Last month, the sustainability website GreenBiz published a pair of interesting blog posts that explore what sports marketing and communications can teach the sustainability field about reaching a mass audience. With President Barack Obama unveiling his Clean Power Plan last week and the complex policy questions it raises, it seems as relevant as ever to analyze how the discussion of sustainability issues can break out from a core niche group and become a top-of-mind pursuit for a broad segment of society. As someone who has dual passions for both sustainability and sports, I find it tantalizing to compare these two fields and consider what the world would look like if sustainability was one day followed as closely as sports by the general public.
In his article, former McDonald’s Vice President of Sustainability, Bob Langert, contrasts the struggle of bringing sustainability into the mainstream with the wild popularity of the sports media conglomerate ESPN. (For those not already acquainted with the organization in some form, ESPN is the predominant sports media company in North America, operating across television, radio, and online platforms and logging over 16 million unique visitors to its website per month.) In a follow-up article, sustainability consultant Raj Sapru further expounds on what the sports world can teach sustainability professionals, focusing on the wealth of statistics and data on ESPN’s website, as well as its fearlessness in criticizing key athletes and sports executives when their performances don’t meet expectations.
“Can Collectively Become the ESPN of Sustainability“, by Bob Langert (GreenBiz)
“What a True ESPN of Sustainability Would Look Like“, by Raj Sapru (GreenBiz)
5 Lessons from My Favourite Sports Talk Show
To be sure, there are limits to comparing sports with sustainability issues that have real economic, environmental and social consequences. Notwithstanding that discrepancy, sports media employs several practices that would not be unfamiliar to a sustainability professional – it has just found ways to normalize these practices for its audience, and to make them downright addictive, to the point where most followers may not even be aware that they are engaging in systems thinking. In the spirit of extracting lessons from that success, here are five key insights I’ve gleaned from listening to my favourite sports talk show, Mike & Mike in the Morning. (Mike & Mike is a daily sports talk show co-hosted by sports journalist Mike Greenberg and former professional football player Mike Golic.) I think that these common sports talk show practices, if applied more consistently to how sustainability is communicated to the public, could help broaden the appeal and depth of understanding of these issues among a broader segment of society. (Note: Each insight comes with an example from an ESPN talk show or website – though not necessarily all from Mike & Mike given the difficulties of finding relevant clips online.) If you are one of the other millions of people that regularly follow sports media, please feel free to share what gets you to keep tuning in below!
1. Make Data Empowering
In many ways, the foundation of sports talk radio is built on data. Take two teams that are playing each other this weekend, sprinkle in their offensive and defensive statistics, and you have the recipe for hours of comparison and debate. More recently, the sports industry has gravitated towards sabermetrics – advanced statistics that are supposed to assess the efficacy of any individual player independent of non-controlled variables, such as the quality of his or her teammates or the field he or she plays on.
The sustainability world also has its version of data in the form of sustainability indicators (think greenhouse gas emissions or spend on community investment), and even its own version of next generation stats (e.g. social return on investment, value of ecosystem services). In the sports world, however, data holds extra power because it can be easily used by the casual fan for his or her own purposes. Fans can use team stats to aid in their prediction of a game’s outcome, and player stats to play “virtual general manager” and think through hypothetical improvements to their favourite team’s roster. This sense of empowerment is still missing in the sustainability world, largely because (1) there is not yet a uniform set of indicators that is used by all organizations, in the way that every baseball player has a batting average; and (2) sustainability data is rarely accompanied by a conversation about what to do with it.
Example: While not a clip from sports radio, consider this article from Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight Sports website, which uses advanced statistics to evaluate baseball teams’ strategies for trading players, based on their probabilities to make the playoffs.
2. Constantly Practice Forecasting and Backcasting
If data is the foundation of sports talk radio, the frame is composed of hypothetical questions. Anybody who’s ever listened to a few minutes of sports talk will recognize one of these tropes: “If team X does Y, they will win the game on Sunday.” Or “Last week’s game turned on X play with three minutes to go; if Y had happened, we wouldn’t be talking about this right now.” Or “How does player Z compare to this list of the best players of all-time?”
In the sustainability world, these types of hypotheticals are often referred to as forecasting (“What will happen if we make this technology investment?”) backcasting (“If we want to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 30% by 2030, what do we need to do?”), or trend analysis (“What caused our efficiency to worsen over the last five years?”). They’re used every day in sports talk radio, because they create meaning from data that’s been collected, and typically use that information in some fashion to inform decisions or strategic thinking. These kinds of questions are just beginning to be discussed publicly in the sustainability world, through tools e.g. scenario analyses, but they need to become much more common-place in order to engage a broader audience.
Example: Listen to Mike & Mike conduct an “after-action review” on what decisions should have been made in the 2007 NBA draft, knowing what we know now.
3. Engage in Genuinely Thought-Provoking Debates
Debates fuel the addictive nature of sports talk radio. To be sure, many of the debates can be mind-numbing – who really cares if Gary Anderson is the third-best NFL kicker of all time? But more recently, sports talk shows have done a better job of engaging in genuine, thought-provoking debates that often touch on broader societal questions. Even stories that might initially provoke a simple gut reaction are broken down more thoughtfully to reflect systematic issues. Consider last year’s case involving video footage of football star Ray Rice striking his fiancée in a Las Vegas casino. The easy reaction for talk radio would be to simply denounce Rice for this abuse and talk about how awful his actions were. While that certainly featured prominently in the weeks following the video’s release, it also prompted a much more thorough and complex discussion of how broader systems affected the response to this incident. There was heated debate on complex issues such as how the National Football League should investigate and punish one of its employees while the judicial system pursued its own course; what role the league should play in advocating for societal change on gender issues, even if it doesn’t have specific expertise in that domain; and the balance between employer and employee rights in a situation in which a labour union and an employer already had a collective bargaining agreement in place.
In the sustainability world, so much of the debate still seems stuck on those relatively simple questions that are designed to elicit an easy answer: “Is climate change real?”; “Should we put a price on carbon?”; “Should we use more renewable sources of energy?”; or any number of relatively uncritical articles on “green success stories” from both corporations and non-governmental organizations that risk coming off as propaganda. While there are sizeable segments of society that continue to answer “no” to those questions, it’s time to move past these entry-level questions and delve into real debates that don’t have an easy answer. Questions such as “What are the relative merits of utility-scale solar projects vs. community co-op solar projects?”; “Is it more effective to price carbon through a common national policy or to let states/provinces develop their own plans for meeting a target?”; and “What kind of climate adaptation mechanisms will we need to invest in over the next 10 years?” might generate more thought-provoking and engaging debate, while also normalizing the viewpoint that something needs to be done about climate change.
Example: Listen to ESPN’s First Take panel debate the role of the NFL and its players’ union in dealing with Ray Rice and fellow running back Adrian Peterson, after well-publicized cases of abuse.
4. Mix “Insider” Knowledge with “Outsider” Perspectives
An increasingly common format for sports talk shows is to pair a journalist who has experience covering sports, but has never played them professionally, with a former athlete who has embarked on a second career as an analyst. Beyond the occasional “dumb jock vs. nerdy journalist” cliches, this format actually serves a very useful purpose. Whether the topic at hand is a particular tactic in a game, or a broader societal issue with a sport, the former player can offer an insider’s perspective on how the decision-makers within a sport see the question, while the journalist can stand in for the broader public in clarifying or challenging jargon or “insider” thinking that wouldn’t make sense to the rest of society. In recent years, ESPN has added Bill Polian, a former general manager from the NFL (the equivalent of a Chief Operating Officer), to their analyst roster in order to provide further insight into teams’ strategic decisions.
Sustainability discussions could benefit from the same dynamic. Oftentimes, these discussions are one-sided, in the sense that a journalist, academic, or other “outside” expert offers their take on what Company X or Y should do, or what policy a government should adopt; or a decision-maker defends his or her organization’s record on a particular sustainability issue. Imagine how much more depth of understanding could be gained if both perspectives were regularly included in the same discussion: the former “insider” could provide insight on other organizational factors that influenced a strategic decision on sustainability, and the “outsider” could challenge or translate that insight into useful knowledge for the broader audience.
Example: Listen to Bill Polian break down the process he used to make one of his team’s most important strategic decisions – which player to pick in the first round of the NFL draft.
5. Harvest the Convening Power of Group Identity
Ultimately, interest in sports is typically driven by an emotional investment in a team or player. I listen avidly to Mike & Mike’s NFL Preview shows each year to hear their predictions for how my favourite football team, the Indianapolis Colts, will fare. In many respects, my interest and loyalty to a professional sports franchise is illogical. I’ve never met any of the players, I don’t have financial investments in the organization, and I’m not a typical “stakeholder” in the way that the sustainability world defines the term (someone who is impacted by or has the potential to impact the organization). But I – and millions of other sports fans – are more than willing to closely follow the day-to-day activities of our favourite organization, endlessly analyze its performances, and generously offer our advice, free of charge, on how to improve it.
Most sustainability professionals can only dream of (or in some cases, dread) that kind of close attention for their activities. The conventional wisdom in the field is that it isn’t cool for the Millennial generation to feel invested in a for-profit company’s success. But again, almost all sports franchises are for-profit ventures that happen to make their money through entertainment. I think the magnetic power of sports teams comes from their ability to convene large groups of people and forge a common identity – both tangible (at a stadium on any particular gameday) and imagined (as part of the broader “X team nation”). Some corporations, such as Apple and Tesla, are starting to build a similar type of fandom based on the idea of convening people through a common identity. Perhaps if more companies and sustainability organizations provided “convening spaces” for their followers – e.g. open innovation forums where the general public can discuss and play a hand in solving key challenges – it would help focus more of our fractured societal attention on the key sustainability issues of our time.
Example: As a parting shot, listen to Mike Greenberg’s passionate analysis of his favourite football team, the New York Jets. Imagine how the world would change if individuals critically evaluated their favourite company’s annual general meeting with the same fervour: