Sport is, for the most part, an enjoyable experience drawing billions of people to games, events, televisions, bars, and other venues to watch athletes, from children to highly talented professionals, play the sports they love. Yet, this fun comes with consequences that go beyond the game as those individual actions are multiplied by millions and millions of people each year all around the world. An enormous amount of trash is generated at sporting events, from packaging, plates, and bottles to food waste. Resources like water and energy are used to power the games and to keep playing fields lush. Carbon emissions from travel to and from events by all stakeholders also factor into the calculation of consequences.1

Two related perspectives exist in relation to sport and the environment. The first is the Inside-Out perspective where organizational personnel understand how their activities impact the environment. The second perspective is Outside-In where external environmental and related issues (e.g., government regulation) impact the operations of an organization.2 In sport, most of the conceptualizations, research, and knowledge of these issues involve the Inside-Out perspective. Energy consumed by national and international sport events will continue to increase as sporting leagues grow around the world.3 During the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, 10,500 athletes participated in the Games and 500,000 people traveled to attend them. Seventy thousand people visited New Orleans to attend the Super Bowl in person, but many more visited the city for the events surrounding the Super Bowl, but did not have tickets to attend the game. It was estimated that each match at the 2006 World Cup used three million kilowatt hours of energy and produced five to ten tons of trash—and that was with an environmental plan developed by FIFA prior to the tournament.4 Television broadcasts of these events allowed millions of people around the world to stay home, but still generated a significant amount of resource consumption involved in the millions of nationwide parties and general home viewing. Events need parking, which consumes land and resources to build and to maintain. With more new stadia taking transportation into account when designing facilities, there is an improvement in transportation options (i.e., some fans and participants travel to and from the games by buses, bicycles, or walking), but automobile travel followed by air travel remain the dominant mode.

It is not just the national and international events that create environmental problems. While the large events garner attention, numerous lower-tier sport events and recreational activities contribute to our environmental problems. At the intercollegiate athletics level, mid-major football games, like those at Ohio University, have been known to generate around two tons of trash at their most heavily attended game, but major programs can generate up to three times that much each week. Local public golf courses consume land, require constant resource inputs, and use pesticides to control insect populations. Ski slopes generate snow when nature does not provide it and the local ecosystem can be at risk by this action, especially when wastewater is used to manufacture the snow.5 The list goes on, but the common denominator is that sport and recreational activities impact the environment, often in negative ways.

The Outside-In perspective comes into play as natural environmental changes impact sport organizations. In New Orleans, for example, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina had a significant effect on the city and its infrastructure, especially the Superdome, in graphic and enduring ways. Few people will forget the images of the Superdome after the flooding in New Orleans. The venue was transformed from a stadium of fun and excitement into a place of death, despair, and tragedy. It is impossible to visit the venue without recalling the toll of environmental disasters. In another example, Australia’s difficulties with drought over the years affected its sporting industry and infrastructure as rationing and other methods to combat drought were undertaken.6,7 While natural conditions are often out of the control of sport personnel, their own contributions to the outcomes of the natural conditions, such as inhibiting proper water drainage due to a facility footprint, necessitate a balance of Inside-Out and Outside-In thinking in strategic planning for environmental activities.

Regulations and legislation related to construction of sport venues and their operations are driving change as much as altruistic intentions. Since the 1970s and enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act, federal agencies must consider the environmental impact of any federal action.8 States have followed this lead, often commissioning environmental impact studies and reports.

In 2009 the city of Santa Clara, California, undertook one of these studies in preparation for a new stadium for the San Francisco 49ers. The report was sent to over 30 organizations, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, California Highway Patrol, and the Cupertino Planning Department. Comments were solicited about the study and compiled into the final report. The study results offered a comprehensive analysis of the holistic environmental impact of the new stadium. This small example is part of a larger network of laws and regulations governing construction and operations of organizations in the United States. State environmental policy acts (SEPAs) require environmental study and planning before any state action is taken, although they might vary on how this is accomplished.8 The SEPAs also ensure that state natural resource agencies conduct environmental reviews of proposed projects. While mechanisms exist to delay or to be exempt from environmental review, the review cannot be bypassed entirely unless a SEPA indicates a process to do so (e.g., regulations for the timeline to put a construction project on a ballot).8


Kevin Fitzsimmons
Though professional sports teams advocate most ardently for environmentally friendly changes, amateur and collegiate teams, like Ohio state University, also participate.

Consulting organizations have been brought in. Additional local, state, and federal laws and regulations for environmental issues are also part of this process, which is why sport organization personnel sought out the expertise of organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the U.S. Green Building Council. Combined with regulating or governing body guidelines from groups like the International Olympic Committee, sport personnel have a complex task of accomplishing organizational goals while accounting for environmental issues.

Lastly, the nonprofit Green Sports Alliance was formed in 2010 with a mission to help sports teams, venues, and leagues enhance their environmental performance. More on this organization’s vital role will be discussed later in the article.

Sport is a part of life and life is inclusive of the environment, not separate from it. We see this as fans huddle around a small grill. Brats and hot dogs pop and sizzle on it as each person talks up the chances of a win later in the day. A small child jumps up and down pointing excitedly at the largest foam finger she has ever seen as her dad reaches for his wallet and smiles with his wife. On the sidelines, a player pulls out a bottle of water from his bag as he finishes practice, drinks it down, and chats with the coach about the night’s game. A lone woman sweeps out a concourse in a stadium, catching dropped ketchup packets, game notes, and the coupon flyer handed out at that night’s game. Each of these scenes, like thousands of others, is played out across the world of sport each day. What connects them all? Trash.

Sport is also highly material and has a significant, multifaceted environmental impact that must be addressed. Exploring how the different stakeholders in the world of sport can address this issue is important to understanding the goals, objectives, and tactics used to take action. In the end, the impact of sport on the environment can become clearer, as can the ways everyone involved can work to minimize, address, or solve environmental problems in sport.

Facility Design, Construction, and Management

To begin, facilities and stadia are clear examples of an environmental impact. Every sport venue is built, maintained, renovated, and demolished, and a new one built at some point. Stadia today, especially as you move up the ranks to the highest professional levels, require more and better amenities. Wireless access is now commonplace, numerous food and beverage choices are on menus to satisfy as many possible tastes as there are fans, novelties and merchandise are sold or given away to entice fans to games and allow them to demonstrate their fandom, and, of course, there is the never-ending demand for parking spaces. More aspects of the sport experience are needed if fans are to gain value from purchasing tickets, including the season variety where parking is a must. For every hot dog purchased, beer or soda consumed, light turned on, and field watered, however, energy and resources are used.

It is interesting to note that facility management personnel were early movers in the environmental change process. What might have started with a search for more environmentally friendly cleaning products is now a full force effort to have buildings built or renovated with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification. Much of the impetus for change came over the course of the past 20 years in the form of waste reduction and much of this work was done to improve the customer experience (e.g., hand dryers in the lavatory eliminate paper towels all over the floor and do not run out). As new stadia are built and others refurbished, LEED principles are increasingly added to the planning and construction work. In more recent years, sport personnel in other organizational areas like marketing began to see the strategic issues related to environmental activities, such as community engagement, revenue generation through sponsorship, and cost savings through upgraded facilities. Potential cost savings helped to drive the changes in facility operations and best practices were sought for energy savings, resource usage, and other operational activities.9 Today, stadia developers and teams often compete to determine which team is the greenest. For example, the Olympic Stadium in London was built using only a tenth of the total steel used to build the Bird’s Nest stadium in 2008 for the Olympic Games in Beijing.10 Environmentalism is becoming a key operational initiative and marketing aspect of sport, though funding remains a constant issue in keeping them both active and progressive.9

In Major League Baseball, the Washington Nationals, Minnesota Twins, and San Diego Padres, among many others, all made efforts to be the greenest team and ballpark in the country, making substantial commitments to environment design and conduct in their ballpark operations. The New York Giants, Miami Heat, Portland Trailblazers, and the Montreal Canadiens also received LEED certification at some point. In fact, NRDC, an environmental advisor to Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, noted as of 2012 that 15 professional sports venues had been awarded some level of LEED certification for new or existing structures with numerous others in various stages of such certification.11 This does not even count intercollegiate and lower-level professional and amateur venues.


Portland Trail Blazers
Portland Trail Blazers mascot Blaze the Trail Cat demonstrates a state-of-the-art Christenson Electric vehicle charging station. There are 26 stations available throughout the stadium’s parking structures.

Event Operations

Beyond the physical structures, sport leagues, teams, organizing committees, and governing bodies developed event-management plans that help to produce greener games. As noted earlier, FIFA, the governing body of soccer, built a zero-emission headquarters and developed guidelines for organizing committees to use when planning to host events. The guidelines are called Green Goal. They were initiated at the 2006 World Cup in Germany and continued for the 2010 South African World Cup.4 They are updated and revised continually and take into account local needs and abilities. The International Olympic Committee has a similar set of guidelines for host countries to follow. While organizations such as Major League Baseball do not provide any such strict rubric, it has been active in developing relationships to help teams. Efforts are often local and under team control.

Local Community Engagement

An important aspect of any sports organization’s operation is engagement with the local community. Many personnel see community engagement as a form of corporate citizenship or outreach. Reading in schools and health issues are common outreach contexts. However, the environment is becoming another avenue for community engagement. Educational opportunities to reach into schools with applied environmental problems and data to help teachers and students study environmental impacts is one example. Helping to understand and address local environmental damage and degradation, even health and wellness, is becoming important to the fishing, golf, and outdoor sports industries as well as professional and amateur team sports. Since sport organizations have an important and high-profile local role, and are beholden to many levels of governmental laws and regulations, personnel work to integrate their sustainability efforts with the local community. This is a complicated issue because of the ability for a local community, including the local business community, to aid these efforts (having, for instance, strong infrastructure for waste disposal or recycling). Social pressures from many levels—nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), fans, suppliers, league offices, governing bodies, and universities and colleges—are driving change, but the change is contextual and inconsistent across sports and within a sport itself.

Beyond altruistic actions, revenue generation, cost savings, and cost offsets can be found through partnerships and sponsorships with corporate entities and other groups. These partnerships could help to move environmental change from a single team throughout its stakeholder base. However, sponsorship opportunities and partnerships in this area are at a nascent stage compared with traditional corporate sponsorship in sport. In addition, when a local community (e.g., Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia) has several major and/or minor league sport organizations and the athletics departments of various colleges and universities surrounding it, competition occurs for sponsorship dollars from a finite corporate base. Competition for relationships with green-oriented businesses, such as title sponsorship of an event or long term in-kind assistance, is a challenge for sport personnel if the green oriented companies do not have capacity to handle the demand from these organizations in addition to the demand from traditional corporate or civic organizations (e.g., city governments).

The Times Are Changing

Recycling is common at sporting events today and research has shown that it is one of the most frequently taken first steps in an environmental change program at the intercollegiate athletics level, although it is just as frequent at major sporting venues and events.12 Additionally, there has been a general focus on reduction in resource and chemical usage. For example, the St. Louis Cardinals personnel estimated that 15–20 percent of their operations budget was devoted to energy usage.13 Using the Environmental Protection Agency’s EnergyStar Portfolio Manager, the Cardinals showed how “since 2007 they’ve cut the ballpark’s energy use by 23 percent.”13

Within stadia, food and menu changes are also being made. For example, the Cleveland Cavaliers began offering an expanded vegetarian menu at their concession stands and restaurants in Quicken Loans Arena. Similarly, the Philadelphia Eagles, an organization that exemplifies environmental activism in sport, has one of the largest vegetarian menus in sport, a commitment found at every food-service level from concessions to suites. The San Diego Padres recently partnered with a local biofuel company to provide used cooking oils to buses in the surrounding school districts. Even sport stalwarts like paper-based media guides and game notes are going digital to reduce waste and paper usage. Once again, the Philadelphia Eagles personnel worked to reduce paper usage. When paper is needed, they strive to use 100 percent post-consumer recycled paper. In 2004 they used about 25 tons of it, but by 2010, it was near 50 percent of overall paper use in the Eagles offices and overall paper usage was down to 75 tons from a high of nearly 200 tons in 2007.14 Also, in 2010, of the 457 gallons of cleaning products used by the Eagles, 169 gallons (37 percent) were from environmentally friendly products.14


Diane Rezendes, Green Bear Group
Teams are taking active roles as educators, showing fans different environmental actions that they can take. Here, Seattle’s Kid Compost shakes hands at Safeco Field.

Outside of the professional level, intercollegiate athletics is also addressing environmental issues. Some academic studies examined current and past usage practices related to environmental activities by intercollegiate athletics personnel. For example, 75 percent of Division I intercollegiate athletics department personnel reported extensive-to-moderate usage of compact fluorescent lighting in sport facilities. Recycling, across office operations and events, was an often-reported environmental activity in the athletics departments. Areas such as promoting green strategies through partnerships and utilizing alternative energy were less often reported or planned for.12

Even individual athletes are getting involved. Athletes including Steve Nash, Usain Bolt, Kelly Slater, Marta Vieira da Silva, Tom Paradiso, and Leilani Münter are visible advocates for environmental action.15 They work on their own, separate from the teams of which they’re part, to promote an environmental message.

An Answer: The Green Sports Alliance

Without much guidance, sport personnel have been addressing environmental issues on their own with debates over the best pathways to environmental sustainability.16 Some teams took little to no action, while others made it a top-down imperative to change operations. Little data and information were shared throughout the industry; exchanges were confined mostly to individual associations, mega events, or personal relationships. What was needed was a more coordinated effort to link sport organizations together in terms of environmental issues and to connect them to other organizations that could help them address the environmental challenges they faced.

Enter the Green Sports Alliance, a nonprofit organization with a mission to help sport teams, venues, and leagues enhance their environmental performance. In February 2010 the concept of the Alliance began in a workshop where sport personnel, mainly from the Northwest United States, came together to discuss sustainability issues, share experiences, and to help each other address the environmental impacts of their teams and venues. That first meeting and the initial development of the organization and its ideals was orchestrated by Jason Twill, sustainability lead at Vulcan Inc., and Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist at NRDC and director of NRDC’s Sports Greening Project. Paul Allen, cofounder of Microsoft and Vulcan Inc., owns the Seattle Seahawks and Portland Trailblazers, and is part owner of the Seattle Sounders FC. In addition to Allen’s teams, the inaugural members and partners of the Alliance are the Seattle Mariners, Seattle Storm, Vancouver Canucks, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Milepost Consulting, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Realizing the benefit of building this collaboration, the Alliance launched nationally in March 2011 in an effort to bring together sport personnel from around the world to share information and ideas about improving environmental performance industry-wide. What started with six professional sports teams and five venues now boasts a membership of nearly 170 professional and collegiate sports teams and venues from 15 different sports leagues. Scott Jenkins, chairman of the board for the Alliance and vice president of Ballpark Operations for the Seattle Mariners, noted, “Our biggest challenge is to get people’s attention. People are busy and sustainability is often woven into existing responsibilities. We need it to become a part of their time and get their attention.”

Alliance Guiding Principles

During the Alliance’s formation, several guiding principles shaped the strategic decisions and actions taken by members. As a small, start-up, nonprofit organization, the Alliance measures its actions and activities based on the goal of providing maximum value to its members.

Alliance members make a commitment to improve their environmental performance. With the support of the Alliance and its partners, members collaborate with each other on a number of ongoing initiatives. Membership in the Alliance is open to any sports team, venue, league or collegiate program willing to make this commitment. The Alliance helps its members reach their environmental goals through direct support and focused research, facilitated networking with recognized leaders in the industry, compilation and sharing of best practices in venue operations and team communications, workshops, a monthly webinar series, and much more. In short, as Hershkowitz noted, the Alliance wants to “green the world through sport.”

A primary principle guiding Alliance efforts is that its members succeed when they measure and track their environmental performance in order to drive environmental performance improvements. This principle is grounded in the belief that you cannot manage what you cannot measure. Understanding operations within a venue or the administrative offices of a team is a first step toward figuring out how to plan strategically for immediate and future environmental operations. As Jenkins said, “We need to get people aware of issues to get anywhere.”


©2013 NBA Entertainment. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE
As part of NBA Green Week, Darrell Arthur of the Memphis Grizzlies joined local youth to help clean up litter along the Wolf River Greenway in partnership with the Wolf River Conservancy.

Building upon this effort, Alliance personnel can then work with team and venue personnel to develop a strategic approach to environmental efforts (e.g., developing goals, objectives, tactics). While the Alliance is not an auditing organization and does not provide certification processes, they support their members both individually and collectively. With partners like NRDC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as technical advisors, the Alliance helps to guide the greening process for its members, tackling specific challenges and sharing the broader lessons they’ve learned. These processes are contextual and unique to each situation, versus a one-size-fits-all approach.

It is also important for team and venue personnel to communicate their activities to stakeholders, especially fans—a point voiced by Hershkowitz when he said the Alliance must be an “information-sharing organization” that facilitates “a cultural shift in the way people think about the planet.” The Alliance has mechanisms to help spread messages and to share better practices with the general public, other nonmembers, and among the teams and venues themselves. The organization was founded on a platform of leadership and stewardship within sport given the high-profile role of sport in cultures around the world as well as its substantial environmental footprint. The Alliance’s efforts go beyond sports and provide stewardship for the society at large and enhance and augment the environmental conversation, according to Jenkins.

Strength in Numbers

In a 2013 Forbes contributor David Ferris laid out four key ways that sport organization personnel can begin to address environmental issues:

  1. Analyze and reduce energy and water usage combined with waste diversion strategies.
  2. Work within the context of the team or venue to achieve the maximum benefits of environmental change.
  3. Identify and work towards return on investment targets to justify the long term value of the environmental strategy and align environmental issues with other key organizational strategic planning and elements.
  4. Maintain awareness of changes to technology and other areas related to environmental change.17

Alliance personnel have developed tools to help sport personnel address these and other environmental and related issues. For example, the Alliance developed an Operations Roadmap that is designed to help strategic and tactical planning for environmental issues. Specifically, it addresses planning issues, cost reduction, and revenue generation. The guide offers overviews of key environmental issues and suggests implementation strategies and tactics to fulfill environmental goals. Additionally, the Alliance recently released its E-Waste Collection Playbook: A Guide to Help Sports Teams and Venues Host a Successful E-Waste Collection Drive. The guides are not prescriptive, and suggestions can be tailored to fit many different contexts. Additional guidance can be found in the form of an online guide from NRDC and a solar power guide from NRDC and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation for sport personnel interested in energy usage and solar energy systems in sport venues.18 Finally, the Alliance assisted NRDC in the preparation of a compilation of case studies on successful environmental initiatives in sport, entitled Game Changer: How the Sports Industry is Saving the Environment.13 The report is available on the Alliance website. The cases come from around the professional sports world and cover a variety of environmental topics. Sport team, venue, and special events topics are included. The cases answer questions as to why sport personnel made the commitment to environmental action, where to start with environmental change, what types of challenges there are in making environmental issues part of organizational operations, and what lessons can be learned from individual contexts and experiences.

Despite these proactive actions, the Alliance mission and role does not prescribe actions to take or monitor the activities of its members in the sense of accreditation (e.g., LEED) or oversight (e.g., governmental regulations). Rather, Alliance personnel help guide the flow of information and facilitate opportunities for people to come together to discuss environmental issues in sport and share better practices in addressing them. Each year, they convene the Green Sports Alliance Summit, this year in New York from August 26–28. They do not conduct testing or auditing for sport teams and venues. They do emphasize the collective nature of the environmental problems we face, and seek collective answers to them.

Twists and Turns on the Environmental Path

Even though the Alliance has achieved a great deal of success from its early days, many challenges remain. The individual team members remain heavily weighted toward major professional sport organizations. There is a need to bring more collegiate athletic programs and smaller professional sport organizations into the fold. Growth of the Alliance’s operations must be managed, too, as it is a small organization despite its high profile.

Additionally, the Alliance remains a North American organization, although it has a much stronger member base from outside this area in relation to its venue members. Continuing to link sport organizations and venues from around the world and to navigate the complexity of international sport operations will be a task for the Alliance in the long term.


Arizona State University
Arizona State University’s Wells Fargo Arena, topped with solar panels.

Continuing to understand the roles fans play in environmental efforts is another key area on which to concentrate. While most people do not go to sporting events for a science lesson, fans do play a significant role in sport’s environmental footprint. They need to be part of the process in order to change behaviors at events and at home in their everyday lives. Learning from fans and teaching them about environmental actions at teams and venues is a growing and critical aspect of the Alliance’s mission. Connecting corporate and nonprofit partners with the fans is also important.

The Alliance continues to work to improve the strategic and operational effectiveness among members. They are helping to establish better practices and benchmarks, which improves overall strategic planning by individual teams and venues. Related to this is the attention given to help members balance cost savings and revenue generation opportunities and goals. This is a tricky area because, in a specific region for example, there might be several Alliance teams, but a finite number of potential partners and sponsors. We see this in many major sport cities that host a variety of sport teams. Fostering collaboration will be a key focus in this area because establishing a culture of measuring environmental performance will enable a culture of managing it.

Training members to train the individuals within their organizations (“green teams”) is crucial for environmental success. One area to work on is the internal organizational member training at the team, event, and league levels, which will help to prepare the next generation of sport managers with skills and abilities in this area while they are still in college or early in their careers. Jenkins suggested that training is becoming easier as more people become aware of the Alliance and environmental issues, and as more people attend the Alliance’s annual summit and monthly webinars.

Finally, developing closer links with partners in the corporate and nonprofit sectors will continue to be an important part of the Alliance’s activities. Further, establishing new relationships and enhancing existing ones addresses the holistic nature of environmental issues because of the variety of stakeholders involved in putting on sporting events. “Our partners allow me to do what I do because they help with expertise and resources,” said Jenkins, also noting how sport teams and venues provide a great platform to tell environmental stories and activities.

The End?

In the end, there is a need to make environmental issues a part of the culture of sport management and administration. Sport personnel must bring environmental issues into operational and strategic planning. At the moment, there is momentum, but the momentum must be routinized into strategic planning and operational guidelines for it to mean something two decades from now. The Alliance is well placed to make this happen. As Jenkins said, “We want people to get in the game, to get involved, to join the Alliance and to attend our summits.” The environmental challenges our planet faces are like a race without end. Thus, the world of sport, like all other cultural contexts, must address its environmental impact through continuous adaptation and management.


Michael Pfahl

Michael Pfahl is an assistant professor in the Department of Sports Administration at Ohio University. He teaches and conducts research in the areas of sport and the natural environment, sport marketing,...

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