Football’s climate change threat: Flooded stadiums, too hot to train

“God blessed Fulham with great geography,” the Premier League club’s owner Shahid Khan said in 2021 as he discussed his vision for Craven Cottage’s new £80 million stand on the north bank of the River Thames.

Once it is finally completed next season, the Riverside Stand and its eye-catching Sky Deck will offer fans rooftop views of the London skyline and “experiential food and drink pop-ups.” Images of the lavish construction released by the club in March also depict a rooftop swimming pool. There is, though, one glaring issue with the development: the stadium is predicted to be underwater by 2050.

Fulham are by no means the only team predicted to suffer as sea levels rise in line with global temperatures because of climate change. Almost one in four stadiums in the top four divisions of English football will experience total or partial flooding within the next quarter of a century, according to the report “Playing Against the Clock: Global Sport, the Climate Emergency and the Case for Rapid Change,” published by the Rapid Transition Alliance in 2020.

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Premier League clubs, despite their riches, will not be exempt, with the likes of Chelsea and West Ham United likely to face annual flooding, as will U.S. sports teams including the Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Heat and New York Mets. The New York Giants and the New York Jets‘ MetLife Stadium is also predicted to be submerged every year.

It’s not just rising sea levels that pose a problem: heatwaves, drought, fires and air pollution are all set to disrupt a multitude of sports in the coming decades, from surfing in California to rugby in Samoa. Scotland’s Montrose golf course lost 23 feet to coastal erosion last year, while Donald Trump’s Doonbeg course in Ireland has attempted to build a seawall to hold back the rising tide.

“Nothing I’ve ever written has ever brought so much stuff to my door,” the report’s author, David Goldblatt, tells ESPN. The causes and effects of climate change can often be hard to grasp, but by applying real-world sporting examples, the leading academic and co-founder of the nonprofit environmental charity Football For Future forced people to sit up and take notice. Despite its considerable media traction, Goldblatt’s work has a complicated legacy.

“That document I would say has kind of set the agenda for a lot of folks, [but] in terms of official response; f— sake man, nothing,” he says. “Of course, football clubs, they never, ever, ever respond, certainly not proactively. I wrote to a couple of clubs, emailed local journalists; Scunthorpe, Grimsby, places that are really in a lot of trouble and… zilch, nothing, zero. And in fact, no club that I talk about in that document that is in trouble has ever responded. I have never seen a public response or a statement from them on the issue at all.”

The 2023-24 football season in the UK has already been hit by 10 named storms including Babet, which cancelled all but two matches in the Scottish Premier League and several more throughout the English football league between Oct. 18 and Oct. 21. At a global level, the World Meteorological Organization has confirmed that 2023 was the warmest year ever recorded. A warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture, leading to more intense and prolonged periods of rainfall, which, along with higher temperatures melting polar ice, causes sea levels to rise.

“At least a third of all clubs [in the UK] have got serious climate-related issues coming their way,” Goldblatt says. “Like Norwich: East Anglia is looking at a lot of drought over the next 30 years. I thought it was really interesting that a lot of clubs in the northwest of England near the coast are going to be facing some serious Atlantic storms, and we know that in 2022, ADO Den Haag’s stadium had the roof blown off by a storm and it wasn’t like it was a crap stadium, it was like a proper modern stadium and it had its roof blown off. Barrow, Fleetwood, Blackpool, Burnley, Preston, there’s a lot of Atlantic storms coming their way. I don’t see anybody responding in public. I don’t see anyone. It’s absolutely hopeless and gutless. It’s like, come on, what are you waiting for?

“I’m just beginning to hear in the lower levels of football more grumbling and more explicit connection being made between extreme weather events and all of the flooding that’s been going on in lower-league football and it’s creeping up the pyramid, basically. The bottom line is not very much [has changed.] That’s the response. So the response to ‘Playing Against the Clock’ on the one hand has been completely amazing and then completely meaningless as well.”

The popularity and international nature of modern football means it is a significant emitter of carbon dioxide — the greenhouse gas primarily responsible for global warming. A combination of private jet usage, stadium construction, fan travel and above all the carbon footprint of sportswear production contribute to Goldblatt’s estimation that football is responsible for nearly 1% of carbon emissions in the UK. That pales in comparison to some other industry sectors, but football is nevertheless capable of significant environmental harm.

“People often, with climate, think: energy production, agriculture, belching industrial chimneys, et cetera, not 22 people running around on a piece of grass,” Goldblatt says.

While on a broader level we are seeing the environmentally problematic expansion of World Cups and other tournaments, some organisations are leading the way with innovative schemes and policies. Tottenham Hotspur‘s stadium and training ground run on 100% renewable energy and the club is working to reduce single-use plastics in its operations. Manchester City have introduced free shirt return points for fans, using depolymerisation technology that allows kits featuring transfers and embroideries to be recycled. UEFA has recently launched a carbon footprint calculator that allows organisations to assess and understand their emissions.

“There are obviously enthusiasts within the industry,” Goldblatt says. “[Tottenham chairman] Daniel Levy takes this stuff pretty seriously. Tottenham’s commitment is quite serious; I mean we can make all sorts of criticisms, but no, there’s real executive energy and money and the same I would say is true of City and Liverpool, Southampton. It’s interesting. I wonder how things are faring outside the Premier League [for other clubs] as budgets squeeze, but there’s been some good stuff there.”

In recent years, several leagues, governing bodies and clubs have become signatories of the UN’s Sports for Climate Action Framework which commits them to halving emissions by 2030 and becoming net zero by 2040.

There are a growing number of players taking an active role in tackling climate change. Footballers, and athletes more generally, are increasingly prepared to use their platform to champion causes close to their hearts. Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford‘s successful campaign to pressure the UK government into continuing to provide free school meals to vulnerable children in 2020 was a particularly striking example.

“The players have an extraordinary opportunity,” Goldblatt argues. “I mean Rashford has sort of set the bar high and obviously that’s a very particular story where his own personal experience, his own lived experience, made him essentially invulnerable to the trolls and gave him the power to really cut through. There’s no one quite in that position in the climate debate. But again, I often think with these things that it’s no point waiting for a single messiah. This is a collective issue. It can’t be just down to a Marcus Rashford of climate.”

One individual attempting to play his part in contributing to football’s climate debate is David Wheeler. Appointed the first sustainability champion of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) in February 2023, the Wycombe Wanderers midfielder has campaigned for change in the sport during events at Oxford University and even the Glastonbury music festival. Wheeler, along with Football For Future and the PFA, has also organised workshops to educate fellow players about the effects of climate change.

“They were basically to get current professional footballers and ex-professional footballers and people that work within football together to have a crash course of what climate change is and how it affects football and how football affects it,” Wheeler says. “And so a few things in one go: it was kind of to increase that educational awareness but also to bring out people from the woodwork that maybe have been passionate about these issues for a while but haven’t had an outlet for it. And also, it’s hopefully offered a safe space for footballers to speak about it and their concerns.”

The vision of footballers meeting up to discuss societal issues flies in the face of traditional notions of what players get up to in their spare time. Are footballers really having conversations about climate change within changing rooms?

“Yeah, definitely,” Wheeler says. “Especially because of my role and how much I’m vocal about it. Obviously you can imagine I get a lot of banter about it, but I feel like it does nudge the dial a little bit and it brings it into the changing room. It brings it into conversations a lot more because of that.”

Wheeler’s work has resulted in Wycombe introducing electric car charging facilities at both their training ground and stadium, as well as striving to reduce energy consumption on matchdays. Despite his efforts, Wheeler, who has said that he would not play for a team that had a fossil fuel company as its shirt sponsor, is used to being labelled a hypocrite. The accusation is a common one aimed at athletes who have spoken out about a need to care for the environment because of their careers in the carbon-intensive sports industry.

“It is kind of impossible to rid yourself of some kind of hypocrisy in your life,” he says. “I think that’s probably the main point is that you wouldn’t necessarily want someone to be perfect because then they’d be unrelatable. And I think that’s the irony is that if someone was perfect, then that’s probably the argument that would be flipped to: ‘They’re unrelatable’ or ‘they’re a hippie’ or ‘they’re an extremist’ or something like that.”

England has just experienced its wettest 18 months since records began in 1836, with football matches outside the top two tiers experiencing regular postponements. It is an issue that is having an increasing effect for a number of teams.

“I think to be honest, in the five years I’ve been at Wycombe we’ve been at the same training ground and this year has probably been the worst-ever year for the state of the pitch,” Wheeler says. “It’s just been waterlogged for a large chunk of the season, and it’s never been perfect.

“You’re not getting sustained cold weather you used to get, it has been raining a hell of a lot this year and that’s obviously affected our ability to train on a regular basis, but also in the summer as well with the extreme heat, the sort of 40-plus degree heat, it’s just impossible really to train in. It’s just pretty unbearable just to be in.”

Despite what appears to be a fairly bleak outlook, football’s capacity to foster community, spark collective action and resonate with the wider public mean it is unique in its ability to drive social change and perhaps spearhead positive climate action.

“Football, for whatever reason, has always been popular, always symbolic,” Goldblatt says. “I now believe that football is the most important space for collective storytelling and collective imagining — it now exceeds the soaps by a very long way.

“So football is not only uniquely poised [to combat climate change] because of its position in popular culture generally, but it has a longstanding deep culture that predisposes it to being an effective advocate. I mean it remains one of the very few spaces in which people really believe that collective action works.

“Obviously climate change is a collective action issue, and people for all sorts of reasons — good, bad — that space has diminished and football people really believe that. And so I think that’s very powerful. I think football’s also a space of hope.”