Team Green: Sustainability is the future in sports

Mitigating climate change has become an urgent issue for consumers across industries, and sports are no exception. Corporations are reassessing their environmental impact and seeking to minimize their waste and overall climate footprint, but that’s proven challenging for many sports organizations, particularly when it comes to holding live events.

A typical NFL game, for instance, produces approximately 35 tons of waste. Air travel for both players and spectators generates a significant amount of greenhouse gas, especially for major international events.

But these difficulties also present an opportunity for leagues and teams to take a leadership role in pushing for individuals, businesses and governments to adopt more sustainable practices — a key issue for stakeholders. According to Forbes, a 2022 survey showed that 90% of Gen X consumers would be willing to pay an extra 10% for a sustainable product, compared to just 34% two years ago.

Here are four ways sports organizations can put that desire to support green initiatives to good use.

1. Focus on eco-friendly facilities

As demand for ever bigger and more technologically advanced sports stadiums continues to grow, organizations are beginning to investigate more sustainable options for building stadiums and arenas. Facilities constructed using traditional materials and methods can have a large environmental impact due to the energy required to create and maintain them. However, there are less harmful alternatives. As an example, the Forest Green Rovers, a professional English soccer team, has announced that its Eco Park stadium aims to be the world’s greenest. Built entirely from sustainably sourced timber, it will run on renewable energy and serve vegan food on game days.

Teams with existing stadiums can prove their commitment to sustainability in other ways. One option is having facilities earn a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification by meeting a set of efficiency and health standards. For instance, the Golden 1 Credit Union Center in Sacramento, home of the NBA’s Kings, is completely solar-powered and the first LEED Platinum certified arena in the world. Also LEED-certified are such iconic venues as the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, U.S. Bank stadium in Minneapolis, Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia and the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

2. Reduce waste

Another major trend driving sustainability is a collective push to reduce waste through recycling and composting initiatives and the elimination of single-use plastic food and drink containers and utensils. Even simple measures, such as providing a recycling bin next to every trash can, can make a surprising dent in the volume of garbage fans throw away. Reverse vending machines go a step further and let spectators earn rewards in exchange for recycling empty beverage containers. Venues can also seek certification for their waste-reduction efforts. The Atlanta Hawks’ State Farm Arena  earned bragging rights in 2021 as the world’s first officially recognized zero-waste venue, having managed to divert, compost, reuse or recycle more than 90% of its trash, up from just over 10% in 2019.

3. Switch to renewable energy

More franchises are investing in solar panels and wind turbines to power their facilities. This switch to renewable energy sources reduces the environmental impact of sports operations and activities and provides clean, low-cost energy to sports venues — a win-win situation for the environment, fans and players as well as the corporate bottom line. While this can be an expensive and complex endeavor, particularly for teams playing in older stadiums, many have reaped the benefits. Consider Petco Park: In 2018, a solar panel system was installed on the upper deck, providing the San Diego Padres an estimated savings of more than $4 million. The gold standard in energy-efficient stadiums is Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, home to the Seattle Kraken of the NHL. The facility is powered by renewable energy and uses no fossil fuels. All internal mechanical systems, cooking systems and even the Zamboni, are electric. The organization further intends to purchase carbon credits to fully offset emissions, such as air travel for players, that can’t yet be eliminated.

Air travel, a major source of carbon emissions, is perhaps the most intractable problem the sports industry faces when it comes to improving sustainability — and the one most in need of innovative solutions. Efforts are underway to use more fuel-efficient planes, to create more regionalized schedules that would minimize travel time, and to partner with airlines to use cleaner fuel sources. The answer to the question of how to decarbonize transportation, however, may end up coming from an unexpected quarter: Formula 1, connoisseur of the combustion engine, recently pledged to be carbon neutral by 2030.

4. Use technology to increase efficiency

Digital twin technology allows teams to build a virtual model of their facilities for scenario planning. It’s a powerful tool that can be employed to consider the benefits and risks associated with potential sustainability initiatives. Once those initiatives are in place, a digital twin allows teams to monitor and adjust, in real time, as new programs are implemented. Even better, digital twin technology can be used across the organization to enhance nearly every aspect of operations, from maintenance and security to player performance and fan experience.

Every team should make sustainability a critical part of its agenda. As the SEC moves to codify climate risk disclosures, it’s clear that setting and tracking metrics to reduce carbon emissions will become a new norm in business. As we predicted last year, almost every arena built in the future will strive to be carbon-neutral. Teams will need to have a strategy not only to reduce their own footprint, but to leverage their position in society to inspire others to do the same. When it comes to sustainability, it’s time for everyone to get in the game.

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