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Neill Duffy: Sustainability to be a big part of Super Bowl 50's story

Sustainability advisor for the Super Bowl 50 Host Committee Neill Duffy says it positively will affect the Bay Area's 7 million residents.

This article originally appeared at Green Sports Blog.

While the sports world is hyper-focused on Sunday’s Super Bowl XLIX, GreenSportsBlog already is looking ahead to Super Bowl 50 next February at the fantastically green Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. This gives us a great excuse to interview Neill Duffy, co-chair of the Sustainability Sub Committee and sustainability advisor for the San Francisco Bay Area Super Bowl 50 Host Committee. Neill Duffy’s journey to the forefront of green sports is a fascinating one indeed.

GreenSportsBlog: Neill, before we get to Super Bowl 50, let’s start at the beginning: How did you get to work at the intersection of “sports, profit and purpose”?

Neill Duffy: Well, I’ve traveled quite a circuitous route. I grew up in Zimbabwe in a horse racing family and also played rugby, started calling races for TV and radio and hosted a TV show at very young age, so sport is definitely in my blood. I moved to Cape Town, South Africa, and continued on to pursue broadcasting while studying for a business degree. After a brief stint as a chartered accountant, I somehow had the idea in the early '90s that I should start a sports marketing agency.

GSB: Given the changes happening in South Africa at the time, with the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the looming end of apartheid, that must have been an incredible time to be in the sports marketing business.

Duffy: When we started, South Africa was still isolated from the rest of the world due to boycotts and sanctions. Given the isolation, the South African government had instituted a lucrative tax break for sponsors to provide funding required to attract foreign teams (soccer, rugby, cricket mainly) to the country. Brands took advantage of the tax breaks to create a robust sponsorship market but the motivation was mainly financial rather than marketing-based.

As the politics of the country began to change and South Africa started to be reintroduced into the international community, the tax breaks went away, many more teams came and, after a period of adjustment, motivations behind sponsorship changed. The timing was right for our new agency, the Competitive Link, as we were unique in South Africa since we represented brands from that marketing perspective — focusing on integration, accountability and ROI.

GSB: Timing is everything in life.

Duffy: Absolutely. And speaking of timing, in 1995, South Africa hosted — and won — the Rugby World Cup. If you saw the movie "Invictus"...

GSB: I did!

Duffy: Then you know the story. The Rugby World Cup truly was South Africa’s welcome back into the world community. It was through that event that I had my “aha!” moment and recognized the power of “sport for social impact." It became my view that, if done right, an integrated cause-related and sports program will increase the impact of a traditional sport-only program tenfold. Within two years of reintegration to the world, every sport sponsorship deal we did (Octagon had acquired us in 1998) had some kind of cause-related marketing or pro-social component.

GSB: Can you give an example?

Duffy: One of our clients was Old Mutual, a Financial Times Stock Exchange 100 Life Insurance company in South Africa. They sponsored the Two Oceans Marathon in Cape Town, the most beautiful marathon in the world (the course is hard by both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans). Well, two weeks before the marathon, a fire and subsequent landslide devastated part of the course (including Chapman’s Peak, a mountain on which much of the most scenic parts of the race is run). The marathon was postponed and there was a big price tag attached to rehabilitate the mountain.

GSB: So what did you do?

Duffy: We turned the sponsorship into a cause-related program: For every runner who wore green laces, Old Mutual made a donation. It was a stunning success. In fact, 70 percent of runners made donations as well and we raised close to $222,949 (adjusted for inflation), which was used to fund the environmental impact study that led to the mountain's restoration.

GSB: Well done. Did you see a move towards cause-related sponsorships beyond South Africa in the late 1990s-early 2000s?

Duffy: Yes, to an extent. But the adoption of cause-related sports sponsorships was not fast nor meaningful enough to suit me, and I started to question the traditional business model that corporations run on — you know, the short term, quarter-by-quarter thinking and management style, growth for growth’s sake, etc. This was and is not sustainable — not financially, socially or environmentally. I said to myself: “We need a new way to sustain ourselves,” in terms of how business is run.

GSB: I’m 100 percent with you. So what then?

Duffy: First, I left Octagon in 2007 and took a year's sabbatical. By 2008, I was ready to start something really different that merged sport, sponsorship and sustainability. I founded and became CEO and chairman of Tribe Management, a sustainability-focused advisory and marketing services, “social enterprise.” Our unique selling proposition was we understood how to help companies move beyond simple philanthropy and corporate social responsibility to embrace sustainability as a core business driver.

GSB: How did you see sports fitting in?

Duffy: The emotional, communicative and business building power of sport to deliver positive results for brands, sport properties, the communities with which they interact and, ultimately, the planet, was absolutely crucial to our model.

GSB: You’re singing my tune. Sports as a galvanizing force is powerful. So tell us about some of your projects at Tribe Management.

Duffy: We managed sustainability, CSR and marketing communications-related programs for a number of clients including the 2013 America’s Cup in San Francisco — my family and I moved there in 2011. An overarching sustainability plan was developed called “More Than A Sport,” with a focus on ocean health. That led to the Healthy Ocean Project, with a strong connection to the sports field of play. We were both zero-waste and carbon neutral, which we achieved with the help of our sustainability director, Jill Savery. The city loved it. It was more than a sport event — sustainability, both environmental and social, was at its core.

GSB: Did corporations see the America’s Cup’s sustainability business case?

Duffy: For certain. We were able to deliver new revenue to the America’s Cup that would never have happened without its commitment to sustainability — Lexus and its hybrid technology, Klean Kanteen and its responsible replacement of single-use plastic are two such examples.

GSB: Sounds like the America’s Cup was a great prelude to Super Bowl 50. When did you get involved?

Duffy: At the outset of the bidding process. We recognized early that since Super Bowl 50 is so big, we need to be so bold. What can we do that’s never been done before? And so Super Bowl 50 will be the most shared, most participated in, most giving Super Bowl ever.

GSB: What does that mean?

Duffy: A few things:

1. We’re making it a Bay Area-wide event. Our goal is to be relevant to all 7 million residents of the area.

2. Twenty-five percent of all sponsor dollars raised by the Host Committee are going to fund youth focused non-profits in the Bay Area through our 50 Fund.

3. We aim to set a new bar for sharing, through social media. Being in Silicon Valley helps.

GSB: And how will Super Bowl 50 be bold from a sustainability point of view?

Duffy: We’ve set ourselves the target of being a “net positive event” — which means we will actively look for ways to do good. Net positive will have four key pillars:

1. Climate change: We will focus on delivering a low-carbon event and maximize sustainable transportation and temporary power.

2. Responsible use of natural resources: Sustainable procurement across our supply chain with a focus on food, water and waste.

3. Inspire fans to embrace sustainability personally.

4. Sustainable legacy: This ties back to our 50 Fund and other signature sustainability projects that will leave the Bay Area in better shape than when Super Bowl 50 arrived.

GSB: You are setting a seriously sustainability high bar for future Super Bowls. That said, my biggest concern is that very few people beyond the Bay Area and at the lucky 75,000 at Levi’s Stadium will know about the greenness of Super Bowl 50. What is the Host Committee doing to ensure the message gets out to the biggest audience — the over 120 million people watching the CBS game broadcast?

Duffy: We see this as a real opportunity and plan to engage the NFL, CBS, local Bay Area broadcasters and our sponsors in an effort to integrate sustainability into the story leading up to and on Super Bowl Sunday. Storytelling will be crucial to our communications plan and we plan to share our sustainability story far and wide in a very visible way.

GSB: You’re on the right track, but what I’m getting at is this: Will CBS, during the pregame show, talk about sustainability? I want to see Jim Nantz say something like, “Friends, Super Bowl 50 is the greenest Super Bowl ever. Let’s go to Mary Carillo for this in-depth report.”

Duffy: We certainly want to tap into the huge emotional engagement power of the Super Bowl and tell our sustainability story and inspire as many fans as possible to embrace sustainability personally. To leave sustainability out would be to only tell part of the story.

GSB: I’ll take that as a yes.

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