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Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The problem with sports and sustainability

 Sustainabilistas have a solution

By Dave Newport, LEED AP

The late historian and mythologist Joseph Campbell often told of the State Patrol officer that came upon a wreck on a high mountain road where a car was teetering off a cliff, an injured man still inside.

As the vehicle slides over the precipice, the officer pulls the man out and the car plunges into the abyss.

When asked later why he risked his life for a stranger, the heroic officer immediately replied, “because I couldn’t live the rest of my life if I didn’t try.”

He’s not alone; zillions of cops perform countless acts of heroism and kindness every day. Sadly, there’s plenty to dislike about some cops too. No hyperlink needed here; you know who they are.

Big time sports can be just as brutal as bad cops.

Just ask the slaves in Qatar now being forced to build the next FIFA World Cup facilities. Indeed, sports and sports governance can be violent, corrupt, abusive, hyper-consumptive, and just plain stupid.

But there also is no denying the countless sports moments that bring joy to billions of people and inspire our better nature; sport is a place where ordinary and not so ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary things. Do you believe in miracles? Attend a Special Olympics.

And there certainly is no denying sport provides a sometimes red hot spotlight that catalyzes major social change. 

Think about the many epic cultural moments and the legacies of sports figures like Jackie Robinson, Billy Jean King, Muhammad Ali, John Carlos and Tommie Smith (and Peter Norman), Jason Collins, Magic Johnson, Jim Valvano, the entire Missouri football team, the entire South African Rugby team and Nelson Mandela, Rick Welts, Abby Wambach, Ed O’Bannon, and Kaitlyn Jenner, to name just a few.

Add in a couple of NHL stars who are leading hockey’s reformation around sustainability, Andrew Ference and Mike Richter, and a new dawn of sustainability seeks to enhance the impact of sports on the world so as to minimize its darkness and brighten its light.

Sure, there is a lot to dislike about big time sports. But there’s a lot to love too.

So as Joseph Campbell counseled, “find a place inside where there's joy, and the joy will burn out the pain.”

But there’s a problem.

Turn on the lights

There is no bigger stage on the planet than sports. None. Not politics, the arts, science, medicine or even Donald Trump.

Consider that 3.2 billion people —nearly half the planet’s population at the time—watched the last World Cup soccer tournament at some point; one billion tuned in just for the final game.

Even more—over half the planet--watched the Beijing Olympics, 4.4 billion; the largest population to ever watch anything in the history of mankind.

In both cases, what people saw was sports. In both cases, the games featured major sustainability stories—and not even a fraction of the viewers knew about them.

In Brazil, the World Cup tried but failed to reach the sustainability goals within its grasp.

On the other hand, the Beijing Olympics broke many sustainability barriers, despite the challenging air pollution problems faced there. In the game's’ aftermath,  China has started to phase out all coal-fired power plants nationwide.

Likewise, in the US, a paltry 112-million watched Super Bowl 50 (go Broncos!). And outside the readership of this blog (way paltry) few know about the major sustainability achievements the NFL implemented at SB50. Was SB50 perfectly sustainable? Not even close, but it’s a start.

Not a day goes by without a stupid, tragic, or dumb sports story in the press. And yet, sports has failed to highlight its positive sustainability efforts. Big, hunky, muscled-up NFL studs will get all decked out in pink and run around giving each other concussions on a football field in the name of cancer research. 

But can ESPN, for instance, even run one feature on the fantastic sustainability systems they run for College Gamedays, the football bowl games, the X-Games, and the Espys?

Sadly, the sports leagues and TV networks tell us there is precious few seconds available during a TV broadcast for sustainability info-stories about the games. Believe it or not, they say margins are tight, even the sports juggernaut ESPN is struggling financially, and so all the TV spot inventory is sold to paying customers.

So while great work is being done to green the games, the unrivalved platform of sports is not being used to influence fans to be more sustainable in the own lives.

That’s the problem. But sustainabilistas have a solution.

Branding science through sports

A very telling poll reaffirms what we all probably know intuitively. We are a nation of sports-crazed people. Or maybe just crazed…

Source: According to a 2011 Marist Poll, 61% of Americans describe themselves as sports fans (, while a 2008 National Science Foundation report states that only 13% of Americans say they follow science (
Either way, as seen in the graphic, we follow sports, but not so much science. While it’s easy to say this is sad, it’s also an opportunity. Hitch our sustainability story to sports, just add water, and presto: societal change.

Sustainabilistas can hook the story to a platform even more durable than TV: sports fans. Building on fans’ brand affinity for their favorite college sports teams, sustainability leadership in the stadium is sparking take-home sustainability behaviors among fans. In fact, believe it or not, sports fans are hungry for sustainability, research shows.

Moreover, savvy sponsors have figured out that sustainability helps bundle sponsors’ wares for fans at home, work and play. Instead of asking fans to buy something at the game, sustainability firms are partnering with college sports brands to influence fans to adopt sustainability behaviors the other 365 days of the year.

This “fan engagement for sustainability” platform makes so much sense corporate giants like BASF, Pepsi, Eco-Products, and Wells Fargo Bank are signing on to sports marketing efforts designed to promote sustainability behaviors—not consumerism—and they are making money doing it.

BASF—the world’s largest producer of bio-polymers used in compost bags etc—promotes “Sustainable Gameday” composting in stadiums and communities so more fans will compost at home. They do it by supporting college sports brands with strong in-game compost programs and leveraging fans’ brand affinity to influence them to compost at home.

Pepsi supports in-game recycling programs that connect the dots between plastic bottle recycling and the manufacture of clothing made from recycled plastic. The “Bring Your Bottle Back to Life” campaign distributes logo apparel made from RPET every time a team scores a touchdown or drains a “3” in basketball. Patagonia is touting the same process. They are trying to incent fans to increase the woeful recycling rate of plastic bottles.

And the “Water for the West” campaign supported by Wells Fargo highlights water efficiency efforts in stadia and on campus—and then rewards fans for reducing water use at home. Again, fans are prompted to align with the college sport brand’s culture of conservation as a part of fandom.

This approach works even on those fans who are not inclined towards sustainability behaviors. In a study last fall of fans tailgating at our football games, some interesting data popped up. Among fans who think our campus sustainability efforts are “not very important,” over 71% recycled their tailgating materials anyway—more so even than fans who supported campus sustainability efforts!

Several similar data points in the study reaffirmed that finding. And the comments from those fans were telling: “Well, I don’t recycle at home much but here it is what you do” was a typical remark from the tailgaters. In other words, our brand’s recycling culture influenced their behavior.

The fan engagement for sustainability approach has a very simple methodology that aligns with the “Community Based Social Marketing” approach used by most sustainabilistas. It works like this:
  • Sports brand models sustainability in its operations.
  • Sports brand educates fans about its sustainability efforts.
  • Sports brand asks fans to adopt personal sustainability behaviors in order to be “on” the team.
  • Sports brand prompts fans’ sustainability behaviors by collecting/rewarding tracking-data or other communications.
  • Sports brand partners with local organizations (e.g. city, county, schools) that have allied interests to leverage, reinforce, and mainstream the messaging, prompts and incentives.

Bottom line, this approach socially norms sustainability behaviors as part of fandom. This is a more durable and potentially just as far reaching sports sustainability outreach platform as running a few PSAs on the telly during a game. And sustainabilistas are uniquely equipped and skilled at making this work.

Just add water.

The green playbook

One of the biggest paybacks to a college sports sustainability effort is the positive effect on all campus sustainability efforts. By becoming visible and integrated in college sports, we saw the perceived legitimacy and obvious impacts of all our other sustainability efforts flourish in the eyes of campus and community stakeholders who previously may have regarded us as cute little green hippies.

In short, campus sustainability becomes visibly mainstream through college sports.

When I sat at a trustees meeting and listened as my Provost read aloud letters written by industry big wigs/alumni who loved the sustainability efforts they saw in our stadiums and were therefore in support of a proposed new sustainability degree program, I knew we had arrived on “the front porch of the campus.” The trustees then unanimously approved a program they had previously been skeptical of.

So here’s a quick checklist for sustainabilistas and/or athletics folks who want to go green:
  • Memorize this entire blog and all its linked information. OK, maybe not.
  • If you’re a sustainabilista and hate big time sports, you have good reason, but get over it. You’re not going to woo new confederates from Athletics wearing a big ‘tude on your jersey. Instead, pick some athlete/team you can like and learn lots about them so you can at least make informed small talk. You need this skill!
  • Learn all about how your campus sells its “multimedia rights” in sports. These are the folks that handle marketing and sales inside the stadiums—and they are crucial to your success. Many campuses outsource these sales to for-profits like Learfield Sports and IMG College, the two biggest. Go talk to your campus folks that do this work. Look at other campuses that are selling sports sustainability sponsorships—and try to partner with your guys to help them sell too. They need your expertise on sustainability. Create a team.
  • Reach out to your Athletics folks than run the stadiums. They are really busy—offer to help them with horsepower (volunteers/students) to implement or upgrade existing recycling and related programs. Make them your best friends. Talk to them about how this makes money for athletics. Don’t be skeptical of their “we got no money” claims. It’s true. College athletics departments are very tight operations—yes, I know the coaches and ADs are paid too much. Get over it. The facilities guys don’t control that and they have to run operations for 20-30 varsity sports when only 1-2 make money. They work really hard. Give them a break.
  • Help AASHE and the Green Sports Alliance figure out what else to do to help leverage sustainability’s biggest platform: sports. Take the survey now being fielded to provide valuable intel.
  • Join the Green Sports Alliance. It’s $500 and full of support and great contacts to help build your campus sports sustainability program. Yes, I am a pro bono GSA Board member and this is a shameless plug. Sue me.
  • Sign up for the upcoming webinar, Creating a Winning Collegiate Sports Sustainability Program—it’s free and has great information.
  • Enter the giant College Sports Sustainability Makeover Contest and win $50K of valuable sustainability stuff for your sports venues, onsite expert assessments and recommendations, and big time visibility for your sports efforts. Just organizing to enter the contest will improve relationships and partnerships between campus sustainabilistas and athletics folks. Deadline to enter is May 1, 2016. Do it!

Just add water...

The short but sappy close

Sports and sustainability has a problem, and we can solve it. See above.

Sports and sustainabilistas aren’t so far apart on this work either. Both realms are populated by heroes. As defined by Joseph Campbell, “a hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.”

This will sound immodest, get over it, but sustainabilistas are by definition outside themselves. The work is about making the world a better place for people we will never meet.

Sports has the same capacity—and occasionally flexes its muscles. See above recitation of heroic sports figures than have influenced the world in good ways far beyond their sport.

Sports sustainability brings together the best of both worlds on the planet’s biggest stage.

Just do it.


1 comment:

  1. Dave - a jam-packed post of valuable information. Just loaded. What CU has achieved is fantastic AND totally repeatable. Will share as widely as I can. Keep up the great work and congrats on a record-breaking webinar.