Earlier this season, Tottenham Hotspur took on Chelsea in what was billed as the world’s first net-zero carbon football game. All emissions associated with the match were reduced as far as possible by, for example, using clean electricity and transportation methods. The remainder was ‘offset’ by planting trees to soak up an equivalent level of emissions.
At the time, I thought that this so-called ‘Game Zero’ was a bit of a marketing gimmick, but I also reasoned that if it got football fans thinking and talking about climate change then fair play. What I did find infuriating, though, was that nobody talked about the fact one of the teams involved – Chelsea – was bankrolled by a guy who made his billions selling oil and gas (among other things) in Russia. You can have commentators taking selfies as they cycle to the stadium and vegan pies and tree-planting all you like, but if the whole show is funded by high-emitting industries then you aren’t really addressing one of the most critical issues.
Since then, Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine has brought the issue of fossil fuel money in football into sharp focus. Within days of Russian forces launching their full-scale invasion in late February, UEFA ended their agreement with Russian energy giant Gazprom to sponsor the Champions League, and Schalke 04 expunged the Gazprom logo from their shirts and stadium. Chelsea’s financing arrangements may have escaped serious scrutiny when they were engaging in Game Zero while flying to away fixtures at Norwich. But the UK Government’s decision to sanction Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich on account of his proximity to Putin – effectively cutting off the club’s main revenue stream in the process – has thrown up serious questions about how reliant the team and football more widely is on oil and gas billons, and what happens when that funding is removed.
It is of course true that Russian atrocities in Ukraine, rather than climate change, are the main driver behind the decision to rip up sponsorship contracts with Gazprom and freeze Chelsea’s main income source. It is also true that Chelsea aren’t the only club being pumped with oil and gas money. When the Saudi Public Investment Fund purchased Newcastle United at the end of last year, people were rightly concerned about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and whether it was appropriate for their sovereign wealth fund to be able to invest in a football club. The parallels between the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Saudi-led attacks on Yemen are bringing these questions to a head again. But Saudi Arabia has also become very rich off the back of oil and gas, and has constantly sought to disrupt international climate change talks and delay action. Manchester City and Paris St Germain have been propelled from mid-table mediocrity into the global footballing elite by the sovereign wealth funds of oil- and gas-rich nations in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar respectively.
There is growing concern over this kind of ‘sportswashing’ – where big polluters and people with less-than-stellar reputations use sponsorship of sporting events as a way to improve their reputations. What I also wonder, though, is how dependent football is financially on activities and resources that aren’t compatible with the environmental challenges we are facing.
There’s a world of difference between how elite football is financed globally, and how Scottish football is funded. I don’t see any sovereign wealth funds from countries committing war crimes looking to buy in to the Scottish Championship. But if we look at the shirt sponsors of the clubs in the SPFL, six are backed by oil and gas-related companies, and another four by the wider energy sector. In the Highland League, nearly half the teams are sponsored by the oil and gas supply chain, maybe not surprising given how many Highland League clubs are based in the north-east around Aberdeen.
Most of these sponsors are good and trusted local employers who are doing their bit to support community clubs – but it does raise the question of who is going to fund football in the future as we renew and change our energy systems. Wick Academy, who are backed by the Beatrice Offshore Wind Farm, perhaps show us what the future of football sponsorship might look like in Scotland. On a global scale too, current world events have shown us that our lifestyles continue to rely on energy that is both harmful to the climate and increases our reliance on authoritarian regimes. Getting these sources of energy and the money tied up with them out of all aspects of our daily lives – including football – will put us in a stronger position to make a stand on the difficult social, political and environmental issues we are facing right now.