Green sports or greenwashing? A lesson from the Koch brothers

Green sports or greenwashing? A lesson from the Koch brothers

University of Colorado Folsom Field
Should the University of Colorado still be working with Learfield Sports after its involvement with Koch Industry?

Back in January, GreenSportsBlog published a story about how new sponsorship revenue flowed from the greening of The University of Colorado athletics department. Buffalo Sports Properties, a division of Learfield Sports, provided much of the sales and marketing muscle behind those deals.

At the time, I wondered whether Learfield, one of the two main players in college sports marketing and sponsorship sales, was trying to establish a green niche as a key differentiator versus its main competitor, IMG College.

After last month’s announcement that Learfield is working with Koch Industries — the privately-held conglomerate that, among other things, has lavishly funded climate change denial — on a significant college sports marketing sponsorship, we have to say the answer to that question, at least as of now, is a no. But I believe Learfield can turn that no into a yes.

Of course, the greening of sports is not going to happen overnight. Sports teams and venues will legitimately green themselves on one hand, while, on the other, taking sponsorship dollars from companies involved in industries that are exacerbating our carbon emissions and climate change problems.

That said, we were saddened by last month’s announcement by Learfield Sports (again, the marketing and sponsorship sales arm for some of the most prominent university athletic departments in the U.S.) that it “has launched a multi-year, integrated national sponsorship platform for Koch Industries, Inc. as [the company] embarks on a broader initiative into collegiate sports marketing.”

This press release goes on to state that “Learfield Sports, which manages multimedia rights for nearly 100 collegiate properties, secured the broad-based sponsorship program for Koch with its 10 university partners involved — Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas State, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, SMU, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Wisconsin.”

While not a “greenwash” on the part of Learfield, since they are not the ones professing to be green, they are assisting Koch Industries and, it must be said, the universities', greenwashing.

Put another way, Learfield is playing both sides of the green marketing and sponsorship fence. That is troubling and, in my opinion, not a wise business decision.

The green side of sports

On one side of the fence, Learfield, through its Buffalo Sports Properties Division, has done a stellar job of bringing corporate sponsors with strong green and sustainability credentials like BASF and Boulder-based Eco Products into the University of Colorado football or basketball sponsorship fold.

Particularly impressive was that Buffalo Sports Properties didn’t merely sell the sponsorships; they schooled themselves on a variety of sustainability related topics, including how the athletic department facilities team manages recycling and composting.

Seen through the Colorado lens, one could imagine that Learfield “gets it” — with the “it” being that green is the way sports is inexorably going (i.e., the NHL’s Carbon Neutral Season, solar on the Philadelphia Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field, and many, many other examples). They realized that they could get more business from other universities looking to invest in sustainability by being the leader in green collegiate sports marketing.

The dark side of the fence


With the Koch Industries deal, however, Learfield planted itself on the complete opposite side of the fence.

In the Learfield press release and elsewhere, Koch Industries presents itself, as a company that has “earned more than 930 awards for safety, environmental excellence, community stewardship, innovation, and customer service.”

But if Koch really wants “Learfield to help tell its story to the dedicated college sports fan base and university communities,” as stated in the press release, shouldn’t Learfield tell the full Koch story?

That version of the story would have to include information like the fact that the Koch brothers, Charles and David Koch, have secretly funded groups denying climate change to the tune of $67 million since 1997. The company is the 3rd largest holder of Canadian tar sands oil leases, among the dirtiest oils on the planet. And Koch, through its Americans For Prosperity political action group, is also leading the fight against the expansion of the solar power industry in Florida.

How does Learfield Sports explain its seat on both sides of the green-sports fence?

I would love to get their take on this, so I emailed the following three questions to Learfield Sports’ Jennifer Dolan, author of the press release, and Roy Seinfeld, their executive vice president for national sales:

1. Did Learfield ever give a deal with Koch Industries’ a second thought, given the company’s environmental record?

2. Is Learfield concerned about the reaction from current university partners that are aggressively promoting their green athletics departments?

3. Is Learfield, along with the participating universities, concerned about student protests that could arise from this deal?

On the last question, Learfield, Koch and the university athletic departments it is sponsoring should look to the student- and faculty-led protests at Florida State University (“UnKoch My Campus”) in 2014 over donations from the Charles Koch Foundation as a harbinger of things to come.

True, the number of protesters at FSU was relatively small, but “UnKoch My Campus” had nothing to do with FSU sports. The protests were mainly about the potential for Koch Foundation donations to the university leading to undue influence in the economics department and in the hiring of a politician, supported by Koch contributions, as FSU President. 

Now Koch, with Learfield’s help, is going into the much higher profile world of big time college sports — a move which may have high rewards, and also big potential risks.

Moving forward

Though we haven't heard back from anyone at Learfield Sports yet but welcome their response, there are ways the marketing company can plant itself firmly on the green side of the fence:

First and foremost, make the Koch deal a one-off; do not renew it.

Once the Koch relationship ends, make a public statement that Learfield Sports is committed to being the green collegiate sports marketing firm, which means it will:

1. Never do another deal with a fossil fuel company

2. Green its own operations (energy-efficient offices, green energy purchases, etc.)

3. Build a green consulting arm that will help athletic departments green themselves and, of course, sell green sponsorships

You may say, “Learfield would have to give up serious coin to do this.” Perhaps.

But such a move would be akin to CVS’ decision to remove tobacco from its store shelves. Yes, they’ve cost themselves tobacco sales, but they made the calculation that those losses would be more than offset by increased brand loyalty from customers who share anti-tobacco values. Judging by its stock price performance since eschewing tobacco, CVS’s calculation is paying off.

While Learfield Sports’ financials are confidential (it’s a subsidiary of privately held Learfield Communications), such a move would open the door for new revenue from new, ever-greener university partners and sponsors.

This article originally appeared on GreenSportsBlog.