English football serves up a Christmas cracker – but at what cost to the environment?

With a Premier League match on Christmas Eve – the first in 28 years – English football’s crowded festive fixture list is causing controversy once again. And as teams fly between matches and supporters travel in record numbers, the game’s environmental damage is coming under fresh scrutiny.
December 22, 2023

When Wolverhampton Wanderers take on Chelsea at Molineux this Sunday, it will be the first Premier League match to be played on Christmas Eve since 1995.1

The decision to move the game so it can be broadcast live on Sky has drawn heavy criticism from across the game. Despite pleas from supporters to reschedule the match so they can avoid travelling the day before Christmas the game will go ahead as planned.2

While seen as just the latest sign that the wishes of loyal fans, as well as players, continue to be outweighed by the whims of broadcasters and administrators, the scheduling of the match also raises fresh questions about England’s crowded fixture list, and its impact on the environment.

With games also played on Boxing Day, New Year’s Day and indeed every other day in the festive period apart from Christmas Day itself, English football has an intense run of matches at a time when in most other European countries there is a break of at least two weeks.3

Many of the Premier League teams will almost certainly be flying between games – back in March research by the BBC found evidence of 81 individual short-haul domestic flights made by English top-flight teams to and from 100 matches during a two-month sample period this year.4 According to the study, the shortest flight was just 27 minutes, with the longest 77 minutes.

In February, Liverpool were widely criticised over their decision to fly back from a Saturday evening game away at Newcastle United.5 The club blamed the move on fixture congestion – the game had been moved from the afternoon so it could be shown on Sky – and were unhappy with the Premier League for giving them such a short turnaround until their next match, a home Champions League fixture, the following Tuesday evening.

While Liverpool wanted to minimise the impact on their players' recovery and preparation for the next game, it was noted that with Newcastle being just 175 miles from Liverpool, the difference in travel time would only have been one or two hours compared with travelling back by coach.

The flight was 33 minutes long with 3,000kg of carbon emissions. The corresponding coach journey would have taken 3 hours with 135kg of carbon emissions.

While the arguments about whether teams can justify taking domestic flights will continue, a far bigger issue when it comes to emissions is the travelling of supporters to and from matches.

Estimates suggest fan travel accounts for around 70 per cent of English football’s total emissions.6 While efforts are underway to encourage more fans to use public transport, cycle or walk to matches where possible, the game’s popularity and the sheer numbers of supporters travelling to matches continue to pose difficulties in attempting to reduce its environmental impact.

Last season, the Premier League attracted a record average attendance of 40,267, with the total number of spectators above 15 million for a second successive season.7 In the English Football League, over 21.7 million supporters passed through the turnstiles.8

Premier League champions Manchester City are among numerous clubs attempting to reduce their fan travel emissions. Options being assessed by the club for their home matches include activated, safe walking and cycling for routes to the city centre and beyond; additional, secure cycle parking; improving the reliability of buses; and the promotion of safe car share opportunities.9

At this year’s Sport Positive Summit, Pete Bradshaw, director of sustainability at the City Football Group, said: “The first and last mile to the stadium is really important. And one of our big pieces of work is about making that safe, secure, exciting, interactive and ecologically friendly as well, so people get used to that walk, and we make it fun and interesting for people and positive.”

However, for clubs like City who play regularly in Europe the impact of their supporters’ travel reaches far beyond their own stadium. According to the club’s analysis of its travel emissions, just over 1% comes from player travel and around 5% from other staff, with the remaining 94% from fan travel.

The breakdown highlights a further challenge that is being exacerbated by football’s increasingly bloated calendar, with both UEFA and FIFA continuing to expand and introduce new tournaments.

The arrival of the UEFA Europa Conference League in 2021/22 brought an extra 141 matches, and the expansion of the UEFA Champions League from 2024/25 will create a further 177 additional fixtures across UEFA’s three major club competitions.

Research from the BBC suggests the inflated fixture list in Europe could lead to teams and fans flying about two billion air miles across the 2024/25 season, up from 1.5 billion in 2022/23, generating nearly half a million tonnes of emissions.10

Meanwhile, the FIFA World Cup will expand from 32 to 48 teams in 2026, increasing the number of matches from 64 to 104, while the controversial FIFA Club World Cup is growing from just seven to 32 teams in 2025, with the number of games increasing from seven to 63.

The successful North America bid for the 2026 World Cup admitted the tournament will still generate an estimated 3.7 million tonnes of carbon despite there being no requirement to build any new stadia.11 It estimates that travel will account for 85% of the emissions – with 51% from international travel and 34% from inter and intra-city travel. 

Amid football’s relentless expansion, increasingly radical solutions are being proposed to help reduce its carbon footprint. UEFA’s former head of social responsibility, Patrick Gasser, has suggested the governing body stops issuing tickets to away fans for Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League matches.

Gasser said UEFA should not require clubs to offer away fans tickets as they currently do – at a minimum 5% of capacity – or go even further and reintroduce the restrictions on travelling supporters which existed during the Covid-19 pandemic.

As for the World Cup, the sports writer and broadcaster David Goldblatt, speaking at the Sport Positive Summit, suggested a major rethink of the tournament was required, with new ways of encouraging more local fans to attend so that fewer overseas supporters travelled to the tournament.

Back in England, talks are continuing about how the domestic calendar might look from 2024/25 when the Champions League expands and there are even more matches to squeeze in. While sustainability may not be top of the agenda in those discussions, the pressure will only intensify on the game to prove it can expand whilst somehow reducing its harm to the environment.


1 Premier League confirm first Christmas Eve match since 1995 - ESPN

2 Supporter groups call on Premier League to change Christmas Eve fixture | Premier League | The Guardian

3 Why football at Christmas is a very British tradition - BBC Bitesize

4 Premier League domestic flights: BBC Sport research shows 81 flights from 100 games - BBC Sport

5 Liverpool FC Blame Fixture Congestion In Defense Of Contentious 175-Mile Newcastle Flight (simpleflying.com)

6 The English Premier League: Time to get green? | Inside Sports Law | Global law firm | Norton Rose Fulbright

7 Premier League statement: Annual General Meeting

8 Highest League attendances for 70 years as nearly 22 million attend EFL competitions - The English Football League

9 Sustainability | Manchester City (mancity.com)

10 What could more European football mean for planet? - BBC Sport

11 Microsoft Word - EIA Report - United Bid.docx (fifa.com)

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Jonathan Dyson

Jonathan's work on the sports industry has been published by The Times, The Observer, The Independent and The Sun, as well as Sport Business, Off The Pitch, FC Business and Zero Carbon Academy.

He has also contributed to BBC Radio 5 Live, Middle East Eye, The Scotsman, Rediff.com., World Soccer, When Saturday Comes, Wisden Cricket Monthly and School Sport.

Away from sports, he has held full-time and freelance roles at a number of global B2B publishers. He was the Founding Editor of Twist - a magazine covering the latest developments across the fashion industry supply chain. The title is published by World Textile Information Network (WTiN). Following the success of the launch of Twist, Jonathan was promoted to Head of Content at WTiN. In this newly-created role, he was responsible for developing WTiN's digital content and social media presence as the company evolved from being a magazine publisher to a market-leading media company across all platforms.

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