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Sunday, September 1, 2013

Crowdsourcing Jackie Robinson

In this day of sound bites and TV talking heads, sustainability lacks a charismatic leader
like Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King. We don't need one.
By Dave Newport

Be it by fate, purpose, or serendipity, the Green Sports Alliance Summit in New York City ended on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech. Appropriately, the movie on my flight back to Denver was “42: The Jackie Robinson Story.”

Where have you gone, Jackie Robinson?

You know, the Jackie Robinson that in 1947 broke baseball’s color barrier by becoming the first African-American player in Major League Baseball. His life story is one of a man with incredible talent and character triumphing in the face of unspeakable racism. He went on to win all of baseball’s most coveted championships and awards.

But while he was a hall of fame athlete that changed baseball forever, Robinson’s biggest impact was off the field. He changed our hearts. He helped set in motion the struggle that MLK spoke to that day in 1963.

As MLB commissioner Bud Selig eloquently noted, baseball provided the platform for enormous social change—but it was Robinson that hit it out of the park.

Today's Jackie Robinson is?

So it is today. All of professional sports – even NASCAR (not kidding)--are stepping up on sustainability. But perhaps it takes a Jackie Robinson to headline and inspire the social change we seek.

The incredible GSA conference featured many heroes and leaders who are making a difference. It starts with leadership. Indeed, Jackie Robinson was invited into baseball and strongly supported by the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Branch Rickey, himself an ethical, fair-minded, and tough man.

Eagles owner Christina Weiss Lurie
Likewise, sustainability is being supported by progressive sports franchise owners like New Orleans Saints’ owner Rita Benson LeBlanc and Philadelphia Eagles’ owner Christina Weiss Lurie. Both are making incredible moves on sustainability.

Lurie spoke about the ten years of effort they have invested into the Eagles stadium that has finally resulted in reaching 100% renewable power and a 99% recycling rate 365 days a year.  Wow.

And athletes are raising their game outside the lines too.

Andrew Ference bikes the Stanley
Cup through Boston
Andrew Ference is a hockey All-Star, Stanley Cup winning defenseman late of the Boston Bruins [Disclaimer: I am a lifelong and devout Bruins fan]. He lives sustainability 24/7. Among other things, he has organized 500 pro hockey players to offset their carbon emissions from their travel.

He described his approach to advancing sustainability in his keynote last year. When asked this year how well his approach is working, he said mostly he sees progress but some people call him geeky. “That's why sometimes you just have to fight.” 

Gotta love hockey players.

After the conference, we chatted with Ference in the hotel lobby while everyone else jumped into whatever New York taxi pulled up and zoomed them off to the airport. Then an hour later, a full-on electric Prius taxi pulled up for Ference.  

Richter dominated in goal for the
NY Rangers and the USA.
Mike Richter, also a hall of fame hockey player with the New York Rangers and Team USA has retired, returned to Yale for grad work in environmental policy, sits on a Sierra Club board, and directs millions of dollars in investment into renewable energy and sustainability systems.

Asked at the conference to comment on why sports fans should care about sustainability, his response re-spun Nike’s marketing maxim “if you have a body, you’re an athlete,” into “if you have a body, you’re an environmentalist.” 

                                       Much better.

Scott Jenkins won an
NCAA title in cross
country at Wisconsin.
Then there’s Scott Jenkins. Himself an All-American track star in college, he is now VP for Operations with the Seattle Mariners. Under Jenkins' leadership, the Mariners are leading the charge on sustainability—and in his spare time he founded the GSA to try and spread the mission. I just want to follow Scott around and write down everything he says—because I can’t begin to emulate all he does.

For instance, Scott walked around the conference for three days with a clear plastic bag on his back where he put all the materials waste he generated for a week. Packing it around, he said, helps him better understand his impact on the planet—and think about ways to continuously reduce it. Talk about living sustainably. Scott Jenkins is sustainability’s patron.

Clearly, these folks are modeling sustainability in a very public and significant way while working in the high visibility fishbowl of professional sports. But none of them would ever equate themselves to Jackie Robinson, to what he accomplished—or endured.

Sustainability's Next Big Thing?

So I started thinking that maybe sustainability is too heady to ever evolve a headliner that could match the sacrifice and impact of Jackie Robinson.  This is an old angst of mine. I rue that in this day of sound bites and TV talking heads, sustainability has no Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King. We have plenty of leaders, but none with the franchise power of Jackie Robinson who, back in the day went from reviled outsider to the second most popular man in the nation behind only Bing Crosby.

But the GSA conference spurred a new realization: sustainability is just beginning to mature from its first focus on operations into an emphasis on integrating within fans' and other stakeholders' lives. This may be sustainability’s Next Big Thing—and it’s way big with huge potential impact. NRDC's Alan Hershkowitz laid it out. "About 13% of Americans follow science, but 65% follows sports."

Remembering that Jackie Robinson’s biggest impact was on social change off the field, sports-sustainability’s largest potential is with fans' lifestyles. And the stories are just beginning to emerge that hint at the upside:

  • The bags of compost generated from stadium organics that are passed out along with seeds to fans leaving the game. They go home and literally put down roots in the team. Then athletes help work in local community gardens and talk about local food and a clean environment. Priceless brand building and education at the same time.
  • The “Sustainable Saturday” challenge that poses scoreboard sustainability quizzes for fans to answer via text. Many text quizes exist in stadiums everywhere, but the response to the Sustainability Saturday questions is off the charts—ten times the number of other campaigns. Fans are hungry for knowledge--and the good feeling that comes with being part of the team.
  • The British soccer club that met a carbon neutrality goal by reducing stadium energy 20%--then asking their fans to reduce and document their home energy use for the 80% balance. They did. It was gold.
  • The new fan engagement sponsorship at the University of Michigan I wrote of in my last column that conducts a student competition for ideas on how to reduce UM’s environmental impact; winners get $20,000. Lots of students mobilized.
  • The NGO “Fans Without Footprints” is developing an approach to link fan engagement tactics to sponsorship revenues for local environmental projects. Nice.

We are in the opening moments of this new game, and none of these plays will by themselves win the day—but as a growing trend, there is great potential. 

Recent research by NC State sports sustainability professor Dr. Jonathan Casper shows fans do pick up good habits when they are modeled in sports. After NC State football promoted a "green game" he surveyed thousands of fans. The results: we have work to do--but the benefits are enormous. Three quarters of the fans recycled, a third remembered the sustainability message on the video board, less remembered the green mascot or other information about the game. But the take home traction was impressive. Asked if they would increase recycling in their own lives, responses graphed as shown below. Similar responses were found for questions about increasing personal energy conservation, biking, use of compostables, and picking up litter.

Question: Will you be more active with recycling in your everyday life? (n=2,700)
Likewise, the NC State data also shows a very high expectation for college athletics to step up on sustainability.

Question: Do college athletic departments have a responsibility to facilitate change in environmental behavior of their fan base? (n=2,700)
Dr. Casper conducted a much smaller scale experiment at a green baseball game, but those results were promising as well. Over half of the 37 fans interviewed indicated that the game made them want to take more personal action related to recycling, energy conservation, and water conservation. The game also increased a willingness to take action or learn more about other efforts such as carbon emissions and educational outreach opportunities. Over 54% indicated the game changed their personal perspective of environmental issues, and 77% stated their perspective has positively changed related to NC State’s environmental actions.

So instead of dragging around looking for a superstar sustainability savior, it is a team effort; we sustainabilistas should experiment with new ways to translate our operational victories into sports fans' lives. After all, we are getting to the point where we kind of know how to do zero waste, organic turf, and carbon reduction in our facilities. The bigger challenge is using those examples to inspire fans to embed sustainability in their daily lives.

Like breaking the color barrier, it is the professional teams that are leading on this for now. Fair enough and I love them for it. But remember Jackie Robinson first played at UCLA on integrated sports teams (lettering in four) before he went pro. We colleges need to get back to our roots: we’re about leadership.

In my last column, we detailed the significant extent to which incoming college freshman were choosing where to go to school, in part, based on their sense of that school’s sustainability acumen. At a minimum, sustainability is marinating students’ minds.

That awareness offers us campus sustainability and sports zealots a unique opportunity to build on the brand loyalty colleges are famous for by evolving a robust fan engagement presence.  The students are ready for it, hungry for it, demanding it in every aspect of their campus life: food, facilities, investment, skills, curriculum, sports, research, leadership, purchasing, etc.  Fan engagement should be based on the breadth of a school’s sustainability capacity in all these areas—not just sports. Sports can leverage the complete sustainability brand.
And this is big for me: Sustainability through sports answers one of my biggest concerns about sustainability itself. That is, how to truly integrate social equity into what we do, not just talk about it? Well, given that sports is already very integrated and diverse on the field and in the stands, we gain a powerful point of entry into the breadth of society, not just the greenies.  We can engage with all types of people in a context that is relaxed and fun—and with content that is helpful in their lives. We can do it without preaching.  We have the opportunity to build community sustainability around team and lifestyle.  Jeez, NASCAR and NFL fans are embracing it. That's the melting pot. What are we waiting for?

Where have you gone Jackie Robinson?

There will never be another Jackie Robinson. And we may never see a sustainability leader with that kind of juice. I have stopped hoping for one. We have to find ways to be successful without being led by Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, or Mother Teresa. Not going to happen.

Let's work on what we can control.

We can crowdsource Jackie Robinson.  Collectively we can impact society using the sports platform Robinson stood on. Jackie Robinson was then, and we are now.  He is we.

As sustainability professionals bring their creativity and passion to bear on evolving new fan engagement techniques, we harness the planet's biggest stage in service of sustainability. Collectively we change the game.

Jackie lives on in all of us. So channel your Jackie Robinson. Smell the turf. Feel the bat in your hands. Dig in your cleats. See the ball big and fat hanging over the plate. Take it to the fence. Take a trot around the bases. Then tip your hat to the fans.

It's all about the fans.

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