Premier League: Should clubs stop flying to domestic matches for environmental reasons?

Manchester United were criticised last month for flying less than 100 miles from Manchester to Leicester.
Clubs in England have flown to Premier League matches for years.

This is the most convenient and fastest option, and allows players and staff to prepare for their games.

Is it not time to end this practice, as world leaders gather at COP26 to try to prevent the devastating effects of climate change?

Manchester United caused controversy in October when they flew from Manchester to Leicester. The journey was approximately 100 miles and took around 10 minutes.

Red Devils had been travelling the day prior to their game. They stated that they wouldn't normally fly but cited "circumstances". There were reports at the time of congestion on M6.

Dale Vince, Forest Green Rovers owner, said to the BBC that his League Two outfit, which are considered the greenest in the globe, made the decision to fly to Leicester for the Premier League.

The Old Trafford Club is not the only one who travels this way.

Kalvin Phillips posted an Instagram photo last month showing Leeds United flying to Norwich City. The flight took 17 minutes. The match was designated by the home team as an opportunity to "champion sustainability practices". External-link with the Canaries, Phillips encouraged supporters to make small changes in their matchday ritual to help them become more sustainable.

BBC Sport was told by a majority of clubs that they travel by air to Carrow Road games. This is a common method Arsenal uses to travel to East Anglia, even though it was heavily criticised for doing so in 2015.

Greenpeace had criticised Tottenham for taking a 20-minute flight from London to Bournemouth a month prior. External-link

Ajax, on the other hand, chose to travel by train from the Netherlands to France in 2019 for a Champions League match against Lille. Edwin van der Sar, the club's chief executive, explained that Ajax lives in a climate-conscious era and wanted to be a positive example.

Vince stated, "From my point of view it's about having an integrated football club." "Forest Green values both the environment and football equally, so it wouldn't be possible for Manchester United to make a decision at our club.

"At other clubs, you have environment programs that are bolt-on programs and so the football side simply says it's easier to fly, so that conversation does not happen. This means that the clubs' environment is not properly integrated.

Manchester United talks a good game about the environment, and they have done some things. But in one act they destroyed the entire thing. It is not enough to just say one thing but do another.

Why is it such a problem for domestic flights?

From burning fuel, flights produce greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide (CO2) from the combustion of fuel. They contribute to global warming.

According to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, emissions per kilometre traveled are significantly higher than other forms of transport. Short-haul flights are the worst emitters.

France's lawmakers voted for a bill banning domestic flights shorter than two hours in April. This would allow routes that can be done by train in less than two hours to be removed if it is approved in a second vote. Spain has been considering similar moves. External-link

Campaign for Better Transport demanded that the UK ban domestic flights externally-link last month if it could be accomplished by train in under five hours.

This season, the distance between Premier League clubs is 348 miles.

A standard Friday is the day before teams play. 12 of the 14 trains that depart Newcastle before 16:00 GMT take less than five hours to reach Brighton.

Most away games have significantly shorter journey times. Manchester United's coach ride to Leicester from Old Trafford takes approximately two-and-a half hours. The train journey between the cities takes about the same time.

Professor of Engineering and the Environment at Cambridge University Julian Allwood told BBC Sport that cutting avoidable flying such as those taken by Premier League clubs was an "obvious beginning point" for the larger challenge of reducing the dependence on fossil fuels.

Professor Allwood stated that there has been a two-generation period in which flights were cheap and readily available. This has changed our expectations about how far and fast we can travel. "But if climate change is not addressed, we will see mass starvation in the countries at the equator in a generation. Sport won't be on our minds.

"None wants to be part in bringing that about. To me, a little slower travel and a reduction in distances seems like a great substitute.

"The government has committed us to zero emission by 2050. This includes a 78% reduction in emissions from 1990 levels by 2030. This will have little effect on the majority of our activities, including sport.

"However we must in the next 28 year reduce our use fossil-aeroplanes in accordance with the government's promises. This will eventually affect all international competitions. However, in the short-term, reducing flights where there is a road or rail alternative is a good starting point.

Clubs fly to games, so why not?

Chartering a plane is five times more expensive than hiring a train carriage, and much more expensive than traveling by coach.

These journeys can be made either by rail or road. For example, Manchester United usually travels to London by train.

However, convenience is important as well as the pursuit of elite athletes' best sporting conditions.

A shorter coach journey can be more beneficial for a player's health than a long plane trip. Late kick-offs could mean that the train is not an option. Longer journeys might also lead to a delay in recovery and training.

Patrick Bamford, a Leeds and England striker, is involved in a sustainable sportswear business. He uses his platform to raise awareness about environmental issues.

He admitted to being conflicted about flying for domestic games, such as the Norwich trip in October.

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He told BBC Sport that it was a difficult decision because he is a footballer. "Ideally, the things that we do should be beneficial for the planet and good for our work. Although I feel sorry, I also know that it would not make sense to travel on the day the game is being played.

"There won't be many clubs that put themselves in a competitive disadvantage. Leeds is known for its willingness to fly as little as possible. We always take the train to London. Only fly if there is no other option, or if it's really far away like Southampton.

Matt Konopinski, director of physiotherapy and performance at Rehab 4 Performance, is a former head physiotherapy at Rangers and Liverpool. He has seen instances in which teams flew for 30 minutes to cut down on coach travel time.

How much difference does this make to players, if any?

Konopinski stated that flying on a plane has both medical and health benefits.

"Top teams will prioritize speed over all other factors, but flying is not always good."

Yes, players will be better if they arrive within the shortest time possible. We're only talking about one stage in preparation. It is also important to consider when people eat, train and sleep.

"Hamstring problems are a common problem with flying. This is one of the many problems that physios believe could be a factor. Another problem is when the player has already got swelling in their knees. This can make it worse. This can happen on both shorter and longer flights.

Konopinski says that coaches may seem less luxurious than other forms of travel, but there are positives and negatives.

He said, "On a coach it's door to door so there are no additional transfers." You can have your own chef aboard, which can prove to be very beneficial.

"But long journeys can lead to lower back problems as it is harder to get up and move around."

If he was at an elite club, and knew what we know about the environmental impacts of flying, would it make him happy if his team stopped flying to domestic matches?

He stated, "I would like to examine the medical evidence and there likely isn't any strong evidence either way."

"Can you fly a distance that is not acceptable?" It's because there's often not a large difference in time from one door to another and the environmental factor can make a significant difference.

"Football must get its act together"

The Premier League joined the United Nations Sports for Climate Action Framework last week. This agreement asks clubs and organisations to take action to limit the effects of climate change.

Premier League pledges to reduce half of its emissions by 2030, and reach net-zero emissions in 2040. This is in accordance with 1.5oC global warming limit set by world leaders in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The Premier League released a statement saying: "The league will continue to work with clubs to reduce their environmental impact and will encourage fans to support this action, inspiring lasting behavioural change."

It could also ban clubs from flying for Premier League games.

This is not an option as clubs are responsible for their travel arrangements and the league does not have any jurisdiction.

It has previously issued travel advice. After a 100-day suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic in June 2020, top-flight football was allowed to resume in June 2020. The Premier League encouraged clubs to fly to matches to aid with social distancing and health concerns. Some even chartered multiple planes. External-link

Sir Patrick Vallance, UK's chief scientist officer, told BBC on Tuesday that external-link climate change presented a greater challenge than the pandemic. He also said that behavioral change was necessary. External-link

This change is being made in football. The United Nations Sports for Climate Action Framework has four top-flight clubs, Arsenal, Liverpool, Tottenham, and Southampton. However, none of these clubs have signed up for the next level. This agreement requires organizations to reduce carbon emissions by half by 2030, become net zero by 2040, and to report publicly every year on progress toward these goals.

Recent matches between Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur were held on bio-fuel-powered coaches. This was part of an effort by Sky Sports to host a match with zero emissions.

Forest Green's Vince said, "Our experience tells me football is the greatest platform."

"Over the last 12 months, our media reach was huge with five billion impressions. We also have fan clubs in 20 countries around the globe because of the values we stand for.

"There is a strong desire among environmentalists and sport enthusiasts to see this type of club rise up and be a force for good."

"Football must get on with its business and has the ability to influence people.

"Are the Premier League clubs doing enough, given the amount of money they have? No. No. They have the greatest platform and influence potential."