Green Sports: Moving from Winning to Greening

Green Sports is here.

Sports organizations in the United States are getting more and more focused on Green and environmental issues. Alliances have been formed with Major League Baseball* and the National Basketball Association, the U.S. Tennis Association, and the National Hockey League, according to Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). And the NRDC is advising each of these groups and assisting them as they move forward on Green- and environmental-related issues.

Hershkowitz says getting the sporting industry behind Green and environmental issues has been a slow but steady process. He first proposed the concept back in 2004, but “it took the environmental community 30 years from the first Earth Day to partner with sports.” He adds that getting sports organizations and governing bodies involved is important to increasing public awareness of Green issues because “only 13 percent of Americans follow science but 63 percent follow sports.”

He and others encouraging the sporting industry to adopt Greener and more sustainable practices believe that as more Americans realize their favorite teams are getting on the Green and sustainable bandwagon, they will follow suit and implement environmentally preferable practices in their personal lives, schools, and work environments. To help the movement along, in 2010 the NRDC conceived and founded the Green Sports Alliance, for which I am a board member. This organization started with six professional teams and five sports facilities. Today it counts more than 200 professional and collegiate teams and sports venues as members who work together with the organization sharing ideas and information on how to advance Green sports and incorporate more Green and sustainable practices into their own operations.

Why Did It Take so Long?

While Hershkowitz believes the time has come for the sports industry to become more environmentally focused, he also asks why it has taken so long. One reason is that many major league sports organizations are not directly involved with the operations of the venues they play in. And Greening these sporting facilities and helping them to use energy, gas, water, and other natural resources more responsibly is core to Greening the sporting industry.

Another reason, which we first encountered about 25 years ago and often still do today, is the belief by sports facility owners and managers that making a facility Greener and more sustainable would be costly with little return on the investment. However, according to the Green Sports Alliance, the Seattle Mariners baseball team saw firsthand the financial benefits when it took steps to reduce natural gas use by 60 percent and electricity use by 30 percent from 2006 to 2009 at Safeco Field. The Mariners report they have saved more than $2 million by taking these conservation steps, which has proved to be a significant return on their investment.

Another possible reason is that many sports organizations are simply not focused on Green and sustainable issues. Remember, the sporting industry in the United States is large, competitive, and, according to some studies, worth about $440 billion or more.* The emphasis historically has been on winning, not Greening; however, that is changing fairly rapidly.


The Benefits for the Sports Industry of Going Green

The sports industry is increasingly aware that becoming more environmentally responsible can have several benefits. One we have just discussed: Venues of every size are reporting operational cost savings by implementing Green and environmental practices.

Some other benefits include the following:

Good PR. Several studies indicate that people want the businesses they support—or, in this case, the sports facilities and teams they root for—to be Greener and more environmentally aware. Trumpeting the fact that they are incorporating environmentally positive measures into their facility operations is important, especially to younger fans, and can help build fan loyalty.

Increased revenue. Along with reducing costs, there is evidence that Greener and more sustainable venues and teams are actually boosting their bottom line, according to a study by Wharton at the University of Pennsylvania.** They report that environmental activities and messages are helping to attract a larger number of fans who place greater significance on environmental issues. According to the researchers, these fans have “become a new source of revenue which has the potential to power profits and environmental efforts over the long term.”

Public awareness. As discussed by Hershkowitz, one of the reasons he is most excited about the Green Sports Alliance and the Greening of the sports industry is that it can have a significant impact on the behavior and attitudes of millions of sports fans. “And messages delivered at games, on TV, and online influence tens of millions of fans on a regular basis,” according to the Wharton report.

We are making a great start but still have a long way to go. Not mentioned here but being considered is the fact that millions of sports fans drive to sports venues to see their favorite teams play. This produces large amounts of greenhouse gases every year; however, in time this and several other issues will be addressed. What we can say now with certainty is that the American sports industry has seen the light…and the light is Green.