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Walking the Talk
Riding the Wave to Sports Industry Leadership in Sustainability

The World Surf League has chosen to focus on the specific threats to its “playing field.” This risk-turned-opportunity approach to building a sustainability strategy is the best way for other leagues and teams to ‘find their wave,’ addressing the specific reasons to inspire action.

Due to a lack of regulation and market pressure, sports organizations’ sustainability agendas have been permitted to lag behind industries with innovative ESG approaches. Thanks to city decarbonization plans, corporate sponsorships, an increase in sports industry leaders, and the unfortunate effects of a growing climate crisis, the ‘green sports’ movement is at a pivotal moment.

The World Surf League (WSL), a governing body that is dedicated to showcasing the talent of the world’s best surfers, has embraced its vision for impact more holistically. In 2016, it launched PURE — a program with internal commitments to enhance League sustainability practices; and followed in 2021 with PURE’s call to action, “We Are One Ocean” — a petition to conserve 30 percent of the ocean by 2030. While the League is early in its journey, it is setting the precedent so that other sports leagues and teams can get comfortable with adopting a similar approach.

Finding your wave

We have seen a recent increase in ways that climate change directly impacts the business of sport. There are delays from extreme weather events, there are impacts to athletes’ health, and there is a financial burden to adapt to the changing climate.

While we need to deploy solutions to address all of these challenges, one sports organization cannot do it on its own. Pressuring organizations to try to solve everything will only inspire fear and inaction. Instead, sports teams should hone in to address the solution or solutions that align with their most material impact areas. The WSL has found its wave within the intimidating ocean of climate solutions, identifying several specific facts that have guided its goal-setting:

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    The ocean has absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat in the atmosphere, leading to intense storms and sea level rise;

  • 30 percent of atmospheric carbon is absorbed by the ocean, causing acidification that harms coral reefs and marine life;

  • Plastics break down into small microparticles that are ingested by marine life and ultimately by humans.

WSL has chosen to focus on the specific threats to its “playing field.” This risk-turned-opportunity approach to building a sustainability strategy is the best way for other leagues and teams to ‘find their wave,’ addressing the specific reasons to inspire action.

“No sport relies on the ocean as much as surfing does and, at World Surf League, we take our responsibility to protect our oceans and beaches seriously,” says Emily Hofer, Chief People Officer and Executive Director at WSL PURE. “We are excited to continue our sustainability program — We Are One Ocean — into 2022, where we are focused on community-based, grassroots activations investing in the incredible communities around the world that our Championship Tour visits and activating our fans around the world in exciting ways.”

Every wave has a rider

After identifying the specific environmental or social risk(s) to a sport, the front office team and its supportive subject matter experts can build an aligned agenda to guide incremental action. This action plan, with specific time-bound commitments, should be inspired from opportunities that come from the risks themselves.

In 2019, WSL announced a series of sustainability commitments focused on carbon and plastic — to inspire, educate and empower ocean lovers, while also addressing these critical environmental issues. Its commitments apply to all WSL Championship Tour and Big Wave Tour events and include:

  • becoming carbon neutral globally by the end of 2019;

  • eliminating single-serve plastics by the end of 2019;

  • and investing in local communities.

WSL also works to reduce its carbon footprint by regionalizing its operation, limiting non-essential travel and implementing policies to reduce carbon emissions at its offices. In 2020, WSL committed to completely offset carbon emissions from the WSL Surf Ranch in 2020 and beyond, including Kelly Slater Wave Company headquarters.

In some ways, WSL’s commitments are uniquely challenging because its ‘playing field’ is global and, as its We are One Ocean campaign notes, it’s so interconnected that everyone who loves the ocean has a role to play. Most professional sports teams or leagues have a much narrower playing field — limited to one geography, one type of building, or a few specific environmental conditions. Literally and figuratively, World Surf League is riding many waves at once — this multi-pronged, global approach should inspire other leagues and teams to pop up and ride one wave of focused action for impact.

Riding in tandem

While impressive, WSL’s efforts should not be over-simplified; this work is challenging and requires internal organizational support and buy-in from partners. To implement its commitments, WSL has an agile internal team that leverages the power of corporate and nonprofit partners to drive the We are One Ocean campaign, and delivers its carbon-offset program with STOKE and its independent evaluators.

Other leaders in the sustainable sport movement have taken a similar approach: FIFA’s ‘greenest football club,’ the Forest Green Rovers, have an extensive list of sustainability partners; the Philadelphia Eagles leverage ‘Go Green Partners’; and more and more athletes are tapping into sustainable brand sponsorship deals.

Jump in!

Surfing — even riding one wave — is a journey, just like building a sustainability strategy. It takes focus, balance and a bit of trust to fully commit. Luckily, organizations have the right equipment and access to coaches to guide the process; they just need to step into the water.