“Cricket is our religion, and Sachin is our god”.
Across the world, Indian fans in their thousands have been holding up that banner in the stands, proclaiming undying faith in both their chosen sport and its messiah – Sachin Tendulkar, the ‘little master’. It’s a sign of the revolution that has swept the sport in the last decade.
Powered by 20/20 and the vast might of the Indian TV networks, cricket, once the sleepy gentleman’s game apparently destined to fade into a post-Imperial sunset, is now a huge global industry.
But in one respect at least, it’s still stuck in the past. Because unlike many other industries of its size, it has paid scant attention to sustainability. Even football – in some clubs at least – has stolen a march. Chelsea Football Club has won plaudits for everything from recycling to green transport plans [see 'Chelsea FC: the green team?'], and Gary Neville is fast emerging as something of an unlikely eco-warrior. He’s proudly building an eco-home, and has teamed up with Ecotricity owner Dale Vince to launch Sustainability in Sport, focused on providing renewable power to clubs and grounds.
For the most part, though, cricket is just one of many of the world’s major sports which have left sustainability firmly on the subs’ bench. But now change is in the air, and it’s springing from an unlikely quarter – the Pavillion at Lord’s. The Marylebone Cricket Club, custodians of Lord’s and the closest thing English cricket has to a spiritual authority, has appointed a sustainability manager, Russell Seymour. He’s gradually persuading the MCC to undertake some basic steps such as introducing recycling and energy efficiency. He’s drawing up a green travel plan, and looking to learn lessons from other major events, such as music festivals. “A cricket match, like any major sporting occasion, is basically a huge exercise in event management”, he explains. Rugby’s Millennium Stadium in Cardiff has already recognised this by applying for certification under the British Standard for sustainable event management.
Now Seymour is pulling together colleagues from 11 other sports, including football, triathlon, rugby and horse racing, to share good practice with a view to setting up a ‘British Association for Sustainability in Sport’. This would be something of a world first, although honourable mention should also go to the US, where the Seattle-based Green Sports Alliance has signed up 40 different clubs across the country. The fledgling British Association has its first meeting at London’s Emirates Stadium – home of Arsenal – in late October.
One obvious focus is to look at sport’s sponsors. Many of the companies backing major teams and tournaments have well-developed sustainability policies and initiatives. But as yet few, if any, have made an effort to join these up with their sporting sponsorships.
Sport is arguably one of the few sectors where the social aspect of sustainability is more advanced than the environmental one. Many sports have outreach programmes aimed at getting kids from poor communities involved: the English Cricket Board’s ‘Chance to Shine’ initiative, for example, targets young people in the inner city, where schools deprived of playing fields had until recently more or less abandoned the game.
But as Seymour puts it, “the environmental nut is harder to crack”. It may be because the excitement – or even, let’s face it, machismo – of sport doesn’t always sit comfortably with the more caring, conservationist sides of environmentalism. It may be that for many people sport – whether playing or watching – represents an escape from the daily grind and all its worries. But these shouldn’t be serious obstacles. There is much in sustainability, after all, that is exciting – particularly when it comes to imagining a greener future.
One of the greatest spurs to pushing sustainability in sport is not the greening of a few stadia, but the huge potential influence which sports have over their fans. Millions of people at major matches each week constitute a pretty impressive captive audience for some subtle sustainability messaging – whether it’s around greener travel or recycling. And sporting heroes command a respect and attention which many politicians would kill for. Gary Neville may not be everyone’s favourite footballer, but he’s probably done more for sustainability among football fans than any amount of pious green messaging.
So maybe when the Little Master finally notches up that 100th tonne and walks off into the sunset, we might see a new banner waving from the stands at Eden Gardens: “Cricket is our religion – and sustainability’s our passion.” Well, maybe…