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Green marketing requires caution
Published September 21, 2009
The Washington Nationals were the toast of the “green” world last year when the team opened the nation’s first LEED-certified stadium. Months later, the grounds of the stadium were picketed by environmentalists bemoaning the team’s new sponsorship with ExxonMobil, which Greenpeace has labeled the “No. 1 climate criminal.”
“Exxon in a green stadium is like having Marlboro sponsor a stadium that promotes clean air,” said Mike Tidwell, director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network, who helped organize the seasonlong protests.
The good will turned hostility is a perfect example of the need for sports properties to understand the delicate balance of operations, sponsorship and communication in the complex world of green marketing, said experts in the field.
The desire to build good will by instituting and promoting green initiatives, and building out sponsorship categories to help pay for such actions, have led to a new emphasis on environmentalism among sports properties and television networks.
“The sports industry is at the very beginning of figuring this out,” said Mark Andrew, president of Minneapolis-based GreenMark Sports, which is consulting on the new Minnesota Twins ballpark. “What you’re going to see over the next couple of years is a rapid evolution to a new level of sustainability practices in sports, connected to profit motive.”
From recycling programs and LEED certification at stadiums, to NBC dimming the lights during its “Sunday Night Football” studio show, the sports industry is in the fledgling stages of implementing eco-friendly activities into daily operations.
Properties that figure out how to lessen their environmental footprints through changes to stadium and event operations are generally asking two questions:
“Can we either offset costs or make any money off of it?” and
“How, and to what extent, should we promote our actions?”
Properties and agencies are initially auditing their operations to identify and sell sponsorships in categories such as transportation, energy, water, building materials, lighting and waste/recycling to help defray the costs of building new facilities or retrofitting older ones.
Agencies and properties differ on the potential size of green sponsorship categories because there is no consensus on the mix of rights fees and value-in-kind associated, or what kind of inventory should be part of a green sponsorship. Deals in the environmental categories are generally longer than an average sponsorship because many involve capital investments in equipment.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are taking a different approach by trying to sell presenting sponsorship rights that would provide co-branding to all of the team’s environmental efforts, team officials said. The company would use the Cavaliers to promote their own green activities while helping the team further their own efforts.
“There’s a lot of companies out there looking for a communication tool to talk about what they’re doing,” said Kerry Bubolz, executive vice president of corporate sales, broadcasting and minor league operations for the Cavs.
While some teams and league properties go it alone, others without in-house experience in green marketing are hiring agencies or public relations firms with experience selling and promoting environmental activities outside the sports industry.
GreenMark, Helios Partners and Sponsorship Green are among agencies with dedicated environmental sponsorship practices. Another adviser is the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has been enlisted by Major League Baseball, the NBA, the U.S. Tennis Association and the Philadelphia Eagles to examine their operations and help build promotional campaigns.
Another important consideration, given the sensitivity of environmental sustainability, is that “greening” an organization must be a systemic pursuit and not an improperly marketed one-off meant to garner a few press clippings, or good intentions can quickly become a public relations problem.
“Don’t think that because you’re doing a few things that you’re green, or that you have a green program that you should be touting, because that’s where you get in trouble,” said Larry Weil, owner of Texas-based Sponsorship Green. “The problem is that people do a couple of green things and then they say they’re green, when there are varying shades of green.”
Backlash can come from overstatement of your activities, or tying your efforts to a corporate sponsor that has a less-than-stellar history as an environmental leader.
The Eagles’ “Go Green” campaign is considered among the more successful efforts in sports because team executives viewed environmentalism as an endemic pursuit and did not overstate their actions.
“You have to do your homework because the credibility of your brand is at stake,” Weil said. “The world’s a little more complicated than it used to be.”