Major League Sports Show Americans--and Lawmakers--the Power of Sustainability


Last week I stood on Safeco Field, the home of the Seattle Mariners, and watched Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig receive an award for his leadership in greening sports. He told the crowd that environmental stewardship makes sense to anyone who loves baseball and loves to see it played on green grass under blue skies.

Selig’s remarks were a welcome antidote to the current political vitriol. Some lawmakers continue to deride clean energy and attack environmental protections. But every major league sport in America has left those outdated views in the dust.

During the Green Sports Alliance conference in Seattle last week, I heard 500 leaders from Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association, and NASCAR describe their remarkable progress in saving energy, generating power from wind and solar, conserving water, and cutting down on food and paper waste.

You realize just how out-of-step anti-environmental lawmakers are when a $400 billion industry with hundreds of millions of fans is busy installing solar panels and expanding recycling programs.

Sports are a powerful force in American culture. More than 73 million fans attended Major League Baseball games last year. The NBA has 800 million fans worldwide and the National Hockey League gets 1 million hits per day on its website. When fans arrive at the stadium these days, more and more of them are encountering low-flow toilets, more sustainable food, and energy efficient light bulbs—helping to make environmental solutions an ordinary part of everyday life.

In July, I went to a White House green sports event, and I told an executive from the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball club that stadium recycling programs reminded me of the placards in hotels that encourage visitors to recycle their towels. “The difference is fans are more loyal to sports than anything else. They live and breathe these clubs, and they follow what the clubs do.”

NRDC just released a report, Game Changer: How the Sports Industry is Saving the Environment describing what clubs are doing to promote sustainability. The St Louis Cardinals have reduced energy use by more than 20 percent at Busch Stadium since 2006. Century Link Field, where Seattle’s Seahawks and Sounders play, went from recycling 3 percent of its waste to 47 percent in three years by working with its food, composting, and garbage vendors.

Teams are making these investments because it’s good for business—several have saved more than $1 million thanks to greening measures. But teams also recognize their responsibility to be good citizens. All the leagues have programs to educate their fans about environmental issues, especially the need to recycle and reduce energy and water use.

These efforts work. At the Green Sports Alliance conference last week, an executive from NASCAR said the association did surveys of where fans were when NASCAR started sustainability programs and where they are now. He said after people learned more about NASCAR’s energy conservation and recycling, their understanding and acceptance of the issues were 50 percent higher than the general public.

I am proud that NRDC was one of the first groups to recognize the unique role major league sports could play in greening American business and reaching the American people. In 2006, the sports greening movement did not exist. Thanks to NRDC Senior Scientist Allen Hershkowitz and NRDC Trustees Robert Redford and Bob Fisher, MLB’s Bud Selig, and the farsighted work of many league and team officials, there are now more than 100 teams and venues, representing 13 leagues, in the Green Sports Alliance. When Selig accepted his award from the alliance last week, he singled out Allen’s role in this progress.

Anyone going to a major sports event these days can see this progress for themselves. Last weekend, I went to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center to watch Serena Williams’ incredible US Open victory.  Five years ago, I couldn’t find a bin to recycle a can. Now with NRDC’s help, recycling containers are available all around and the USTA collected more than 200 tons of waste for recycling and composting last year. I am confident this year’s savings will be even greater.