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Sustainability: German football's holistic approach to sustainability is allowing it to win on and off the pitch

Successes of German football are underpinned by a holistic approach to sustainability, which encompasses economics, the environment and social responsibility says Tom Walker

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management 22 feb 2016 issue 114
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VfL Wolfsburg eliminated Manchester United from the 2015-16 Champions League / shutterstock
VfL Wolfsburg eliminated Manchester United from the 2015-16 Champions League/ shutterstock

It’s a great time to be a German football fan. The national team swept all before it to win the 2014 World Cup and the country’s clubs have dominated European football in recent years. There’s also a seemingly endless supply of talented players emerging from German football academies, guaranteeing success for the years ahead.

What makes the German success story all the more impressive is that it’s underpinned by a dedication to economic sustainability. German clubs aren’t owned by glory-chasing millionaires who invest breathtaking amounts of money in players – and get clubs into debt in the process. Instead, 17 of the 18 clubs in the German top flight Bundesliga are owned by fans, entirely debt-free and operating at a profit. This is largely thanks to the fact that clubs spend just 39 per cent of their income on players’ wages.

Compare this to the English Premier League, where clubs spend more than 70 per cent of their revenues on players and all but three of the member clubs have accrued eye-watering levels of debt.

In Germany, affordable ticket prices are the norm, while in England fans organise regular protests at the high prices they are forced to pay to attend games.

It seems that German football is not only winning on the pitch, but that it also has its finances in order.

SOCIAL APPROACH
But it’s not just economic sustainability at which the German clubs excel. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) schemes and environmentally friendly operations are often at the heart of club operations. Whether it’s the capital city’s largest club, Hertha Berlin, playing in shirts made out of recycled plastic bottles, or its Rhineland-based rival Mainz 05 being declared the world’s first carbon neutral club, the teams take great pride in leading the way in sustainable innovation in all aspects of their work.

The best example of this all-embracing approach to sustainability is VfL Wolfsburg, the first ever football club to publish a Global Reporting Initiative (GRI)-certified sustainability report. The 72-page tome, entitled Gemeinsam Bewegen (Moving Together) and downloadable online, outlines a club-wide strategy based on a long-term commitment to both social responsibility and environmentally friendly practices.

Among the club’s successful initiatives is its involvement in the global physical activity initiative Muuvit – a campaign promoting playful learning, team spirit and the enjoyment of exercise. Through its Muuvit operations, Wolfsburg has reached out to more than 35,000 schoolchildren and the club has now expanded the exercise programme to encompass the whole of Germany.

“Sustainability has long been a central element in our DNA,” says Nico Briskorn, the club’s director of CSR. “The Moving Together initiative gives us a framework and is also a vehicle for making sustainability understandable in all of its dimensions, so there’s a higher level of awareness of our activities.

“We want Moving Together to set benchmarks off the field. Football shouldn’t be confined to merely 90 minutes on the pitch and in the future we want to include our fans and employees in things even more.

“Environmental issues, which we’ve been involved in for some time now, are increasingly in the spotlight, as awareness of issues such as climate change increases.”

GREEN GOALS
When it comes to the environment, German club FC Augsburg’s WWK Arena is heralded as one of the most sustainable in the world. The 31,000-capacity venue was the world’s first carbon-neutral football stadium and features a number of solutions which have brought down operational costs and curbed energy usage.

To heat and cool the building, the stadium uses only renewable energy and/or bioenergy from renewable raw materials. The club has also installed two groundwater heat pumps under the pitch, which have eliminated the need for oil when heating the pitch during cold winter months. All water in the stadium is also sourced from two purpose-built, sustainable wells outside the stadium.

In total, the venue’s green energy solutions – developed in cooperation with local suppliers Lechwerke AG – save more than 750 tons of CO2 a year.

Both VfL Wolfsburg’s and Augsburg’s pioneering sustainability work has been mirrored by success on the pitch. While Wolfsburg is a regular entrant in the prestigious UEFA Champions League, Augsburg’s qualification for this season’s UEFA Europa League was one of the stories of the 2014-15 Bundesliga season.

Augsburg’s first foray into European competition has gone well – the club entertained five-time European champions Liverpool FC last week (18 February). While there, Liverpool officials could have done worse than ask for some pointers about sustainability.

Tom Walker is managing editor of Sports Management

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