Climate Protection Does Not Equal Image Increase

My name is Max Beer, and I have written my master's thesis on the ecological sustainability in the Bundesliga. In the context of blog posts, I would like to present key findings of this work. While the investigation and results primarily focus on professional football clubs, they can also be applied to a large extent to professional sports clubs.

The provocative title is not clickbaiting but merely the result of a survey among 329 football fans*. The study aimed to examine the extent to which the expanded communication of climate protection measures by football clubs RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke 04, and Mainz 05 affects the respective club's image. The hypothesis that increased communication of ecologically sustainable activities simultaneously leads to an increase in club image was only partially confirmed. Only for Mainz 05 could a statistically significant increase in club image be observed; the other three clubs lost image values by expanding communicative activities in the area of climate protection. However, a negative effect on the club image should not be interpreted as a recommendation to reduce ecologically sustainable activities. Clubs only need to manage the communication of their activities effectively and efficiently. The following article clarifies how the results should be interpreted and what clubs need to focus on in the future.

The study was designed so that for the clubs RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund, Schalke 04, and Mainz 05, two online questionnaires were developed each. Each fan could only access one questionnaire, making both questionnaires independent of each other. In the first questionnaire, the current club image was measured by having fans answer various questions** about their respective favorite clubs on a scale of 1 to 5. In the second questionnaire, a comprehensive environmental commitment by the club was presented, after which the other set of fans had to answer the same questions regarding their favorite club. The scale of 1 to 5 allowed scores to be determined for the respective questionnaires, with one quantifying the current club image and the other the club image based on increased communicated engagement in climate protection.

The study compared the two questionnaires and examined whether the means of the club images in both questionnaires differed significantly. It is evident that a strategic and fully communicated alignment of clubs toward environmental engagement has different effects. Schalke 04, RB Leipzig, and Borussia Dortmund show negative effects, while 1. FSV Mainz 05, on the other hand, recorded a positive effect on the club image.

Thus, the hypothesis cannot be confirmed that fully communicated environmental protection always has positive effects on the club image. However, recommendations can be developed to favor exactly that. The climate crisis requires especially large organizations in the field of climate protection to get involved, so the results should not be a call to reduce activities. On the contrary, there must be a call to fully implement climate protection in the clubs. Seriously conducted climate protection must be considered obligatory due to the urgency of the climate crisis, and only afterward should the examination be made of how activities are communicated and whether they pursue further strategic goals.

In football, clubs must consider how they communicate climate protection to their target audiences. The largest target audience and therefore crucial for shaping the club image are the fans. Football fans, however, not only represent the largest but also a unique target group, primarily considering whether an activity fits their club [1]. Only then do they consider what impact this activity could have on society. Since football clubs have different identities, football fans will also react differently to activities related to climate protection. Therefore, as a recommendation for clubs, it is advised to assess the alignment of club identity with environmental engagement. For example, so-called "working-class" clubs from the Ruhr area may have less alignment of brand identity with climate protection measures than, perhaps, clubs considered dynamic and innovative.

This difference was statistically identified in the study. In the online questionnaire, fans of the four clubs were also asked on a scale of 1 to 5 about the extent to which the club identity of their team aligns with environmental engagement. Mainz 05 had the highest alignment here with a score of 4.25, and Mainz 05 is also the only club in the study that achieved a positive effect on the club image. Thus, it can be assumed that if there is a high alignment of communicated environmental engagement with the club's own identity, the increase in image among fans is the result.

Clubs that do not expect to gain image by ecological sustainability (e.g., because the club identity does not align with holistic environmental engagement or they do not consider engagement as strategically relevant) are recommended to publish an annual report on the website. This channel serves to communicate information to interested stakeholders, but the low frequency among fans does not create the perception of being a "green club" in the Bundesliga. The focus can also be on highlighting cost advantages. LED lights and a photovoltaic system could be communicated and justified primarily with lower energy costs rather than with climate-friendliness. However, for a club that aims to enhance its club image through ecological sustainability, additional communication channels are recommended. By increasing the frequency of communication of sustainable content through various channels, fan perception is heightened, resulting in a greater positive effect on the image. For this purpose, ecologically sustainable measures must be communicated at regular intervals through different channels.

*A fan of the clubs Schalke 04, RB Leipzig, Borussia Dortmund, and Mainz 05 were surveyed between December 10, 2020, and February 28, 2021.

[1] Prüß, C. (2019). Corporate Social Responsibility in FC St. Pauli von 1910 e. V. In M. Werheid & M. Mühlen (Eds.), CSR und Fußball: Nachhaltiges Management als Wettbewerbsvorteil – Perspektiven, Potenziale und Herausforderungen (pp. 179–186). Berlin: Gabler Verlag. P. 182