Gretchen Bleiler, a dreamy-eyed American snowboarder with an Olympic medal shining under her hoodie, stood clinking cocktail glasses with the likes of Dr. Neil Hawkins, the poker-faced vice president and chief sustainability officer of the Dow Chemical Company. Moments earlier, Lewis Pugh, a hunky Briton known for swimming among Arctic ice floes wearing nothing but Speedos, a swimming cap, and goggles, had just wrapped up a speech about his firsthand experience with melting polar ice. Pugh and Bleiler were part of the unlikely delegation that showed up at the COP21 climate talks last December, hoping to inspire sports teams, athletes, and fans around the world to seize the torch of sustainability.
Should these individuals' efforts prove successful, the environmental movement would gain an enormous new constituency. But how, then, do we grapple with sports' own impact on the environment?
There are few things that mobilize as many people with as much passion as sporting events. The Super Bowl is routinely the most watched television broadcast of the year, attracting well over 100 million viewers. (For comparison, recent presidential debates averaged between 10 and 20 million viewers.) And while corporations have always been eager to tap into a sports fan base, it's only recently that some environmental groups have sought to do the same.
The idea has been pushed forward in recent years by the Green Sports Alliance, a Portland-based organization that co-hosted the Sustainable Innovation in Sport event at COP21, which convened an international group of sports industry types in Paris, including Bleiler, Pugh, a National Hockey League executive, and the general manager of the Atlanta Falcons' new National Football League stadium. Since its creation in 2010, the GSA has amassed a roster of 156 teams and 169 sports venues—including most of the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the NFL, and the NHL—in support of its mission to "leverage the cultural and market influence of sports to promote healthy, sustainable communities."
The group's founder and director, Allen Hershkowitz, formerly a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, says COP21 was "an extraordinary validation of the mainstreaming of the sports greening movement. Some of the most iconic names in sports are affiliated with sports greening now, from the Dallas Cowboys to the New York Yankees to Manchester United to NASCAR."
Are the Kobe Bryants and Peyton Mannings of the world really the best candidates to act as spokesmen for the environmental movement?
Hershkowitz, who Mother Jones once characterized as a "personable polymath who spits out data, poetry, and the occasional Henry David Thoreau quote," loves to brag about teams that convert frying oil to bio-diesel (the Philadelphia Eagles), irrigate their turf with municipal wastewater (the Houston Astros' spring training facility), and divert the vast majority of their waste from the landfill (the Seattle Seahawks divert 96 percent).
But the climax of Hershkowitz's spiel is even more Earth-shattering: The sports industry, he claims, is the environmental messiah we've been waiting for. Exuding TV-friendly, tree-hugger-with-a-tough-sounding-Brooklyn-accent charm, Hershkowitz points out that only 16 percent of Americans "follow science very closely in the news," while 71 percent follow sports. It's not angry environmentalists who are going to change our habit of junking up the biosphere, he insists, much less scientists and politicians; it's athletes and entertainers who are in a position to set such cultural trends.
"We're using the sports platform to educate people about environmental issues," Hershkowitz says. "There is a global recognition now of the power of sports to advance environmental messaging."
It's a tempting premise, but are the Kobe Bryants and Peyton Mannings of the world really the best candidates to act as spokesmen for the environmental movement?
While there is reason to applaud sports teams that switch to LED field lighting (which uses 60 to 70 percent less energy than conventional field lights) and employ the latest environmentally friendly techniques when building new arenas, a fundamental contradiction emerges when looking to such a consumption-reliant industry as inspiration about saving the planet: Even if the beer cups are compostable and the hot dogs are antibiotic-free, any industry built on gathering tens of thousands of people (most of whom will travel by car) in one place (often a poorly insulated, climate-controlled venue) in hopes that they will buy lots of stuff (highly processed food and cheaply made souvenirs) looks a tad hypocritical when waving the banner of environmentalism.
Graeme Hayes, a United Kingdom-based sociologist who published several scathing critiques of sustainability claims made by the International Olympic Committee regarding the 2012 London Olympics, sees similar problems with stadium sports in the United States. "To try to use those events in order to promote more responsible consumption patterns is always going to hit against the fact that whatever explicit message you give, there will always be an underlying implicit message which is working in the other direction," he says. Sustainability messaging is more reasonable with sports that involve a high level of contact with nature, such as mountaineering, surfing, or sailing, according to Hayes, but the sports greening movement is unduly focused on arena-based sports—"the sport of consumption and big money."
But leveraging the corporate interests inherent in the sports industry is an explicit goal of the green sports movement. David Muller, membership director of the Green Sports Alliance, freely admits that the business case for sustainability—saving money by reducing energy use and waste disposal fees—is the main selling point for teams to sign on with a sustainability regime, as well as the public relations points they rack up in the process. "It makes perfect sense whether or not someone is passionate about the environmental costs," he says. "And sometimes totally new sponsorships emerge based on the greening work."
There is also no hiding the fact that very few star athletes have joined the GSA's environmental crusade. And those who have are generally in the category of solo outdoor sports, such as Bleiler and Pugh (though NHL star Andrew Ference, who is known for riding his bike to games and speaking out against the oil industry in Canada, is a notable exception). If the athletes aren't on board, will the GSA's message reach its ultimate target, the fans?
We're only just beginning to understand the environmental impact that sporting events have on the planet. Many professional teams now track energy and water consumption and the volume of waste produced at their facilities, proudly reporting their yearly improvements in each category. But relatively few have undertaken the more complex and costly task of evaluating total environmental impacts, including those that result from fan and player travel.
In July 2014, the NHL became the first major professional sports association in North America to disclose its total greenhouse gas emissions. The league-issued report acknowledged that global warming threatened the "frozen lakes and ponds of North America and Europe ... [where] many of our players first honed their skills." With an annual carbon footprint of around 530,000 metric tons of greenhouse gases, the NHL contributes as much to global warming as roughly 50,000 houses do in one year. A few months after the report came out, the NHL announced it would purchase carbon offsets to cover the emissions of the 2014–15 season, generating significant media fanfare.
Many professional sports teams now undertake some form of sustainability accounting, but most are reticent to report total environmental impact data—which, in addition to greenhouse gas emissions, includes water use, impacts on wildlife, and other metrics—for fear that "they would come out below" their competitors, Muller says. "Nobody really feels comfortable putting all their data up in a master list next to others because they are worried, rightfully so, that they might have a bigger number." Variables like venue size make apples-to-apples comparisons difficult, but publishing cherry-picked data in hyped up press releases certainly invites accusations of greenwashing.
The academic community, however, is starting to come around to the task. The University of Arizona Office of Sustainability used a cradle-to-grave sustainability accounting method known as a life cycle assessment—where, in addition to the environmental impacts of the sporting event itself, the impacts of all the resources and materials that go into the event (including their eventual disposal) are accounted for—to determine the environmental "pawprint" of the 2012 and 2013 homecoming festivities for the University of Arizona Wildcats football team. And the University of Arizona hasn't been shy about reporting the results, publicizing cheeky statistics like the number of hotdogs consumed (4,290, enough to wrap around the entire stadium) and drinks imbibed (2,400 gallons, enough to fill a 14-foot pool), alongside more serious data, such as the number of attendees who arrived by car (48 percent) and the use of coal as an energy source for the event (55 percent of the energy supply).
Similar studies abroad have analyzed the ecological impacts of other types of sporting events that are less prevalent in North America. In the U.K., researchers at Cardiff University have carried out ecological footprint studies—which attempt to quantify how much of the Earth's surface area is needed to support a particular lifestyle, population group, or event (including land to absorb carbon emissions and other waste products)—for a soccer match, rugby match, and a cycling event.
Of the three, the greatest environmental impact resulted from a 2004 Football Association Cup Final soccer match in Cardiff with 73,000 fans in attendance, which had a footprint equal to about 3,000 soccer fields—eight times greater than a typical day's. The footprint for a rugby event in the same Cardiff stadium was five to six times greater than an everyday baseline footprint. And a 2007 Tour de France event in London (which is 150 miles east of Cardiff) left a footprint of nearly 60,000 hectares, which was 2.2 times greater than the baseline footprint of the estimated 2.85 million spectators.
For comparison, the Cardiff University researchers also analyzed a non-sports event: A literary festival near Cardiff with 100,000-plus attendees had slightly less than two times the baseline footprint. It's just one study, but it lends credence to the notion of sports events as one of the more consumptive human endeavors.
"We're using the footprint as a scenario tool to look at different policy options," says Andrea Collins, lead author on the four studies. "It's an opportunity to bring environmental information into decision-making for event planners to decide where they will achieve the greatest reduction for money spent ... [but] we haven't gotten to that stage yet."
Collins says the London Tour de France event had a much smaller footprint than the two stadium events in Cardiff due mainly to the distance, and by what mode of transportation, fans traveled to the event (approximately one-third of the cycling spectators were Londoners). The link between sports-related travel and carbon emissions is fairly obvious, but other recent studies have added nuance to the discussion. Matt Dolf of the University of British Columbia's Centre for Sport and Sustainability has completed a life cycle assessment on the entire UBC athletic program and says that, even more than encouraging public transit to games, reducing long distance travel by teams and spectators is definitely the elephant in the green sports arena, dominating energy use and carbon emissions "on the order of 90 percent."
The NHL contributes as much to global warming as roughly 50,000 houses do in one year.
Proposing that teams and fans stop driving and flying to out-of-town sports events seems unlikely to garner much enthusiasm in either the sports industry or the public at large (many visiting teams pay a game-day tax to their host cities). Still, Dolf remains optimistic about the leverage to be had in an area that the green sports movement has largely glossed over so far. He says a mere five percent reduction in long distance travel "is more important than everything else you could do put together," and would be easy to achieve if teams were willing to adopt a few changes in scheduling. Simply increasing the percentage of games between teams in close geographic proximity and making sure there are more games played per trip would make a big difference, he says. In his analysis, he writes, "four teams could travel to the same location and play three matches each over a weekend rather than having each pair of teams travel to play one match over multiple weekends. This would cut in half the amount of travel required."
Dolf, who worked in sports event management and as a professional tennis referee before returning to academia, says teams and venue managers tend to emphasize what is most publicly visible, like recycling programs, which by his estimation accounts for less than one percent of emissions reduction potential. "I think the sports industry is a bit guilty of surface level marketing," Dolf says. "[Like], 'We are green because now we are doing a food recycling program, or something.' It's important to recognize that the big leagues, which are stuck in a neoliberal growth model, are a long way from being green and sustainable. They may be working to bend the curve a little bit, but it's only baby steps."
The GSA, for its part, is quite transparent about its own standards for what it means to be a "green" team: Each member must "pledge to strive to continuously improve." The GSA's Muller grants that's a pretty "soft" standard, but insists that the GSA is not a watchdog group, so much as a cheerleader. "We never set a bar and said you must be this green to enter," he says. "There is no shame."
But there are problems with offering such a low bar to entry. Handing out green credentials to teams who change a few light bulbs and add recycling bins in hopes of a publicity boost undermines any credibility that the green sports movement actually merits. Using science-based, third-party accounting methods for sustainability metrics, such as life cycle assessments, are critical for establishing credibility in the long term. "Most of these environmental impact assessments are done by the organizing body of the event," says Dolf, noting that indirect impacts like travel are often left out of the equation because teams see it as beyond their sphere of influence. "It's really the Wild West right now in terms of the methods that are used, what's measured, and how it's reported. There needs to be a more standardized approach ... [and] I think we have to be authentic about how we communicate about it."
There is no doubt that market-based solutions are essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions—COP21 cemented that logic in the global political economy—but to say that the sports industry is a messenger for environmental values is an inversion of logic. Are professional sports organizations not simply following suit with other large corporations in responding to a powerful social-movement-turned-global-mandate? It seems unlikely teams will influence public opinion on climate change any more than a company like Walmart, which also touts its efforts to convert to 100 percent renewable energy and divert all of its waste.
The human drive to play games and test the limits of the body is not antithetical to environmental stewardship—if anything, it can reinforce the link between the natural world and human health and well-being. But in the world of professional sports, where fans drive hours to sit in their seats and drink beer while a handful of elite athletes do the actual playing, the primary beneficiaries seem to be the players and the team owners. It would be a blessing in disguise if the sports industry somehow became a boon to the environment, but until proven otherwise, that seems like wishful thinking.
The scholar Jay Coakley, author of the seminal textbook Sports in Society, puts the green sports movement in the context of what he calls the Great Sports Myth: "That sport is essentially pure and good. And that anybody who is connected with it shares that purity and goodness. And therefore we don't have to ask any critical questions about it."
Yet Muller insists that the social influence of professional sports transcends its commercial nature. "Sports has been used to support social progress in the past," he says, citing Jackie Robinson's 1947 entrance into professional baseball long before federally mandated desegregation in the 1960s, and Nelson Mandela's use of rugby as a platform for post-Apartheid reconciliation. "I certainly believe that it can and should do that when it comes to our environmental and climate situation now," he says. There is "such loyalty and emotional attachment; I think sports can be as powerful a messenger as there is."
That could be true. Even if it is a myth, maybe it's a worthwhile one to carry around. Let's just make sure we don't subjugate the actual power of human agency to it.
Lead Photo: A general view of a 2014 game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers in Seattle, Washington. (Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
Catastrophic Consequences of Climate Change is Pacific Standard's year-long investigation into the devastating effects of climate change—and how scholars, legislators, and citizen-activists can help stave off its most dire consequences.