Sports Might be the Most Undervalued Industry in Promoting Climate Action
Sports is a widely overlooked opportunity in the fight against climate change.
“Sustainability” typically implies nonprofits protecting wildlife or companies reducing greenhouse gas emissions. It’s harder to recognize that America’s favorite pastimes can be a solution to our most pressing climate challenges.
If you’ve ever attended a sporting event, you’ll understand how they intersect almost every major industry: energy to heat or cool the space, chemicals for the playing surface, materials for uniforms and fan gear, food sourced for concessions, transportation to and from the event, and waste produced by fans. Each of these offers an opportunity to align with traditional sustainability goals and should factor into our discussion of climate change solutions.
Sports’ Unifying Advantage
Sports transcend boundaries of age, race, gender, political affiliation and socioeconomic status. They’re deeply rooted in our country’s history and almost everyone has a direct memory of either playing or watching a game. In this current time of deep division, sports may be one of our last options for uniting with each other. According to a National Science Foundation survey, sixteen percent of Americans follow science while seventy percent follow sports. Sports can make environmentally conscious behaviors much more mainstream. With hundreds of thousands of fans engaged almost every day of the year, if we’re not looking to sports as a way to engage people on climate change, we’re missing a huge opportunity.
Sports Sustainability is Corporate Sustainability
In 2015, 81% of S&P 500 companies published a sustainability or corporate responsibility report, compared to just under 20% in 2011. Reporting has become standard in the corporate world, not only so companies can manage what they measure, but also so they can keep up with competitors and find opportunities for sustainability initiatives to lead to increased profits. Professional sports teams and leagues are businesses that also can benefit from reduced energy costs, improved employee morale and increased community engagement.
In 2014, the National Hockey League (NHL) released the first sustainability report by a major sports league in North America, disclosing the league’s carbon footprint and outlining initiatives for energy, water, waste and fan engagement.
In the report, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman writes, “At the NHL, we recognize that we have great responsibility for the way we conduct our business . . . We are uniquely positioned to promote the environmental message . . . We join many of our business partners who have for years been documenting their emissions and making progress toward their own sustainability goals.”
I believe the NHL’s actions should kick start a sports sustainability reporting trend, with other leagues and individual teams realizing that reducing their environmental impact can cut costs, improve public perception, create new sponsorship opportunities and more.
Examples of Success
Teams and leagues are implementing sustainability initiatives across the industry, reducing their environmental footprints and delivering positive financial returns, fan engagement opportunities and other competitive advantages. A few highlights of the many impressive programs currently in play:
- The New York Yankees divert ~85% of the stadium’s waste by serving only compostable concessions products and replacing all trash bins with waste stations that offer two options: recycling or compost.
- In 2015, the Seattle Mariners became the first MLB team to fully switch to LED lighting, resulting in a 60-70% reduction in energy use, savings of over $50,000 per season and better lighting quality for improved athletic performance.
- As of November 2017, the new Mercedes-Benz stadium, home to the Atlanta Falcons (NFL) and Atlanta United (MLS) became the second LEED Platinum sports venue in the country, following the Golden 1 Center’s (Sacramento Kings) designation in 2016.
- The U.S. Open (tennis) is one of the most sustainable sporting events, due to efforts led by Billie Jean King featuring: the first naturally ventilated stadiums, 100% carbon offsetting, food donation programs and the first environmental public service announcements broadcast at a major sporting event.
- NASCAR Green has led efforts to build solar-powered tracks, shift more cars to run on biofuels, and implement a comprehensive tire recycling program.
More Work to Be Done
The sports sustainability movement has grown dramatically, but it needs to improve communication: by teams, leagues, athletes, and sports media. The current list of initiatives is extensive, but the “niche” characteristic of the movement keeps it isolated from mainstream climate conversations, undervaluing its opportunities.
Want to learn more? Subscribe to the GreenSportsBlog, one of my favorite online reads that showcases the many ways sports and environmentalism intersect. You can also check out the Green Sports Alliance and Sports and Sustainability International (SandSI), the two leading organizations credited with creating and growing the green sports movement.
And the next time you attend or watch a sporting event, take note of the sustainability initiatives that usually go overlooked. Identify things you can do as a fan to promote sustainability and demand more of it from your favorite team.
Kristin Hanczor is currently pursuing her MBA in Sustainability at Bard College. She works at The Climate Group, an international nonprofit convening companies and governments on climate action, and supports Lightfoot Market, a startup platform to spread conscious consumerism. She graduated from Bowdoin College with a B.A in Environmental Studies and Government, where she was also an All-American volleyball player. Kristin later returned to Bowdoin as the campus’ Sustainability Outreach Coordinator and the Assistant Women’s Volleyball Coach, during which she completed the first-ever Sport Sustainability Leadership graduate certificate through Seattle University.