Hoffenheim call on clubs to adopt active social stance amid accusations industry is out of touch: "If football doesn't start taking the climate seriously it will lose its standing in society"
19 January 2021
Hoffenheim a few years ago set out to launch an environmental sustainability strategy which ended up becoming a modus operandi for the structure of the entire organisation.
Sustainability is not only about becoming climate neutral but securing the club's future through fiscal responsibility, innovation and personal development.
Now they are climate compensating away teams' travel emissions in addition to the entire Bundesliga club's output.
Corporate social responsibility chief Stefan Wagner says football must adopt an active social stance on climate and other issues or face becoming disillusioned from supporters.
When TSG Hoffenheim in 2018 set out to establish an environmental sustainability strategy the Bundesliga club were unbeknownst to the major organisational overhaul it would eventually become.
Initially the goal had been to simply organise and put down on paper a corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategy, but through discussions and reflection of the club's core values Hoffenheim learned they were, in fact, working on an approach for their entire setup.
"The more we worked on the sustainability strategy the more we realised we were creating a future strategy for the whole club whose DNA is built on innovation and responsibility," Hoffenheim's CSR chief Stefan Wagner tells offthepitch.com.
You can't depend on sporting success
An important step in that strategy was for the club to realise that Hoffenheim could never be what Bayern Munich are; that it is highly unlikely they will be able to attract the amount of support a club in Berlin or Frankfurt are.
"We early on realised that the framework of Hoffenheim isn't as strong as some other clubs, so we needed to think outside the box with a much deeper and broader approach looking at the whole organisation," Wagner says.
As with many other clubs competing below the elite, that meant employing a strategy where player development is front and centre. Mental development in particular became a key aspect of Hoffenheim's model – ensuring players grow not only as footballers but as players.
"We generally buy less finished players because then you are able to raise the overall value of the team from the beginning to the end of the season," Wagner says.
The strategy culminated in the 2019/20 season where Hoffenheim sold players for a combined €121.4 million, according to Transfermarkt, including the €44 million sale of Joelinton to Newcastle and €32 million sale of Kerem Demirbay to Bayer Leverkusen.
"If you bet on sporting success and lose, then you're in trouble because the cost of you team becomes much too high. Hoffenheim try to establish success in a sustainable way with a long-term view," Wagner says.
Securing the future
Upon assessment of some of Hoffenheim's key figures it is clear sustainability is an active guide star. The club in the 2017/18 season had an EBITDA of €45.1 million with a pre-tax profit of €29.4 million, and in the 2018/19 season had an EBITDA of €44.8 million and a pre-tax profit of €22.8 million.
Wagner says that mindset applies to all areas of the club owned by one of the richest persons in the world Dietmar Hopp, the German billionaire that co-founded software firm SAP, whose private foundation is one of the largest in Europe having provided funding of around €800 million as of 2019.
"These values are central to our approach and we've put this above all of the club's activities which now also includes initiatives such as climate neutrality."
The club have named the strategy "TSG is movement" to reflect that their DNA not only is linked to moving forward in sporting terms but also with regards to social responsibility.
One of the focal points of the initiative is Africa, where Hoffenheim are supporting the manufacturing of a textile brand called Umoja (Swahili, stands for unity) – devoid of any Hoffenheim branding - in Uganda in junction with the German Ministry for Development and Economic Cooperation.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for the sport to connect with society again, according to Wagner, because of the special status awarded to it in order to play on in times where most people have been urged to stay home.
"It's obvious that football is no longer accepted and viewed the same way as it used to be, in particular in discussions related to the coronavirus. Fans don't accept our privileged position as much as some time ago," he says.
How do you avoid being seen as simply pandering to a popular trend?
"If you mean it seriously and take responsibility people will recognise you for it. I usually say that if not a professional football club with such a huge impact for so many people who else?" Wagner says.
He emphasises the importance of staying true to your values even in the face of criticism which inevitably will arise.
"It's good to have this discussion, and the football business should remain committed to arguing its cause, but it's okay if people start to criticise you because it's a criticism on the society as a whole," Wagner says.
If there are emissions related to your business it is your business
In the past few years football has come under increased scrutiny by the wider society over rising transfer prices and player wages, putting clubs in a delicate position when it comes to connecting with supporters.
In addition, the coronavirus outbreak has highlighted the gap between the wealthy and poor, while breaches of health guidelines and travel recommendations have prompted accusations of the sport having become out of touch with the public.
The successful school meals campaign promoted by Manchester United's Marcus Rashford serves as example of how football taking an active social stance can promote change in society, and Wagner says this is crucial in terms of the climate crisis, highlighting one key issue to get off the mark.
"The first step is to recognise your own responsibility. There are still people in management who says, 'we are a football club so what do we have to do with the climate?', but if there are emissions related to your business it is your business," he says.
The most important thing is to take responsibility and accept the issue
"If football doesn't start taking the climate seriously it will lose its standing in society."
An example of what a club immediately could do is committing to climate compensation, with Hoffenheim offsetting the carbon footprint of the travel of every away team through this method. The price? Between €100 and €300 per match calculated through the average emission of a flight from Berlin to Frankfurt.
All in all, the club compensate ten tons CO2 for every away team and 3,000 tons for the climate neutrality of the club in total per year.
"In every organisation there are so many people who would know immediately what can be done to improve your carbon footprint. The most important thing is to take responsibility and accept the issue, and then you can work out a plan for how to improve."