Sustainability Takes the Field

“Professional sports may have a broader and more profound influence than any other single entity on American mindsets, slicing through socioeconomic and political divides.”

– Forbes, 2010.

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Professional sports have, for decades, exemplified a colossal influence on society: spurring social movements, rallying patriotism, and mitigating cultural divides.

Women’s basketball leagues were formed before women had the right to vote. Baseball advocated civil rights an entire decade before nations followed suit. In 2009, the film Invictus reminded the world of Nelson Mandela’s quest to unite South Africa through Rugby. The influence of sport prevails.

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Leading today’s charge, the National Hockey League (NHL) has made tremendous strides in the greening of sports.

Intrigued by this NHL leadership, I spoke with Omar Mitchell, the League’s first-ever Director of Sustainability. The position itself speaks volumes, as personnel dedicated to sustainability ceases to exist within other sports.

Mitchell, who joined the NHL in 2012 and is now Senior Director of Public Affairs and Sustainability, detailed some of the NHL’s admirable progress.

In 2014, the NHL published a sustainability report, the first-ever, and only, professional sports league in North America to do so.

A key outcome is the partnership that developed between Constellation Energy and the NHL to offset all league and team related carbon emissions – the first time such a partnership has ever occurred at a league-level. Consequently, the NHL now ranks 17th largest green energy user in the entire U.S.


MLB

Having been honored to serve as the Commissioner of Major League Baseball (MLB) since 1992, I have often said that our game is a social institution with enormous social responsibilities. Forty years after Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente left us all too soon, their vibrant legacies continue to remind us of the impact that our game, as a common thread for so many, can have on important social issues. One of those issues is care for our environment.

– Allen H. (Bud) Selig, Former Commissioner, MLB.

Somewhat astonishingly, it requires an approximate 30 million kWh to power a single MLB baseball stadium for a season, an amount of energy greater than that used by 3,000 average American homes in a year.

AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, wrote history when it became the first MLB stadium to have its own solar array. The Giants’ iconic scoreboard is entirely run on solar power. AT&T Park also recycles and composts nearly 50% of its waste, sources eco-friendly napkins, utensils, and the like, and has installed its own lighting control system in all restrooms.

“The (San Francisco) Giants are one of the greenest teams in professional sports, and they’re proving that sustainable practices fatten the bottom line even as they ease the burdens on the planet.” – Forbes.

Depicting the economic argument behind implementation of sustainability, the San Francisco Giants have lured sponsorship deals as a result: PG&E (utility that that supplies power to 2/3 of the state of California), Canadian Solar, LINC Corporation, and Centerplate. For the Giants, green sponsorship dollars have perpetuated opportunities that have, in turn, resulted in more sponsorship dollars.

On the other side of the nation, the Boston Red Sox are transforming the century-old Fenway Park into a green stadium, embarking on sponsorship campaigns with Waste Management, National Grid, and Poland Spring.

And in the National Basketball Association (NBA), the Utah Jazz, Portland Trailblazers, and Phoenix Suns lead the green hoops movement through development of green facilities. Some NBA teams even offer ticket discounts to fans that travel to the arena via public transit.

The list endures, as other sports teams and facilities attempt to do their part.

But it’s not enough.

And yet, for every green sporting stadium that’s being built, there are two more that are going in the opposite direction. The new Dallas Cowboy’s stadium, for instance, is an energy-guzzling Colossus averaging $200,000 in monthly utility bills and consuming about as much power as Santa Monica, California. (A conventional scoreboard, on its own, can devour as much electricity annually as 100 homes.) – Forbes.

The marriage between sports and sustainability is not novel.

In 2010, the National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) helped originate the Green Sports Alliance – a conflux of league executives, venue operators, sponsors, and sports teams – originated with the objective of accelerating the environmental evolution of professional and collegiate sports.


The intersection of sustainability and sports:

To gain further insight into the space, I conducted an interview with Lew Blaustein, founder of GreenSportsBlog, and sustainability-focused marketing, sales, and business development consultant for Fortune 500s, startups, and non-profit organizations. Writing at the intersection of sustainability and sports, Blaustein is also a contributing writer for both Greenbiz and SportTechie.interviewTheSustainableInvestor: A tremendous amount of energy is used in sports: massive stadiums are often idle, numerous cars are driving to sports events, and teams are sending their players on flights all over the world. What about energy-intensive sports such as car racing? How does the aforementioned activity coincide with the sports industry’s movement towards sustainability?

Blaustein: Good question. I think the best way to answer it is to look at the sports industry in two ways: The most obvious way is to look at the way sports events are staged from a carbon footprint point of view. And through that lens, you’re right, sports events use copious amounts of energy – as do other forms of entertainment that draw big crowds. The biggest contributor to a sports event’s carbon footprint is fan travel to and from, followed by stadium operations, food/beverage consumption, and stadium/arena construction. The good news is that the sports industry, for the most part, is getting it – with the “it” being that greening their games is good – good for the environment, good for the bottom line (use less energy, waste less) and for legitimately earned positive PR. This is especially true in the U.S. and Canada, where the major team sports, led by the NHL, as well as college athletics, the U.S. Tennis Association, golf, and even NASCAR are greening to one degree or another.

But the other way to look at sports is through the lens of its total reach, which is massive. Consider that 65-70% of humans, depending on the study you read, identify as either a devoted or casual sports fan. Yet, the amount of people who consume sports in person is minuscule as compared to the people who watch the games on TV or online, or listen on the radio. The true power of the sports industry to affect real change is for sports to engage fans, both those who come to games and the vast majority who don’t, in better, smarter environmental behaviors. That effort is in an earlier stage than the greening of the games itself, but it’s building.

TheSustainableInvestor: Presumably, the incentive for sports teams to spend money on sustainability must be economic. Do we have data that points to cost savings that have occurred from dollars spent on sustainability? Or, is money spent in hopes of a long-term profit at the expense of shorter-term loss?

Blaustein: I’m not a sports team owner or league commissioner, but I think there are hard and soft economic reasons for the sports industry to “go greener”. The hard, economic reasons include, as I alluded to before, reduced costs. One area I can cite is on lighting. Stadia and arenas are rapidly switching energy efficient LEDs, in large part because break-even can now be reached in a relatively short 2 years time – after that teams start to save significant sums. Similar results are being reported when teams and stadium/arena operators upgrade their water systems. And, with the rapidly dropping cost of solar and other renewables, some venues, like Boston’s Fenway Park, and Lincoln Financial Field, home of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, are finding it economically viable to build on-site solar and wind; many others are buying renewable energy supply from their utilities at prices comparable to brown power. Smart grid technology is now becoming more and more common at sports venues as the ROI on energy efficiency measures also continues to shorten.

TheSustainableInvestor: Does sustainability actually make a difference for sports fans? Can we prove quantitatively that they care? On the flip side, do sports teams pursuing sustainable initiatives sacrifice quality of user (sports fan) experience at all?

Blaustein: There is data to suggest fans care. Turnkey Intelligence conducted a quantitative study in July 2014 that showed 81% of sports fans, as defined as those who attend 2+ games/year. care about the environment, whereas only 63% of non-sports fans care. The study also revealed that 51% of women sports fans (a growing cohort that teams and leagues and sponsors and networks are trying to grab) would participate in a league or team sanctioned greening program, while only 37% male sports fans would. Finally, and this was the most interesting nugget to me, greener sports fans spend more money on tickets annually ($404), than their non-green counterparts ($340). (Regarding quality) – at first that might’ve been the case with LED lights, but now the technology has advanced such that the light quality from these efficient bulbs is preferred vs. incandescents or halogens.

TheSustainableInvestor: Are the individual players on the teams supportive of sustainability or are the initiatives occurring from a management perspective? What type of example is the NFL setting with all the controversy of players getting intro trouble or steroid use in baseball – are the players on the teams exemplary?

Blaustein: Eco-athletes are relatively rare on the professional sports level. Think about it – supporting, say, education in the inner city, or breast cancer awareness is relatively simple. Climate change is a complex topic that requires, if you’re going to be serious about it, some level of subject matter expertise. And the truth is, pro-athletes are, for the most part, myopically focused on their sports. So it’s rare to find the man or woman who digs deep into this topic. But there are several – Andrew Ference, captain of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers is arguable the Eco All Star. Amazing guy – he’s taking classes online through the Harvard Extension School Certificate program for Corporate Sustainability and Innovation. How cool is THAT? Sir Ben Ainslie, America’s Cup and Olympic champion sailor, has made his sailing team a poster child for green sports. And there are others. But we need more.

TheSustainableInvestor: What about the sponsors? Does a sustainability movement within sports mean the teams must consider all stakeholders, such that a team asserting sustainability should only partner with “green” sponsors? What does this mean for existing sports-sponsor relationships?

Blaustein: Green-sports sponsorship is in its infancy, but it’s another growth area in my view. As time goes on I think you’ll se more pro-active green-sports sponsorships – from solar providers and energy efficiency companies. And I think you’ll see fewer and fewer fossil fuel companies sponsoring sports events – kind of in the same way that tobacco companies have gone by the wayside. O.K., you might still have the Citgo sign outside Fenway, but that’s an anomaly.

TheSustainableInvestor: The NHL seems to be a frontrunner in the sustainability sports space, having already issued a sustainability report, striving to offset carbon, and working towards greening the rinks. Why are other sports lagging behind?

Blaustein: The NHL has the unique pond hockey heritage that the other leagues don’t. So that’s one reason. Another is that some league had to go first and it was the NHL. The better question, in my humble opinion, is will the other sports leagues follow suit? If so, when? If not, why not? I have no inside knowledge on this, but I think either Major League Baseball (MLB) or National Basketball Association (NBA) will be next to go green in a big way. Many baseball teams are greening already, former commissioner Bud Selif was/is a big champion of the climate change fight. The NBA has a well-publicized Green Week in April just prior to Earth Day, many of its clubs share arenas with an NHL team so the greening ethos is an office away, and new commissioner Adam Silver seems like a forward-thinker who could embrace sustainability (my speculation). What about the NFL? Good question. The Super Bowl has been carbon neutral for many years and Super Bowl 50 in February 2016 in Santa Clara, CA, will be Super Green so there’s that. And 8-9 teams have gone into greening their stadium in a big way, especially with on-site solar in partnership with NRG. But it just seems the league is behind the curve in terms of concerted, league-wide action. Why? Again, it’s just speculation on my part, but it could be that they’ve got so many other hot button issues (concussions, domestic violence, franchise relocation, etc.) that greening gets shunted aside. Major League Soccer? On paper, they should lead the way on greening – they’re the smallest sport and could use the attention, they have the youngest fan base among all of the leagues and young folks (aka Millennials) get green better than their older cohorts.


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The interaction between society and environment has, as we know it, largely consisted of society’s exploitation of natural resources for nearsighted economic advancement.

But – the universal language of sport yields tremendous influence, as has been proven through the ability of professional sports to transcend cultural, political, and socioeconomic barriers.

It thus seems reasonable to conclude that the global sports industry, estimated at $1.5 trillion dollars (Plunkett Research, 2015), has an exponential ability to affect society, and, importantly, to affect sustainability.

Proving business need not be zero-sum, professional sports teams have collectively saved billions of dollars by shifting to more efficient and ecologically-savvy operations. At the same time, through advocation and implementation of sustainable practices, pro-sports have communicated pro-environmental messages to millions of fans world-wide.

The product of the sports business is intangible: it is raw emotion. If the emotional response evoked from its stakeholders can be influenced and directed toward sustainability – and we have evidence that proves the ability of sports to attract universal attention – than the implications could be tremendous.

Through the universal language of sport, the sustainable opportunities are vast.

3 thoughts on “Sustainability Takes the Field

  1. Nice post!
    But sports is big business, the 1 percent of the 1 percent. I would like to see this money go to better education and health care.

    Like

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