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Planet Earth’s Best Spokesperson: Pro Sports?

If sports superstars can get us to buy shoes, can they also get us to use less energy? The NRDC thinks so, and has made greening stadiums a priority.


How many shoes would Nike have sold without Michael Jordan or LeBron James? A shoe is just a shoe, until it becomes aspirational—something fans associate with their sports heroes. For many, the environmental movement is just another social cause. But consider, if identifying with an athlete will get you to buy an overpriced pair of shoes, could that same fan-love also help provoke people to use less energy, use compostable materials, save more water?
Just a few years ago, stadiums and arenas across the U.S., were trashing millions of tons of single-use paper. Playing “under the big lights” came with huge inefficiencies that drained the grid unnecessarily. At the same time, in 2005, the Bush administration was actively distorting information on climate science, and Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) remembers “we were trying to figure out what messenger we could use to counter the power of the White House on this.” NRDC trustee Robert Redford suggested a place to start: sports.
Hershkowitz had just wrapped a greening program on Lincoln Financial Field the year before at the request of Philadelphia Eagles’ owners Jeffrey and Christina Lurie. Says Hershkowitz, “There was no guidebook. There was no sports greening movement… it was a one-off in my mind.” But the efficiencies he had seen implemented with the Eagles jelled with the notion that the environmental movement needed a cultural shift that would force government to act.
“The cultural influence of sports is enormous,” Hershkowitz says. After all, only 13 percent of Americans say they follow science; 61 percent follow sports. Hershkowitz summarizes the logic thus: “When you get the commissioners of professional sports saying global warming is real, and it matters, that’s not something that’s easily challenged as being partisan.”
But the point wasn’t simply slapping a new spokesperson on the environmental movement. Stadiums and arenas operate like mini-cities, supporting populations of millions of fans, managing energy, water, food and drinks, massive waste streams, textiles, and chemicals for cleaning and field maintenance. Demonstrating how environmental savings could work at stadiums and arenas could be a test-case for other industries and fans alike.
Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Allan H. “Bud” Selig was the first to sign on for an audit of his league’s environmental impacts. NRDC worked with MLB for a couple of years, then in 2007 the NBA and NHL got involved. Billie Jean King asked NRDC to green the US Open. NRDC started working more formally with the NFL in 2008.
The change has been felt across sports. “We’ve really institutionalized sustainability in professional sports, in really about five years’ time,” says Scott Jenkins, Seattle Mariners’ vice president for ballpark operations. Jenkins has been part of the sports greening movement from the beginning, having launched the Eagles’ Go Green! initiative when he worked at Lincoln Financial Field. What Jenkins has learned since is that greening a stadium or team starts with the low-hanging fruit—low- and no-cost water and energy retrofits that will save the team money. “When you can demonstrate by doing environmentally responsible activities that you will also improve your bottom line, it’s a no-brainer.”
With little or no investment, the first year of greening at the Mariners’ Safeco Field knocked about $275,000 off the stadium’s utility bill. Today, Safeco Field boasts the lowest energy intensity of all MLB stadiums that participate in EPA’s EnergyStar program. From 2006-2012, energy-saving efforts at the ballpark—including an LED scoreboard—have saved approximately $1.75 million in utilities costs, and annual energy consumption has dropped by more than 90 percent. Snapping up that lower-hanging fruit helps soften the way for mid-range investments like cleaning up a stadium’s waste stream. By investing in a recycling program and compostable service ware, in the past seven years, Safeco has moved from recycling 12 percent of their waste to 86 percent recycled or diverted from landfills.
This sort of impact is being replicated across multiple leagues. Fifteen professional stadiums or arenas in North America have achieved LEED green building design certifications and 18 have onsite solar arrays. Thirty-eight of the 126 professional sports teams (across all the pro sports) have shifted to at least some form of renewable energy for their operations; 68 have energy efficiency programs. Two years ago, six pro teams were part of the launching class of the Green Sports Alliance, an effort to improve the environmental performance of sports facilities and operations; today over 160 teams and venues across 16 leagues have joined.
This is the environmental story happening in the background during the game. Fans may or may not notice the LED lights. It would be hard to miss the solar panels or wind turbines at the Cleveland Indians’ Progressive Field. You might give a stray chuckle to signs hung above Lincoln Financial’s urinals: “Recycle your beer here, but recycle your bottle outside in our recycling containers.” But as NRDC and teams work to green jewel events—the World Series, All-Star games, Super Bowl, Stanley Cup, NCAA Final Four, NBA Playoffs and Finals—there is huge potential for getting environmental messages out to new audiences.
Stadiums and arenas are seeing sizeable, measureable savings in energy, water and waste, and though it’s hard to quantify attitudinal shifts among fans, says Hershkowitz, “there must be a reason why some of the largest corporations on earth pay hundreds of millions of dollars every year—if not billions of dollars—to affiliate with sports.” For companies like Coke and Chevy—and environmental advocates alike—it’s about influencing the culture of the marketplace.


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Original image via Shutterstock\n

Stadium light photo via Shutterstock, Safeco photo courtesy of the author

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