Canada Scores for the Environment

How the cultural and market influence of sports can be leveraged to promote healthy, sustainable communities where we live and play.

Written by David McConnachie

Sid the Kid pots the ‘golden goal’ in Vancouver, 2010, and 20 million Canadians cheer. That television moment remains Canada’s most-watched event – and will likely remain so (unless the Leafs are playing a Game 7 in the Finals!).

Kawai Leonard’s shot bounces in for the soon-to-be NBA champions Toronto Raptors and nearly half[1] of all Canadians scream YES, WE ARE THE NORTH!

Sports is a cultural canvas that is packed with emotions, commitments, dedication and devotion. It can hold the power to universally connect us in ways that are almost impossible in our atomized world of me-first media. Replacing many of the traditional rites familiar to spiritual pursuits, we now worship at the altar of golden statues and silver chalices. Our lives, as fans, can be oriented around ‘our team’; we arrange our schedules to accommodate our fandom, build monuments in our “man caves”, and brand ourselves to prove our worthiness to the collective cause. Heck, a peramble through a cemetery may reveal an intriguing new reality: modern tombstones featuring the logo of the dearly-departed’s beloved sports team. And we’re not even talking about those individuals who are equally dedicated to the sport as athletes themselves, maybe just weekend warriors in the old-boys league or an up-and-coming young high school athlete working towards personal-bests and a potential US scholarship. Sports, for that particular audience, is even more powerful a tool for personal growth and development – and requires an even greater level of zeal to achieve breakthroughs.

At the most basic level, sports is a physical activity that gets us involved with others, which delivers both physical and mental health benefits to participants. For our children, sports becomes a place to hone both their physical and social skills, with most parents accepting that their little tyke probably isn’t destined for the ‘big leagues’ and, as such, allows the sporting experience to age more naturally. Tossing (or kicking) a ball around while having important conversations is a hallmark of many a Hallmark movie, as sports in this case provides the invitation to converse and the subtle distraction that allows the individuals to engage and interact, first with the ball and then with each other.

We could use more evocative conduits for important conversations around the climate emergency and steps that need to be taken RIGHT NOW!

There’s another important consideration for environmentalists seeking pathways for engagement with the average Canadian. Well, actually, there’s an 800 pound, Y-chromosomed gorilla to consider, too. As you can read in Sophia Sanniti’s piece, a key barrier to promoting lasting, positive change in the environmental sphere is entrenched patriarchy and its worst emanation: toxic masculinity. These barriers are extensive and pernicious, existing both ‘inside the green tent’ and well beyond. Of particular concern would be the ‘gender gap’ on climate change perceptions in Canada, with a recent UN survey outlining that Canada had the largest gap between men and women in their assessment of the importance of climate change. Canadian women and girls surveyed were 12 per cent more likely to rate it an emergency than men and boys. Globally, there wasn’t much difference. [2]

So how do you counter that entrenched reality? Well, sports might provide an entry point. From a 2021 survey of US sports fans, 43% of males identified as avid fans and 17% said they were not fans at all. At the same time, only 14% of females identified as avid fans and 35% said they were not fans.[3]

In terms of avidity, the passion that drives the most hard-core sports fans, males are more than 20% more likely to self-identify as ‘avid’ fans. Avidity is the force that gets men to paint their faces and pound their chests, to defend (to the death, if necessary) the abilities of their cherished heroes and to reminisce, ad nauseum, about high school athletic exploits. They’ll buy new cars based upon the chance to meet a legend at the dealership. They’ll signal their virtues on social media, infecting others with their avidity (or engendering an equally-emotional OH YEAH response from a rival team’s fan). And they’ll join with other male friends and colleagues to cheer, celebrate and commiserate together, building subtle but important relationships of the like-minded in the process.

As we environmentalists ponder the best ways to build pathways to talk to those we aren’t currently talking with – and to do so while working to foster progress in terms of positive societal change – we could do worse than pay more attention to the world of sports and sports fandom. Watching a Saturday night hockey game recently, I noticed that some of the typical automotive advertisers were featuring new commercials for their at-market electric vehicles or future-focussed roll-out plans. You may have seen similar ads playing during the sports world’s biggest event, the Super Bowl, with Will Ferrell humorously starting a feud with the country of Norway about EV usage. Monday morning quarterbacks and media pundits alike spent considerable time (and word counts) talking about the ads, which ‘main-streeted’ an environmental cause to a degree previously unheard of for a car commercial.

Sports holds the power to unite and foster connections between people. Sports holds the power to change cultures and advance causes. Sports holds the power to leverage mass media to evolve the narrative and bring it to every home in the country. Sports holds the power to use our collective emotions and energies to create legacy achievements. And sports holds the power to help with the healing and to initiate the ‘new rules’ to help us win the game of protecting the environment for generations of nature fans to come.