Will Professional Sports Help Green America?

green sports allianceWhat do Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, and Magic Johnson all have in common? Well, the fact that they are all sports leaders is well known. What might not be as obvious is how each one of them broke through cultural barriers that have resulted in permanent change here in the United States and around the world.

For instance, after considerable hesitation and concern by club owners, Jackie Robinson was not only accepted as the first African American baseball player on a U.S. major league team, but a few years later, African Americans were found on many major league teams. In other words, a cultural barrier that had lasted for more than 100 years was gone.

A similar shift happened with Billie Jean King. After her defeat of Bobby Riggs in 1973, the public became much more aware of the fact that female tennis players were paid a fraction of what male tennis players were paid for the same work. After King’s dominant performance, payments to all female sports stars and athletes started going up and once again, our society was changed and a barrier began to dissipate.

In 1991, few people wanted to talk about HIV and even fewer understood what it was. An abundance of HIV myths caused fear and divided people throughout the country. But when NBA star Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive, everyone had to take a second look at HIV and slowly the myths and misunderstandings about the disease started coming apart in our society.

What these sports leaders did in their own way is change American culture. Now sports teams and leaders are helping us make another major change in America: to encourage all of us to become greener, more environmentally responsible, and more focused on sustainability.

Enter the Green Sports Alliance

The Green Sports Alliance is a nonprofit organization that began in 2011 with six professional sports teams based in the United States and Canada. It was the brainchild of billionaire Paul G. Allen, a Microsoft cofounder and later property developer, who was also an owner or part owner of the Portland Trail Blazers, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Seattle Sounders soccer team, all professional sports teams located in the northwestern part of the U.S. This region also happens to be one of the most green- and sustainability-focused parts of the country. So it should come as no surprise that Allen is passionate about Green and sustainability issues and wants to introduce these ideas into professional sports.

In just five years the Green Sports Alliance has grown to nearly 300 professional and collegiate teams from 20 different sports leagues and 14 countries. Members also include some of the biggest manufacturers in the professional cleaning industry as well as organizations such as Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), which either owns, operates, or manages more than 40 of the largest sport venues around the world.

The first goal of the Green Sports Alliance is to help sports venues become greener and more sustainable. As you can imagine, fans at a sports venue generate tons of trash each time the facility is used. In addition, a major sports venue might pay as much as a million dollars per year just for electric lights, and although there are few records on water consumption, based on what we do know, the amount of water these venues use for everything from restrooms to irrigation of fields is staggering.*

An example of what a Green Sports Alliance member has accomplished is Levi’s Stadium, home to the 49ers in San Francisco. Because water shortages are a chronic concern throughout California, the stadium now recycles as much as 85 percent of its water, using the recycled water for flushing toilets and irrigating landscape. The owners have installed approximately 20,000 solar panels for electricity; added a 27,000-square-foot green roof; and linked the stadium to public transportation lines. The effects of this last move is tremendous. The facility can seat 68,000 fans, most of whom in the past had to drive to the stadium.

As Levi’s Stadium and other sports venues begin to reduce their environmental footprint in similar ways, they are proudly spreading the word of what they have done…and the fans that support these teams and use these facilities are taking note. In the U.S., where the reach of professional sports has gone beyond the sporting world this shift could have a very big impact on our society.

According to an ESPN Sports poll in 2013, at least 88 percent of Americans age 12 and older are fans of at least one major sports team. To put that number in perspective, on September 21, 2014, when about 300,000 people marched in Manhattan to encourage global action on climate change, another 1.2 million people were attending a major league football game, with millions more at home watching the game on television.

Over the past few years, Americans and others around the world have realized that climate change is real and that initiatives to be more environmentally responsible are necessary. But that has not always translated into behavioral change. Now the professional sports industry has the opportunity to move the needle. As their teams and stadiums adopt green and sustainability initiatives, it is very likely fans will realize how important these issues are and will follow suit.


Stephen P. Ashkin is founder of the Green Cleaning Network, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating building owners and suppliers about Green Cleaning, and president of The Ashkin Group, a consulting firm specializing in Greening the cleaning industry. He is considered the “father of Green Cleaning,” is on the Board of the Green Sports Alliance, and has been inducted into the International Green Industry Hall of Fame (IGIHOF).


* Water charges for major sports venues in the United States have often been heavily subsidized, giving stadiums little reason to conserve. That is now changing.