President Obama loves basketball, but that's not the reason why the reigning NBA champions, the Miami Heat, are invited to the White House tomorrow. Representatives from the Heat, as well as other professional sports teams, including the Pittsburgh Pirates, Seattle Mariners, Philadelphia Eagles, Portland Trailblazers, Saint Louis Cardinals, and others, are headed to Washington to discuss a game plan they all have in common--how to run a greener, more sustainable business.
Across the country, more than 100 major league sports teams have embraced NRDC's Greening Advisor, a customized online resource designed to help sports teams find ways to green their operations through strategies like energy efficiency, waste reduction, and sustainable procurement policies. Through the Advisor, NRDC has helped spark tremendous change in the way sports teams operate.
Why is the White House interested in the greening of professional sports? While it might not be one of the most polluting businesses in the nation, it is one of the most visible, and is undeniably a part of the American experience. Like many Americans, I grew up playing sports outside--softball, soccer, and touch football. I lived outside Boston, when the Bruins ruled the NHL, and still enjoy playing pond hockey today--a sport which requires, of course, a body of water that freezes in the winter. I wonder if kids in future generations will only know ice hockey as an indoor sport.
Kids playing ice hockey in their Minnesota front yard (credit: GSankary via Flickr)
The imprint of sports is enormous and deep inside us all. When a sports team or event launches a sustainability effort, it creates a tremendous opportunity to attract the attention of millions upon millions of fans. When NASCAR converted to using ethanol, you bet racing fans took notice. When a team rallies squads of fan-volunteers to collect recyclables throughout a stadium, people might actually notice their beer was served in a compostable cup, and realize how that can make a meaningful difference when you're sitting in a group of 10,000 people who are all eating or drinking out of containers that might have otherwise ended up in a landfill for the next century or so.
Fifteen stadiums and arenas are now LEED-certified as green buildings, which consume less water and energy than conventional buildings, and many others are using LEED guidelines when renovating their facilities. Seventeen stadiums have installed solar arrays. The Philadelphia Eagles use a solar-powered scoreboard at Lincoln Financial Field, and get nearly a quarter of their energy from renewable sources. The Seattle Mariners implemented efficiency measures to save $1 million in just over three years, reducing use of natural gas at Safeco Field by 44 percent and electricity consumption by 17 percent. Millions of pounds of paper products have been shifted toward recycled content, recycling and composting programs are now almost standard, and many stadium concessions offer some environmentally friendly food choices.
What's remarkable about the innovative efforts taking place across so many organizations, from the NHL to the USTA, is that all this change essentially stemmed from NRDC's work with one team, the Philadelphia Eagles, in 2004. Smart businesses know a good idea when they see one. Saving on water, energy and waste bills is good for any organization's bottom line, and NRDC's efforts soon expanded to other teams, other leagues, and specific events, like the NCAA Final Four, where we helped recycle seven tons of paper, bottles and cans, compost 1.5 tons of food, and donate leftovers to local charities, and the U.S. Open, which has now recycled more than 18,000 tennis ball cans since partnering with NRDC in 2008.
In the sports business, just like any other, change starts with small steps. The greening of the sports industry is just another example of how the right idea, at the right time, can catch fire. This hot streak will not pay off in trophies, rings, or pennants, but it's a definite win for teams, their fans, and the planet.