“You’re not going to be relevant to consumers if you’re not sustainable.”
- San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York
By Dave Newport, LEED AP
Playing kid hockey on New England’s frozen ponds, I learned early it’s easier to score with the wind at your back.
OK, although I played pee wee, bantam, and started in high school, I didn’t score much. Loved the game; but wasn’t that good.
Anyway, now the National Hockey League is leading pro sports’ sustainability team into climate change’s stiff headwinds by attaining carbon neutrality for all of its 28 teams and stadiums. Yup. Done. It’s a huge achievement and they did it right. Renewables, conservation, efficiency and offsets. The first sport to begin to completely rewrite its place on the planet.
They did it because the NHL needs the frozen ponds where future hockey stars and fans grow up. Hockey needs ice, period. Kids in cold climes grow up like I did: pushing around a chunk of black rubber on slabs of solid water to fulfill childhood dreams of skating fast, wearing the uniform of their heroes, and feeling the cold wind enliven a fresh young face.
Yes, and crashing into other players too. Fun!
Cold headwinds face college sports too. And more college athletics programs are embracing sustainability practices to tack into those winds.
Indeed, as rabid fans await the next college football season, college athletics faces a formidable challenge of its legal and moral license to operate—along with the effects of climate change.
Polls show public opinion of the legitimacy of big time college sports is volatile and seemingly divided along class and racial lines. Court verdicts are reshaping the rules of how college students participate in varsity sports. Concerns over the money spent on new stadiums and coaches are thrashed about daily in public debate.
Bottom line: even leaders like SEC commissioner Mike Slive concede college sports are “going through a historic evolution.”
The game is changing--for the better.
The thrill of victory
Against the roar of the reform crowd, another voice is beginning to rise in college stadiums nationwide. That message is coming from athletics departments inspiring their fans to “be on the team” by embracing sustainability behaviors in the stadium—and more significantly, in their own home, work, and play.
Big and small college sports programs are implementing sustainability attributes like zero waste, renewable energy, green stadium construction, local food choices, and alternative transportation options in campus sports facilities. A recent report from the National Resources Defense Council identified over 200 NCAA athletics departments getting in the sustainability game at some level. They are also using that platform to inspire their fans to raise their sustainability games at home.
And it’s working.
A study published by Prof Jon Casper of NC State found that strong fan majorities attending football games where athletics’ recycling and energy conservation practices were showcased were inspired to increase their recycling and energy conservation practices at home. Equally strong fan majorities felt athletic departments have a responsibility to integrate environmental protection in their operations.
We’ve seen similar results of these “fan engagement for sustainability” practices at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU). Eight years ago CU became the first NCAA Division 1 athletics program to implement a zero waste program across all operations. Now, CU Athletics is zero waste, zero carbon, and zero pesticides across all sports. And more is coming.
Colorado is working with major sponsors and local community partners to use its sports sustainability leadership as a means to influence fans and local citizens to take home new sustainability behaviors. The goal: double Boulder’s composting rate community-wide in a year.
Indeed, CU is not alone. Other major college sports programs like the University of Michigan’s are aligning athletics sustainability efforts with campus mission in creative ways that benefit fans, the campus, and athletics.
In Michigan’s enormous football stadium a semester-long fan competition invites teams of students and faculty to research and propose innovative approaches to sustainability challenges in campus operations. Last year, the winning team won $20,000. Dozens of well researched and compiled proposals were received.
Moreover, it was Michigan’s formidable athletics program brought together sports, academics, research, and student engagement behind a sustainability agenda consistent with the mission of higher education: learning. Campus sustainability needs more of those examples.
Sports and community
And it’s not just the big boys hogging the ball. On the contrary, these leading athletics programs are helping catalyze a national effort. NRDC Senior Scientist Allen Hershkowitz, Ph.D., notes that college sports programs continue to enter this arena because, “sports sustainability punches above its weight.”
What does that mean?
Citing a 2011 Marist poll, Hershkowitz notes, “Only 13 percent of Americans follow science, but 63 percent follow sports. So on what better field is there to pitch sustainability?”
And what a field it is. This year, college sports will draw over 30-million Americans into over 700 stadiums nationwide, the NCAA reports. And those fans are a melting pot of Americans who leave their political ideologies at the ticket taker as they peacefully file into the stadium filled with fellow fans.
As one athletic director of a major college program told me, “We don’t really sell football here on Saturdays. We sell community. That’s why people come; to stand with their community. That’s why college football works. That’s why sustainability works here. It’s all about community.”
A recent conference about engaging sports fans behind their teams listed several necessary elements in successful fan engagement efforts. Most valued: authenticity.
People want to be treated as people, not bobbleheads.
Sports sustainability as a survival mechanism
College sports leaders obviously sense sustainability’s glue with their fan base—and they read their trade press too. A recent article by the respected Sports Business Journal executive editor Abraham Madkour highlighted last year’s Green Sports Alliance (GSA) conference keynote delivered by the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers CEO Jed York. “The message is clear: Sports can serve as a driver for environmental efficiency,” York said.
Moreover, the 49ers CEO “also sounded a cautionary note to organizations that aren’t as progressive [as the 49ers]. “You’re not going to be relevant to consumers if you’re not sustainable.”
And consumer relevance equals brand value equals the biggest driver of revenues for college sports. College fans shell out an estimated $2.7-billion a year in non-apparel spending, according to Sports Media Inc. The NCAA takes in $700-million just in TV rights. And ESPN reports that the top 120 college athletic programs gross over $437-million in sponsorships, TV rights, branding, etc. every year.
So far, the above revenues obviously dwarf sustainability-specific sponsorships, but they are growing. For instance, UPS this year joined Fortune firms Aramark and Waste Management as major sponsors of the Green Sports Alliance (GSA).
Only five year old, the GSA seeks to change the planet through sports. The GSA now represents nearly 300 sports teams and venues from 20 different sports leagues and 14 countries. Recently, all twelve PAC-12 campuses and the conference office joined thus making that so-called NCAA power conference the first complete collegiate league to embrace the GSA’s green goals.
Sport’s proven playbook
So, what does Hershkowitz mean by “sports sustainability punches above its weight?” Simply that while sustainability is currently a low visibility part of the sports world; its impact on fans is huge.
Sports are seeking positive impacts; they get dinged for the negative ones every day.
College athletics high-visibility travails kicked off this blog. Across all sports more systemic concerns of consumerism, bloated pro athlete wages, questionable practices in international soccer, and the objectification of women are just a few of the other legitimate concerns.
Thus sports sustainability ethics and practices must reconcile with issues averse to sustainability’s principles and practices. But a sports industry buoyed by sustainability has the power and potential to do that, has done it before, and is going back to that playbook.
Remember Jackie Robinson? College baseball was integrated long before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in professional ball. And Title IX? College sports opened the door to women’s sports and thus helped birth some of the greatest empowered women of our time who light up the eyes and hearts of young girls across America. Now, women represent the future of all sport, new research shows.
Sport’s new frontier: a sustainability-based sports paradigm that inspires millions of fans to new sustainability wins in their everyday lives. And it’s just the beginning.
The NHL’s quest for natural ice is just the tip of the iceberg.
NOTE: I recently accepted an invitation to join the Board of Directors of the Green Sports Alliance, a group of big time sports executives, athletes, enviros and great staff with a passion for sustainability. What an extraordinary group of people. Been on a lot of boards in my career; haven’t seen this level of personal and professional respect and dedication to mission nearly enough.