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Thursday, September 6, 2012

Speechless in Seattle

If higher education ever was a leader in sports sustainability, we have been passed.

By Dave Newport

I was at once exhilarated and humbled—speechless as a result.

Listening to the presentations in a packed house at the Green Sports Alliance conference in Seattle, it became clear that the professional sports industry has schooled higher education in sustainability.

I expected a conference full of newbies wondering about paper vs. plastic. I got a face full of sophisticated sustainability innovation, advanced social initiatives, and lengthy philosophical discussions about “we’re making too much stuff.”

It sounded more like a Sierra Club Board meeting.

Actually, a couple of Sierra Clubers were there too—and they were famous athletes. Mike Richter, one of professional hockey’s best goalies ever, is on the Sierra Club’s board. And Stanley Cup Champion Andrew Ference, a defenseman with the Boston Bruins, gave the keynote at a big shindig at Safeco Field honoring Bud Selig, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, also present.

In Ference's compelling keynote he summarized sustainability with typical in-your-face hockey talk. A guy who rides his bike to the Boston Garden, has PV on his house, works with MIT and high school students on renewable energies--then scores goals, slams people around and gets into fights--has a very clear sense of sustainability.

"Reporters are always asking me why I do this," said this muscled up athlete/hockey enforcer. "It comes down to respect. Either you respect your kids and family, your community, and your self by getting off your ass and doing things right--or you don't."

The conference program was an amazing series of discussions ranging from operational to supply chain to foodies to social entrepreneurship to how to innovative fan empowerment efforts to how we talk about all this stuff. Three days of serial presentations that held 450 nicely dressed pro sport executives--some with enormous Super Bowl rings--and stakeholders in a very big room.

Oh, and about 6-8 campuses showed up. I know we all have football season starting--but the pro sports guys have more games than we do and they turned out in droves. 

So what’s the difference between pro sports and collegiate athletics?

First, pro sports teams are successful when they focus on their mission—so they are good at focus. They have very singular missions: make money by bringing fans to the stadiums. And they have figured out that fans come to stadiums for a variety of reasons—not only to see the home team win. Although that helps.

But delivering a fan experience that comports with fans’ values helps bring them back. And, as we all know, people increasingly relate to and want more sustainability. They want to feel good about their lives. If they can go to the stadium and recycle, eat local food, donate to the hungry, feel good that their team is part of their community AND have fun at the game, it’s all good.

The pros also know they can save money greening up their energy use, reduce waste, and the usual. They are nailing that. 

The GSA partnered with NRDC and issued a landmark report at the conference called “Game Changer: How the Sports Industry is Saving the Environment.” Huge savings, carbon reductions, and innovative efforts already in the bank.

One thing that really stuck out was the fact that all professional sports leagues in the US have begun sustainability efforts led by their commissioners. Baseball, hockey and basketball are leading the way. Heck, over 90 pro teams were at the conference.

In accepting a lifetime achievement award form the GSA, baseball commissioner Bud Selig--who has led gold medal efforts by baseball to green up their industry--took note of a commissioner's unique station to effect positive change. In his impassioned and articulate acceptance speech he justified his efforts because, "for me it was an imperative because I didn't want to squander baseball's powerful opportunity to improve the lives of the fans who love our game as much as I do."

Wish collegiate athletics had that kind of leadership.

For higher education, absent is any declaration by collegiate athletics’ overloads—the NCAA—that match the pros’ commitments. Lot's of hits on the NCAA web page about "financial sustainability," but that's it. No content on triple bottom line sustainability. Sustainability seemingly has been given one of the NCAA's infamous "death penalties."

Indeed, at the Denver AASHE conference two years ago, the NCAA rolled out an official sustainability task force for college sports. Two years later, that group has been disbanded by new NCAA president Mark Emmert, formerly the president of the University of Washington. 

NRDC threw down a blog challenge to collegiate athletics to pick up the pace.

The other thing the pros have going for them is direct connections to and support by major corporate entities—many of whom are leading corporate sustainability efforts. Aramark, REI, Starbucks, Microsoft (who just announced a corporate wide carbon neutrality goal) were all presenting their business case for sustainability. Their message: it only works if it’s embedded in the business model and value proposition of the organization. No sticking a toe in the water—full immersion is what it takes. Pro teams are doing just that.

So the pros are talking about—and achieving—changes in their value chain. They are strengthening community ties by working on local social entrepreneurship programs. Their athletes are collecting tailgaters' recyclables and talking to local schools about sustainability for marketing purposes and for role modeling. And they are empowering fans with large scale outreach and educational campaigns. 

Sounds like what higher education and collegiate athletics should be doing.

The score at halftime? We--collegiate athletics and campus sustainability professionals-- are running behind the pros. Way behind. If higher education ever was a leader in sports sustainability, we have been passed. It was exhilarating to see but humbling to realize, and made me speechless...for a time.



  1. Thanks for the link to We look forward to working with colleges and universities in engaging fans within the context of sports.

  2. Dave, your first link is broken.

  3. Hi Dave, glad you were able to attend the Greening Collegiate Athletics Breakfast Roundtable in Seattle. GSA has a list of people who signed on to get the collegiate game on point. It would be great if we could get this link to them to showcase sustainable school pride and practice. And, let me encourage everyone to watch MSU's rankings rise in EPA Game Day Challenge - Sparty Parties Green! Looking forward to talking with you further, especially after making a mutual friendly/ally sustainability link at MSU. No connection with to NRDC. Dwight