent who embeds “making the world a better place” DNA into all of his athlete/client relationships, which include tennis players Nicolas Mahut and Mary Pierce, as well as Manchester United’s Anthony Martial. He has also been working closely with Serena Williams and her team for the past five years.

GreenSportsBlog connected with the duo recently about how purpose and sports could and should look post-COVID-19, with a focus on environmental sustainability and climate change.


GreenSportsBlog: Neill, how do you think sports will look when athletes return to the field and the court — whenever that might be? What role will purpose play?

Neill Duffy: Well, this is of course a difficult question. Anyone who says they know the answer with 100 percent certitude is wrong.

So before attempting to make a prediction, let’s use this hiatus to take a good long, strategic look at ourselves, our world and how sports has fit in to date…and how it could possibly be better, post COVID-19.

First, try this thought experiment.

Your computer isn’t doing what it’s supposed to do. You’ve tried everything you can think of, pressed every button and combination of buttons imaginable but to no avail. We’ve all done this. What do you do next?

GSB: Call tech support?

Neill: Well, maybe before you do that you power the computer down and reboot it, and “voila” it works…for a while. This happens once, twice, three times. Then one day it stops working altogether and you wish you’d read the instructions. What do you do next? You buy a new one, the latest model.

This feels a bit like how we’ve handled things in our society over the last 50 years.

Instead of investing the time to acknowledge, understand and address the systemic problems in our society, we’ve simply rebooted the existing operating system over and over again, celebrated the short term relief, put our heads in the sand, hoped for the best and bought ourselves some time. However, as we are all coming to realize in the face of COVID-19, we need much more than a simple ‘reboot’.


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Neill Duffy (Photo credit: Sport 17)


GSB: Amen, Neill…So how should we reboot? How should sport reboot?

Neill: As we move into a new world, many industries will need to restart in new ways and sport is no exception. There is an opportunity for sport to move beyond simply ‘rebooting’ its old profit-focused way of doing business and rather emerge from this forced isolation period with a renewed focus on doing good while doing well.

We see sport rising to the occasion in the last month or two to support efforts focused on addressing the immediate challenges that the COVID-19 crises have presented.

Some of these efforts have been really innovative. The Mercedes Formula 1 team has stepped up, developing new ventilators to help reduce the shortages that our just-in-time model created. And some have involved pivots like Budweiser’s One Team campaign where the brand shifted some of their sports investments to support the medical heroes on the front line.

Most however have been traditional in nature involving the default mechanisms that sports philanthropy has honored for decades, such as memorabilia auctions and donations.

GSB: But, beyond this welcome action by some sports organizations during the height of the coronavirus outbreak, will this focus on purpose last? How will it become something sports teams, leagues and governing bodies will see as a “must do” rather than a “nice to have”? I mean I imagine that when sports gets back onto the fields of play, the business end will simply be trying to survive. How can purpose become as essential to survival as water is to life?

Neill: I think the solution is right in front of us, Lew. The last 40 years have spoiled us — it’s been too easy. Sports as an entertainment product has overperformed in terms of its ability to attract and retain live audiences. This has kept the rights fees rolling in and distracted us from how the world has been changing around us.

What’s needed right now, in addition to these much needed short term fixes, is for sport to use this unprecedented pause in calendars and events to reflect on the state of the world and what its role should be in this rapidly evolving landscape. And sport can adapt to these new realities and come out from its enforced hibernation stronger and more relevant than before.

GSB: It is hard to imagine the commissioners of the major pro sports leagues are thinking this way? Even in the best of times, I don’t see Roger Goodell of the NFL putting purpose above “The Shield”, even if he talks a good game at times. I mean most folks believe sports exist to entertain and win championships. What am I missing? Why is my skepticism misplaced?

Neill: You’re right to be skeptical Lew because sport has been so focused on the dollars that it generates as an entertainment product that it has not been paying attention to how the world around it has been changing, even pre-COVID, and what people now expect from organizations today.

But ironically, the answer is also in the dollars. Sport has an opportunity to reposition itself as not just an entertainment product but also as a community asset. This is equally if not more valuable in today’s world. Fans will want to support your organization more if they see it as a community asset. Corporate partners, by extension, will see more value in supporting you, too.

If, as an organization you are not providing value to the world beyond your product, you are going to find it difficult to remain relevant. People are oK with you making a profit as long as you are also making the world a better place.

Recent Nielsen research shows that fans want to reward organizations that behave responsibly and punish those that don’t. Almost 45 percent of sports fans surveyed said they would stop watching a sports league based on how they conducted themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic. But 70 percent of fans said they would support a sports league based on how they conducted themselves during the pandemic.

This tells us that how an organization behaves makes a big difference these days. Sports leagues should be thinking about adding Chief Purpose Offices to their C-Suite team. Community is no longer about charity or philanthropy, it’s a key growth opportunity to build a better brand a more resilient organization.

Sports organizations should exist to serve a higher purpose beyond sport itself. This doesn’t mean that sport has to compromise in the delivery of a great sports product — that will always be non-negotiable — but it’s about actively committing to do more good in the world, to be a net positive influence on the planet and for everything that lives on it.

This push should go beyond philanthropy, corporate social responsibility (CSR) or cause marketing, things that happen on the periphery of a business. It’s about embracing a higher purpose that becomes the central organizing theme for the sports organization as a whole, influences every business decision the organization makes and applies as a metric of success.

We can do this.

It’s been done before.

The team at the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee where I served as Co-Chair proved that it’s possible to do good while doing well. By leading with a purpose of improving the lives of young people in the Bay Area, particularly those from underserved communities, we were able to deliver the most shared, most participated in, most commercially successful, most sustainable and most giving Super Bowl in history, an achievement that has yet to be surpassed. 

GSB: I should note here that I consulted with Neill and the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee’s sustainability team. It still stands as the Greenest Super Bowl ever. But to this point, that was a sustainable, purposeful exception to the rule of sports “business as usual”. But what if sport as an institution don’t make purpose core to their DNA in the post-COVID-19 future? What price will sport pay?

Neill: That’s easy. It will be relegated to the status of “non-essential service”, simply to be turned off by the authorities whenever things get complicated or challenging again. The coronavirus crisis is a wakeup call for sports, Lew. I hope that the sector doesn’t waste the opportunity it has been gifted to restart as a sector that is designed with purpose in mind.

GSB: It might be hard to imagine the coronavirus offering gifts but crises often result in bursts of innovation and progress. Let’s hope that’s the case in sports and beyond.

Turning to Fabien, how do you think athletes will react regarding purpose once they return to the field and the court after this jarring, devastating COVID-19?

Fabien Paget: First of all, athletes are global citizens and individuals. Over this period, we have seen amazing initiatives from athletes to support COVID relief in many ways. Some of them dedicated their time and used their social media platforms to raise awareness on the issues and committed financially.

Interestingly, in the same Nielsen research that Neill referenced earlier, 70 percent of sports fans agree that how athletes conduct themselves on social media during the COVID-19 crisis can be inspirational to them. More and more athletes understand that they have a voice and a responsibility to make the world a better place.

I expect that, post COVID, more athletes will define their purpose in life and how their sport can become a platform to achieve their mission. Athletes will want to continue to show that performing well on the pitch, on the court is not exclusive from making a positive difference off of it. Many will see they they can make more money — thanks to increased popularity — and at the same time have a bigger social impact.

Lisa Zimouche is great example. She is an inspiring professional athlete in freestyle football…


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Fabien Paget (Photo credit: 17 Sport)


GSB: Freestyle football or soccer is the art of self-expression through creatively juggling a football using any parts of the body, excluding the elbows to the hands.  

Fabien: Exactly! Lisa is one of the best freestyle footballers in the world but is much more than that. She is aspirational and has committed to use her voice to empower youth to achieve their best potential in life. In line with her mission, she became ambassador of youth nonprofit, Sport Dans La Ville and joined the Common Goal movement launched by Manchester United’s Juan Mata. She and other Common Goal members have pledged 1 percent of their earnings to take on the world’s toughest opponents from HIV/AIDS to gender inequality to youth unemployment.


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Lisa Zimouche (Photo credit: ABC News)


GSB: I love Common Goal. But I notice that climate change and the environment are not one among their causes. Why not? How can this change for the better in this COVID-19 era? And what similarities, if any, do you see between COVID-19 and the climate change fights?  

Fabien: Climate change is probably the biggest issue our world has to face and this coronavirus pandemic will definitely serve as an alert for the future.

Think of it this way. The world had many chances to prepare for the coronavirus. Bill Gates famously predicted something like this would happen back in 2015. Several scientists in 2019 said an air-borne virus, likely emanating from China, could turn into a pandemic. So, the scientific and governmental worlds were warned. Yes, South Korea, Singapore and others heeded those warnings and were prepared. Most other countries did not and we see the results.

The same thing is happening with climate change. The warnings from science are loud and clear. But we are not acting quickly or strongly enough

Athletes have seen events like the recent Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan and the 2020 Australian Open tennis tournament be affected by climate change.

Some athletes I work with such as French tennis player Nicolas Mahut has to deal with these issues early January in Melbourne. World number #3 Dominic Thiem and Kevin Anderson have raised their voices to spread the message, “we are warned; we must act” Athletes can’t hide and stay silent anymore; I expect athletes will speak openly more and more.




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Episode 3: Melissa Kalicin, Founder of Green-Sports Startup Oceanum Vela

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