Getting your sponsorship to net zero


So, just to dispense with the pun, this isn’t about netting zero revenue. Net zero for sponsorship is a fairly simple ambition to describe for rightsholders: no sponsors who are major polluters, zero pollution through activation and ideally, positive environmental impact.

This post is a simple kickstart to planning to minimise the carbon impact of your sponsorships (and maximising the positive impact while you’re at it). Probably not something on the immediate to-do list, but maybe it should creep in at the bottom…?

Beyond the environmental reasons, it’s important to ensure you’re ready for the growing scrutiny of sponsors on the ESG performance of their suppliers. For all the criticisms of ESG and its definition, it’s not going away – and we could very rapidly be in a position in which the presence of polluter sponsors has a negative impact on your sponsor portfolio.

Rights-holders are of course faced with the same tension as regular business : how to drive change without jeopardising the core business. And ideally improving revenue. It’s a tension which every CEO and senior management team will approach differently.

Some CEOs, such as Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard, lead from a moral compass. Most are led by the inevitable comprises of management structure, and very few CEOs will be in a position to take an avoidable hit to revenue for the sake of principle, so this article makes the sort of practical suggestions you could take to Daniel Levy without being chewed out.

The journey

It’s not easy – and often unwise – to be radical, so the best advice is to take the same incremental approach as a sustainability strategy. Just start the journey – a journey of gradual improvement. It begins with benchmarking, understanding where you are. Followed by creating your framework for action. And then the meaty part, planning for change.

So what does this look like for sponsorship?

1 Benchmark

Benchmarking applies to a number of areas. It’s fundamental because, as with anything, it allows you to target and measure progress.

Get sponsorship revenue in perspective

The starting point is to look at sponsorship revenues as a % of the total, to establish an accurate  financial context. For many larger rightsholders, sponsorship takes a back seat to media revenues and ticketing.

It’s a mixed blessing but sponsorship often has disproportionate significance, financial and emotional. It can represent high profitability, it can represent incremental revenue; but it can also represent corporate pride (Wonga v SAP as sponsor anyone?), or brand strength – but it needs to be presented as a % to define a sense of tolerance for variation. Obviously, the higher the %, the less scope for action.      

Identify harmful sponsorship categories

Then look at industry categories. It’s still difficult to truly understand the carbon impact of many businesses and very few of us are confident to make an independent judgement. Even Patagonia, an exemplar in many senses, is firmly part of the retail model which produces huge waste. Sadly, company’s own websites often don’t make that any easier. After all, greenwashing begins at home. 

So look at categories. There’s broad agreement about the industries contributing most to global warming – look here, here and here for starters.

This will give you an idea of ranking of industry sectors and allow you to create your own priority list of categories to avoid. This can be revised and form the basis of a net zero sponsorship policy. We’ll come back to that.  

Look at your exposure in terms of these categories as sponsors, and what percentage of your sponsorship and overall revenue they represent.   

Examine your sponsor activations

Finally, look at your sponsor activations over the last 12 months and try to get a feel for their impact. Maybe a quiet, informal audit with simple headings and evaluation scale: amount of expendables, environmental impact, status of product category, along with DEI impact.

We’re not suggesting turning this into a comprehensive audit – because you have other priorities and because the idea at this stage is simply to generate a rough idea. But the exercise will give you a POV on where your sponsors’ activations sit on an environmental impact scale and bring awareness to scope for improvement.


Take a look also around your sector, at comparable rights-holders and the incidence of sponsors from those categories, to see how you rank.

Claire Poole at Sport Positive has done a marvellous job of creating a ranking for leagues, including EPL and DBL to allow clubs to compare their own sustainability behaviours. For internal consumption, you could do something similar to see how you measure up against your competitive set.

Again, this isn’t about over-engineering, we’re simply framing the challenge.

So at the end of this exercise, you should have a good sense of:

  • dependence on sponsorship in terms of gross revenue and revenue at risk
  • your exposure to harmful categories as well as your exposure relative to comparable rightsholders
  • the impact, positive and negative of your sponsor activations

2 Create your framework

The idea of a framework is that it gives you a structure for progress. It allows you to identify your priorities for change and create workstreams or policies or procedures, in this case to minimise environmental impact and protect / enhance your brand.

From an environmental perspective, the framework will inevitably be based around sponsor category and activation. But all of this post can also be applied to social impact OR assessed against DEI criteria.

Look at the ranking you’ve made of harmful categories and identify any of your sponsors in categories which you know to be of high environmental impact.

Even better, cluster all your sponsors into groups and assign actions against each group : categories you’ll move away from or refuse, categories you will mitigate by working to minimise negative impact and association, categories you will encourage. And create the necessary workstreams or policies or procedures.

The idea is not to become a paragon of virtue overnight, but instead shore up and support the positives and work to minimise and mitigate the negatives.

This framework also serves as a useful reporting document.

3 Plan for change

This is the most complicated part – simply because operationalising policy, or change, is always complicated. Planning for change rests on your framework – policies and procedures.

The largest accelerator for your sponsorship journey to net zero is to minimise your reliance on high impact sponsors. So if you already have a sponsor in any category, the internal discussion is about what happens come renewal and there are a number of different ways to approach this.

  • Use your revenue analysis to contextualise the revenue loss, bite the bullet to not renew and move to redress the lost revenue. A tough decision, especially at the moment.
  • Try to position the sponsorship against your sponsor’s most sustainable products – not to encourage greenwashing but to work with the positives, for you and them. And, with the same rationale, open up discussion about how you can address your own corporate brand challenges. From this perspective, research to understand your fans’ interest in sustainability is invaluable as it removes perceived judgement statements from the discussion, allowing you to be representing your fans’ interests.
  • Ask other sponsors for help to offset lost income. Might sound strange and requires sensitive management, but opens up a useful conversation about values which, if you haven’t had already, you probably should.

Working with sponsors on their activations and the environmental commitment of their sponsorship is a large – and likely long conversation but one that needs to happen. The impetus might well come from them.

Otherwise, there are three main parts to any sponsorship value proposition : visibility and reach; any ancillary commercial, political or media differentiators that can be drafted in; and brand. The first and second are stock in trade. The brand question, if approached earnestly, has major implications, way beyond the scope of this article. And these days, positive ESG performance and sustainability credentials are  fast becoming a major driver  of brand . 

For most rightsholders, getting sponsorship to net zero won’t even be on the agenda – but it should be.