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Saving the Playing Field: A Tale of Two Professional Sports and Sustainability

Image Credit: Sacramento Kings

Sports and corporate sustainability are two fields not always thought of as playing on the same court. But the two have more in common than one might initially expect — both are about winning through fair competition and the display of excellence.

In recent years, the line between the sports business and sustainable business have begun to blur as the the industry embraces triple bottom line principles.

The four major professional leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) generate approximately 35,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year from their fans’ waste activities alone, according to Waste Management — about the same as the emissions from just over 7,300 passenger vehicles each year. This of course doesn’t include the significant emissions from employee and athlete travel, or other sources of pollution associated with running a professional sports team.

And the effects of professional sports teams reach well beyond their stadiums and arenas — they help shape their cities’ transportation infrastructures, boost local economies and can significantly affect their regions’ environmental systems.

But what does sports sustainability mean, exactly? Two help answer this question, we’ll explore two case studies from two very different sports: professional basketball and sailing.

The Sacramento Kings: Solar-Powered and Smart

The NBA’s Sacramento Kings have taken a democratic approach to defining sustainability in their operations. When the team began planning for its new downtown Sacramento stadium, Golden 1 Center, the team surveyed over 20,000 Sacramentans about what should be in the new arena. Lo and behold — one of the highest-ranking answers was sustainability.

“We’re making conscious efforts to intelligently and responsibly utilize natural resources, limiting our impact on the environment,” Kings President and Chief Operating Officer Chris Granger told Sustainable Brands. “And we’re hoping that our model will encourage others locally, in California, and across the globe to do the same. From food bank partnerships to water-saving features, green business practices can positively impact our community’s health and quality of life.”

Scheduled to open in October 2016, the Golden 1 Center will be 100 percent powered by solar energy, with 15 percent of the arena’s energy coming directly from the solar panels on the roof and the remaining 85 percent coming from a 10.9-megawatt solar farm near Rancho Seco. Solar is a natural choice in the sunny Sacramento Valley, which averages more than 300 days of sunshine each year.

The arena also will feature a state-of-the-art cooling system that hasn’t been utilized in a North American sports facility before.

“Unlike a traditional cooling system that pushes high-volume forced air from the top of the building down to the bottom, we can heat and cool the lower bowl more efficiently as climate-controlled air seeps out through ventilation ducts underneath the seats,” Granger said. “Instead of using high-powered fans to cool the whole building, we can precisely adjust the climate where we want, when we want, creating a comfortable experience at an energy savings.”

On top of this, Golden 1 Center will employ cutting-edge smart-building controls connected to data-driven, advanced technology infrastructure, Granger said. This will allow the stadium operators to turn energy-conserving LEDs on and off with the push of a button, monitor solar energy gains with intelligent dashboards, and harness the power of Sacramento’s temperate climate by opening the arena’s five hangar doors to cool the building with the natural delta breeze.

“These innovations will conserve enough energy over the course of a year to power a 200,000-square-foot office building,” Granger said.

The team also offered fans an opportunity to be a part of the new arena by donating their used athletic shoes, which are being incorporated into a unique flooring material for the court: The Kings partnered with Connor Sports for the manufacturing of the court, which will include a number of recycled materials. The donated shoes will be recycled into a rubber grind, which will be combined with "Nike grind" (a material made from recycled sneakers, plastic bottles and manufacturing scraps from Nike’s factories) and incorporated into the foam layer of the new court. 

Meanwhile, the Kings have set a goal of sourcing 90 percent of arena food and beverage within 150 miles of the venue. The team is meeting with local producers to develop a sourcing plan.

With an eye for revitalizing Sacramento’s downtown and reducing carbon emissions, the arena’s new location is expected to reduce average miles traveled per attendee by 20 percent (compared to the King’s previous home in North Sacramento), cut overall air emissions by 24 percent, and reduce travel-related greenhouse gas emissions per attendee by 36 percent by 2020.

11th Hour Racing Uncovers the Hidden Costs of Sailing

“Sport is a very powerful tool to promote positive change, engage with large and diverse audiences and impact many different industries,” Todd McGuire, program director at 11th Hour Racing, told Sustainable Brands in an email. “The influence of sports teams extends far beyond the race course/stadium, and athletes are ideal role models and ambassadors to promote sustainability.”

A program of the Schmidt Family Foundation, 11th Hour Racing says its purpose is to “establish strategic partnerships within the sailing and marine communities to promote collaborative systemic change for the health of our marine environment.”

While sailing often is perceived as a clean sport — harnessing the power of the wind to cross the world’s oceans through a sustainable means of transport — in reality, it has inherent carbon-related and other environmental impacts, McGuire warned. These include everything from materials and techniques for boat and equipment production to fuel consumption and pollution from sailing accidents and spills. There’s also problems associated with marine debris, waste production and energy consumption.

And let’s not forget the disruption to the marine environment — trash and fluids off boats, toxic chemicals used for washing boats, noise and wake produced by support vessels and spectator fleets, injuries to marine creatures, unsettling of sea beds by anchors, among many others.

Having a special connection to the natural world, sailors are some of the first to see humanity’s harmful impact on the ocean, and increasingly are driving action and innovation to address these environmental challenges (just ask Ellen MacArthur).

“The fundamental principle of sustainable sailing is to recognize the impact of the sport and develop a strategy to plan, measure, improve and report on a team's or event’s operations and activities,” McGuire said. “Through the platform of sailing, 11th Hour Racing aims to increase our understanding of the oceans, find solutions to the challenges that impact marine resources, and promote stewardship of the seas that sustain life on our planet.”

The organization works with events, classes and teams to create and implement sustainable guidelines that focus on mitigating the environmental impacts of large scale sailing events.

11th Hour Racing committed its sponsorship to a sailing team called Land Rover BAR, due to its goal to operate and win a sustainable America’s Cup campaign, and build a long-term business model that places environmental responsibility at its foundation.

“Land Rover BAR and 11th Hour Racing are working in partnership on a bold project to produce a blueprint of how marine companies and sporting teams can be fully sustainable, innovative and succeed on every level,” McGuire said.

Land Rover BAR was the first British sports team to be awarded the Olympic-inspired ISO 20121 certification across all its business and sporting activities. Among its sustainability achievements is developing a cleaner and more efficient process to recycle carbon fiber from its resin composite. The team also pioneered fuel-efficient powerboats made from recycled composites, uses captured rainwater for external water needs and promotes renewable energy, among other sustainability moves.

In preparation for the 35th America’s Cup in Bermuda in the summer of 2017, 11th Hour Racing has been working closely with event organizers and Land Rover BAR to include sustainability guidelines and activities at the different venues, and also engaging with the environmental organizations and science institutions in Bermuda.

“We are working on a legacy project for Bermuda based around the global issue of invasive species, which will blend many elements such as innovation, technology, ocean health, sustainable fishing, coral reefs, community engagement and gastronomy,” McGuire said.


Based in San Francisco, Mike Hower is a sustainability strategist and storyteller on Edelman's Business + Social Purpose team where he works with some of the world's leading brands on corporate sustainability strategy and stakeholder engagement. With several years of… [Read more about Mike Hower]


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