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European football is set to expand, but at what cost?

Sustainability analyst Rebecca Ward looks at why the beautiful game is a real-life example of “nested materiality”.

Players on a dark football pitch, lit by floodlights in the centre

You join me on the train from Kings Cross up to Leeds. Around my neck, I have a white scarf with blue and yellow stripes. It might not be the height of fashion, but it’ll be a popular choice at my end destination – Elland Road, home of Leeds United. We’ve experienced a dip in performance of late, but for fans of many English clubs, European football is a highlight of the season. And luckily for them – and maybe for me (in my lifetime?!) – next season will see an expansion to men’s European club football, with a whopping 177 additional fixtures added to the calendar. More opportunities to watch the beautiful game! It can only be good news, right?


Oh contraire. BBC Sport research has found that the additional travel – by players, supporting staff, and fans – as a result of this expansion could lead to total travel distance equivalent to more than 4,000 journeys to the Moon and back. Now I love football, but probably only to the moon and back once. This travel will release almost half a million tonnes of greenhouse gases. The impact of football’s expansion will extend beyond travel emissions, with new kit for every match and significant energy requirements to power stadiums during matches to name just a few. It is now estimated that the global football industry contributes more than 30 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year, the same as the total emissions of Denmark. The short story is football is a major – and growing – contributor to climate change. 


And yet, the beautiful game is in serious danger of falling victim to the climate crisis that it is proliferating. Pitches are flooding and players are being subject to life-threateningly extreme heat. At first perhaps impacting the wider value creation of football such as performance of players and enjoyment of fans, as these impacts become more regular, the financial impact is likely to become more quantifiable. In the case of some clubs, this financial impact is already a reality. In the European floods of 2021, German grassroots sports suffered more than €100m worth of damage. 


This is a real-life example of what we call “nested materiality” playing out in real time.


What is nested materiality? 


When we help organisations to develop their sustainability strategy, we do so by conducting a materiality assessment to determine the most material outward, inward, and financial impacts an organisation has (we define and assess outward impacts – the impact of the organisation on the environment and society; inward impacts – the impact of the environment and society on the organisations wider value creation; and financial impacts – the impact of the environment and society on their financial position). These three dimensions make up the concept of nested materiality. In the theory, impacts can shift and change over time, taking on new dimensions. Impacts often start as an outward impact, and ultimately impact an organisations financial position. 


Nested materiality isn’t just corporate jargon to be kept within the confines of corporate reporting. Football is just the latest in a long line of organisations beginning to feel the consequences of the crisis it has helped to proliferate. It is vital that organisations consider their outward impacts (not only to the climate, but also other relevant environment and social topics) and the subsequent inward and financial impacts they will experience. Materiality assessments are crucial to building this understanding, providing the basis for sustainability strategies that not only target the most prominent impacts an organisation has, but that champions business resilience in the evolving global landscape.


The expansion of European football will no doubt increase income for the sport. For fans, there will be more games, more thrills, and more spills. But at what cost?