Green Sports Alliance: Go Green Or Go Home

By Luke O’Brien of FastCompany

Sports in America will always be an indulgent birthright. You don’t go to the ball game to worry about whether the world will melt. You go to escape. You go to eat a hot dog and drink a beer and possibly (or probably) curse at someone on (or off) the field–especially if you’re in Philadelphia, where spectating is its own contact sport. But here’s what else Eagles fans can expect at Lincoln Financial Field: scoreboards powered by solar panels; cooking fat from the kitchens recycled into biodiesel; 80 wind turbines on their way.

Image source: Annie Marie Musselman of FastCompany

That’s because the Eagles, like an increasing number of teams, know that sports can also be about change, in the least indulgent sense. Teams stand for something larger, and so, the thinking goes, should the iconic buildings they inhabit. This month, the Eagles expect 100% of their stadium’s energy to come from renewable resources (to say nothing of Michael Vick’s resurgent career). The savings in Philly are their own reward–an estimated $60 million over the next two decades.

Since the Eagles helped pioneer the greening of sports in 2003, many teams have followed their lead, but in pell-mell fashion. There is a lot of red tape, after all, in the world of green retrofitting. But that is beginning to change, now that sports leagues have their own eco-quarterback: the Green Sports Alliance (GSA), a not-for-profit that launched this past spring with the aim of bringing teams, owners, and venues together to develop and co- ordinate sustainability initiatives.

“We have the commissioners of eight different professional leagues interested in a common environmental agenda,” says Martin Tull, the GSA’s executive director. “That’s never happened before.”

The GSA came from good stock. Its founding members are from across the sporting spectrum: MLB’s Seattle Mariners, the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, the WNBA’s Seattle Storm, and MLS’s Seattle Sounders. If that lineup of franchises betrays a geographic bias, it’s partly because the GSA is headquartered in ultra-green Portland, Oregon. The other reasons that the GSA is the 2009 brainchild of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and representatives from Vulcan, Paul Allen’s Seattle-based company. (Allen owns the Trail Blazers and the Seahawks and is a co-owner of the Sounders.)

But the GSA has no intention of hunkering down in Cascadia. Since March, more than 25 teams have contacted Tull for information. The Boston Red Sox recently signed up with the group. So did the Florida Marlins and the Kansas City Chiefs. The National Lacrosse League is now a member too. This ground-swell of interest makes sense, particularly in the competitive world of sports: Businesses see other businesses saving money and reaping good publicity by going green, and want to do the same.

Some changes are relatively simple. The Staples Center, in Los Angeles, swapped out 178 flush urinals for waterless ones, thereby cutting its annual water use by 7 million gallons (and saving $60,000). More daunting are makeovers like that announced in May by the Seahawks and Sounders, which are putting the biggest array of solar panels in Washington state on the roof of their Qwest Field home. The 3,750 panels will lower annual utility costs there by 21% ($280,000), reduce carbon emissions by 1,346 metric tons, and save 1,342,660 gallons of water each year.

Future initiatives like these might have been more difficult without the GSA, which is already helping teams navigate a bureaucratic thicket of policy and environmental guidelines down to the municipal level. In some cases, the GSA just reproduces good practices on a mass scale. MLB, for example, already had all of its teams audit energy and water usage so that it could track efficiency. (Of course the stats-obsessed MLB would do this.) The GSA aims to have all teams in all sports do the same.

There’s still a lot of room for improvement. Seventy percent of the power going to sports venues around the country comes from fossil fuels, according to the NRDC. Less than 2% is from wind or solar. But because of the scale on which sports teams operate, even small changes–switching to a greener paper vendor for media guides, programs, or even napkins at the concession stands–can make a big difference.

“People look to their sports team for inspiration,” says Sarah Mensah, COO of the Trail Blazers. “We can play a role in moving behavior.”

Blazers fans can find plenty of inspiration at the Rose Garden. The arena has 500 recycling spots, with five different waste-disposal choices for fans. About 80% of Rose Garden waste is diverted from landfills. There are electrical vehicle chargers in the parking lots and VIP spots reserved for hybrid cars. And, as is key to any business, all this comes without altering the fan’s experience of the primary product–the team.

Equally important, the GSA and the sporting world’s greening campaign could also alter the behavior of corporate America–which is full of sponsors eager to glom on to a team’s cool factor. Like it or not, NBA commissioner David Stern can surely get the CEO of Coke or General Motors on the phone faster than Greenpeace can.

“We are really at a watershed moment in terms of the consciousness about these issues,” says Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist for NRDC who helped create the GSA. “Sports has a huge cultural influence, and that, to me, has been the biggest driver. I knew I was going to reach a demographic that would ensure the mainstreaming of our project.”

Playing Games With Networking

A version of this article appears in the September 2011 issue of Fast Company.