Special Series: Women 'Green-Sports-Preneurs'

Katie Cross, Founder of Pledgeball

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Despite the global pandemic, Green-Sports entrepreneurship has been thriving. Many of the new businesses and nonprofits are run by women. GreenSportsBlog is running an occasional series, “Women Green-Sports-Preneurs,” to highlight some of the inspiring new ventures and the women behind them.

We kicked off the series by talking with Sarah Wilkin, founder of the Fly Green Alliance.

And Sarah introduced me to the subject of today’s second installment, Katie Cross, the driving force behind Pledgeball, the nonprofit she started-up to “encourage millions of people in the soccer/football community to make small, easy changes to their lifestyles to collectively have a big impact on our planet.”

 

GreenSportsBlog: Katie, what were you doing before you got into the middle of the Green-Sports world?

Katie Cross: Before I had kids I taught secondary school science to 11 to 18-year-olds. I have a biology degree so was certainly aware of climate change but wasn’t getting involved.

GSB: So, what prompted you, a player in a local, casual football league but someone with no startup experience, no green activism experience, to launch Pledgeball, a nonprofit that is looking to engage recreational players around the UK and beyond, to take on climate change?

Katie: Pledgeball really started because my husband, Spencer, was suffering from a climate paralysis of sorts in early 2019. He was despairing in ways many people do, feeling powerless about being able to do anything about it. All of this got me to thinking, ‘what can we do?”

So, I started researching it, using sources  like Project Drawdown.

Around this time was my sister’s wedding. She is very principled, making sure that she is informed and is vocal about it. When it came time for our dad to give his toast, he didn’t give it to the bride and groom, he gave it to principles. It inspired me and gave me the drive to act on my beliefs and do something about them.

This first happened with me sharing information with my teammates, the wonderful members of Bristol’s Misfits of the Bristol Women’s Casual League. 

 

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Katie Cross, founder of Pledgeball (Photo credit: Katie Cross)

 

GSB: …What we in the U.S. would call an adult or a rec league…So, are you good?

Katie: Am I good? Is that what you’re asking? Well, I only started playing in my late 20s.  Initially, I played with my husband (then my boyfriend) and his mates, and then started playing in the women’s league after I had two kids. And I’m only 4′ 10″. So, I play central midfield and can run. I guess you can say I’ve got tenacity and sagacity but may be lacking in the skills department. I captained our development squad in the 2019/20 season, and we would’ve won if not for the pandemic. Definitely.

Anyway, I started sharing “sustainability stats” with my teammates. And it felt a bit daunting: I didn’t know the girls that well, they were mostly much younger than I, from different backgrounds. So, I didn’t know how they would react. But I did it anyway…

 

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Katie Cross on the ball for the Misfits (Photo credit: Katie Cross)

 

GSB: What kind of sustainability stats are we talking about?

Katie: Well, for example, I shared about the amount of carbon emissions we could save by switching to sustainable menstrual products, how much we could save by collecting recycling. And I got a very positive reaction; they asked a lot of good questions.

And they ended up helping me set up the inaugural Pledgeball tournament in September 2019, a women’s and men’s 5 a-side football tournament. It was free to enter; all you had to do was make a sustainable lifestyle pledge. We had winners for teams that scored the most goals…

GSB: That’s football!

Katie: …And winners for the teams that pledged to reduce the emissions the most. People really liked it and so Pledgeball started to grow.

Really, the goal of this whole thing was to show people they have the power to make a difference, and that by making small changes, as a collective, they could make a big difference. And they’d be counteracting this feeling of helplessness that overtook my husband and that prevents many people from doing anything about climate change. And they’d be supporting the team!

GSB: What were some of the pledges and some of the prizes?

Katie: We used, amongst others, Project Drawdown as a guide and came up with about 65 pledges  — ranging from ‘use a reusable cup’ to ‘go vegan two days a week’ to ‘use eco-friendly nappies’ [diapers], and then we estimated the carbon impact of those pledges, using information from the likes of Mike Berners-Lee. We tallied the carbon impacts of the pledges per team and that’s how we found the emissions reduction champion.

There were two trophies, one for winning on the pitch, the other for the team that pledged to reduce the most emissions. One of my friends — an artist — created a pair of beautiful trophies from a fallen tree branch she found in a London park. She burnt a shape of a football into two slices of the branch and those became the trophies. We also provided free food that would’ve otherwise gone to waste to highlight the quantity of food waste created.

GSB: A good start for Pledgeball. What happened next?

Katie: Thanks to my dad, we built a website. I contacted Bristol City Council about Pledgeball and they put me in touch with Bristol City F.C., a Championship (second tier)-level club. I met with them in December 2019-January 2020 and they were keen on the idea, as was the mayor. And I was invited to pitch to the Bristol Green Partnership.

I also contacted Claire Poole at Sport Positive Summit, who was incredibly kind,  providing me with introductions, encouragement and a ticket to the Summit.

And then it all got shut down in February-March 2020 because of COVID-19, right when it looked like we were getting somewhere.

GSB: So, what did you do during those first months of the pandemic to build up Pledgeball while everything was shut down?

Katie: Well, Lew, we launched with a pilot semi-pro club, Whitehawk F.C. in Brighton.

GSB: Is Brighton near Bristol?

Katie: No. It’s about three hours by car, longer by EV because you have to charge. As an aside, this sounds like a complaint but it is not. Using an EV has changed my attitude about taking a journey, making it a much more enjoyable, less stressful thing  — choosing pubs at which to charge and stop and charge en route.

GSB: I hope you found welcoming pubs! How did you find Whitehawk? It seems kind of random.

Katie: We had been reaching out to football clubs and really were getting nowhere. So, we went the city council route like we did in Bristol and someone on the Brighton council said, ‘We’ve got just the man for you, councilman Steve Davis. He’s a massive Whitehawk fan. You should talk to him.’

That was a great stroke of luck. Through Whitehawk I met Kevin Miller, the Commercial Manager, who was very generous with both his time and help, and Dr Mark Doidge. Mark, it turned out, was a research fellow at the University of Brighton who is also  an expert on football fandom. He’d done research on supporters’ groups like the Italian Ultras as well as refugees and football.

In developing the Pledgeball mechanism, I’d made a conscious decision not to require that people verify their pledges. I thought that would be a barrier to them getting involved  and I couldn’t see a way of doing this without receiving just a snapshot of their daily lives. Of course, they could cheat, they could exaggerate, but I have always believed that people live up to the expectations you set for them.

I did, however, want to make sure we were having an impact, that we were helping to change people’s mindsets more than behavior because changing the former can be more comprehensive, more long-lasting.

With that being the case, I needed to conduct research that showed that what we were doing was making a difference. I asked Mark, now a trustee for Pledgeball, for some advice on how to do the research. It turned out that he happened to have a brilliant intern, Jenny Amann from the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. She ended up writing her master’s thesis on the impact of Pledgeball on Whitehawk F.C. It was amazing what we learned from Jenny’s research.

 

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Mark Doidge (Photo credit: University of Brighton)

 

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Jenny Amann (Photo credit: Jenny Amann)

 

GSB: What were your key learnings?

Katie: Well, behavior change is a sticky one. I mean, if you change Behavior A in a positive way, you might be more lenient about taking on Behavior B. Whereas if you change a person’s mindset, that ‘carbon currency’ will stay with them throughout many decisions and many behaviors. So, for instance, thinking about buying produce that’s local rather than from around the world.

The need for supporting infrastructure also came through, which clubs could help with even as part of their legacy. For example, they could support the provision of electric bikes to hire or the accessibility of public transport. This is where Sarah Wilkin’s work with the Fly Green Alliance would be very valuable.

In the end, 65 Whitehawk fans responded to the survey Jenny developed and the results were very positive:

  • 92 percent said they are willing to make changes to help the environment
  • 86 percent said they would like the club to make changes to help the environment
  • 8 percent said Whitehawk should ‘keep politics out of football’

GSB: Those are impressive results and should show other clubs that Pledgeball can help their brand image and build fan loyalty. How many clubs do you have in the Pledgeball network now?

Katie: We started out with Whitehawk but now fans of any professional club in England, and throughout Europe, can make the pledges on behalf of their club and try to outdo the fans of the team you’re team is playing.

GSB: You know what? Pledgeball sounds a lot like Planet Super League, started by another Brit, James Atkins, in which families take on environmental actions on behalf of their favorite football clubs, those get aggregated and then there’s a competition with families who are fans of rival clubs. What are the differences?

Katie: Yeah, while we’re similar, I see us as perfect complements to each other.

Their activities are targeted at families, so they offer activities such as making a bug stadium.  They create virtual fixtures — matches that don’t exist and their activities have to be verified

When I first met with James a while back, I really wanted to ascertain that we were doing something distinct from Planet Super League, otherwise I would have looked to work with them instead. But when I took a step back, I just couldn’t imagine that all fans would do the activities on the PSL list or that the mechanism would suit all. 

With Pledgeball, it is easier for many more fans to make at least one pledge as it has a lower barrier to entry, thus allowing them through the gateway, empowering them and triggering them to think about their carbon impact when making decisions in their daily lives on, for example,  purchases, how to travel, and more. And I can imagine that some of our Pledgeballers and their families would be very keen to join Planet Super League as a consequence of getting through that door, which would be great. 

GSB: How many football clubs have active Pledgeball groups now?

Katie: According to my business plan, we’d start out with one — Whitehawk — then we’d carry out research, and then go to a second wave of clubs. We have six to start this season, Bristol City, Bristol City Women, Shoreham F.C., Huddersfield Town Supporters Association, Peckham Town and two I can’t name just yet.

We also have a partnership with Birmingham County FA. They, along with Claire Poole, put together “Save Today, Play Tomorrow”, with the ambitious goal of creating a low carbon, greener game. They created the first of its kind sustainability pledge that clubs can sign up to when affiliating for the 21/22 season

Every club — and they have 1,200 within the FA from casual to semi-pro to professional — that signs their pledge is automatically signed on to Pledgeball. This is huge because it’s allowed us to develop a means by which the grassroots teams can get involved and by which their members can support each other in carrying out these pledges whilst competing against other clubs within their FA. To date, 80 clubs have signed up.

GSB: …And so making pledges, thinking about carbon reduction, and taking actions becomes part of the rhythm of a fan’s day or week just like a football match is.

Katie: That’s it!

GSB: What is the Pledgeball business model?

Katie: We’re a charity. Pledgeball is offered free of charge. Right now, there’s not enough of an appetite in the UK for teams to pay us to run it for them — we’re behind the US in that regard, where you have sustainability consultants working directly for teams. I’m hoping we catch up to you guys soon.

In the meantime, we apply for grants, that sort of thing. A while back, we got our first tiny bit. We won a competition called FootballCan2041, a program sponsored by Banco Santander. Probably the biggest moment of my life: I’ve got a screenshot with me, Juan Mata of Manchester United, and Ronaldo, the Brazilian football legend and businessman, because they were on the jury…

GSB: That is so cool!

Katie: It’s a start, one Pledgeball can and will build upon.

 

Photo at top: Whitehawk F.C. promotes its partnership with Pledgeball (Photo credit: Katie Cross)

 


 

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