Now the season is done, Premier League emissions can really kick off

While pressure mounts on businesses and individuals to reduce their air miles, few are questioning whether it makes sense for two European football clubs to meet in Australia for a meaningless match. Something has to change. 

man playing soccer game on field

Manchester City have once again been crowned champions of England, the lower league playoffs are done, and the FA Cup final is this weekend. So it’s quite surprising football’s carbon footprint is about to increase exponentially. 

In the fallow weeks running up to the Premier League’s 2022-23 season, around 55 individual friendlies were played. The fundamental rationale being to keep teams match fit even though all competitions had completed. Less justifiable was the choice of host stadiums and cities.

Manchester United, for example, faced off against North West rivals Liverpool in Thailand, despite the teams being based around one hour by road from each other. Other clubs made similarly questionable choices — Arsenal versus Everton at Baltimore, USA, Aston Villa playing Leeds in Queensland, Australia, the list could go on. 

Receiving a ‘random WhatsApp message from my old head of analytics at a consultancy called Anthesis’, Stewart Pickering, a data visualisation and sustainability expert at infogr8, was asked to help turn an expansive spreadsheet charting the carbon emissions of these pre-season games into something more public relations-friendly. With around 19,846 tonnes of carbon dioxide released through the matches, he began working out how this compared to the regular Premier League season. 

‘We made some assumptions when we calculated the footprint for all of the normal regular season matches. For example, anybody traveling over 150km would probably do it by plane,’ says Pickering. ‘When you start comparing the two data sets, you see that one match for the overseas friendlies is literally more than the entire Premier League season. And then some of them will be like three or four seasons worth.’ 

While media attention on sports travel and sustainability has been increasing — Nottingham Forest flying to Blackpool for an FA Cup game, Real Madrid’s 20minute flight to Rayo Vallecano — most of this has been focused on competitive domestic fixtures. For Pickering, this is missing the point, and overlooking the most indefensible part of a team’s footprint. ‘The BBC did a little piece that got some attention, talking about these domestic flights. But, actually, overseas flights make the domestic season issue look tiny.

soccer sports game during daytime

‘There was a video on TikTok, and a few comments below from fans were saying stuff like: ‘Well, the thing is, we play on the Wednesday and the Sunday, so why would we travel by coach or train and jeopardise the players recovery for the next match?’ Whether you agree with the flights or not, there’s a sporting reason to take some of them… the flight takes half an hour, the train four. What do you think we’re going to do?,’ says Pickering. ‘But the overseas friendlies, the emissions are so much higher. And the sport justification doesn’t really exist… I grew up in Peterborough. And every year we’d have Premier League clubs there for preseason games — Man United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham.’

Suffice to say, finances likely play a huge part in the rationale behind two teams from the same region, or city, boarding a 12 hour flight to play each other. The Premier League is a marketing machine rallying fans in almost every corner of the globe. But data is lacking on the actual value of internationally staged pre-season friendlies. Not least in terms of how this compares with famously lucrative, multi-billion pound global television deals. Similarly, the lack of information about the league’s own policies on things like net zero is concerning. 

‘If you go to the Premier League website and search for sustainability, you find nothing. Just some articles that were sporadically posted, but that’s it,’ says Pickering, who looked for an official sustainability policy as part of this research.

By comparison, individual clubs — including Manchester United and Liverpool — have published strategies. Sadly, though, content is lacking. 

‘[The clubs] talk about all the stuff they’re doing. How they made x per cent reduction in this, that and the other, but don’t actually disclose their footprint,’ he explains. ‘So these preseason friendly emissions, for example, we have no idea what proportion of the overall emissions they make up. This could be a drop in the ocean compared to the overall emissions, but we don’t have a clue. Arsenal were approached by the BBC about domestic flights, and said the domestic travel accounts for 0.05% of team emissions. It’s meaningless. How do we verify what you said is true? If you’re going to demonstrate you’re taking something seriously, at least show you’re measuring it.’ 

‘I think they should communicate what their actual footprint is, if the Premier League were to do something, beyond just words, then we’d be able to understand what all the club’s net zero targets look like. So Liverpool mention something about 90% of match day waste is recycled and that makes a big impact. But does it? What’s the impact? It’s not a bad thing to do, but is that the number one thing you want to be talking about in your sustainability strategy?’  Pickering adds. ‘Even just changing the way you use energy makes a massive difference. But I guess in terms of the friendlies, in an ideal world don’t do them. But that’s not going to happen. So at least reduce the number, and don’t play each other abroad.’ 

For the time being, it’s unlikely we’ll see much movement on this, with a host of preseason fixtures set to cost the Earth this summer, or thereabouts. Like London neighbours West Ham and Tottenham meeting in Perth, Australia.

Of course, not all teams are equal. Last year Brighton & Hove Albion played all games on UK spoil, meaning a far smaller footprint compared with the worst performers — Leeds, Aston Villa, Manchester United and Crystal Palace, who averaged 2,499 tonnes of CO2. As the world stares down the barrel of another summer expected to produce yet more record temperatures, and the remaining carbon budget grows slimmer by the day, surely it’s time to urgently rethink priorities rather than squander our remaining opportunities to stem the tide of climate change. 

More features: 

EU Sustainability Directive: What UK and global businesses need to know

Can the personal care industry clean up and take climate action

Images: Emilio Garcia (Top) / Nathan Rogers (Middle)


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