Forest Green Rovers, of English Football’s/Soccer’s Vanarama Conference (the 5th division, 4 levels below the Premier League), was named GreenSportsBlog’s 2014 Green Sports Story of the Year. The reason is simple – they are the greenest team in all of sport. From the first ever organic pitch (aka field) to plant-based food menus at the concession stands, from über energy-efficient lights to on-site renewables, FGR is setting the standard for every other sports team to follow. We wanted to get deeper into the FGR story—to see if going green is good for business. So we went right to the top by speaking to Dale Vince, OBE, Chairman of FGR and founder of Ecotricity, the world’s first green energy company.
GreenSportsBlog: Dale, what you are doing with Forest Green Rovers—by its super-greenness–is really a breakthrough. My question is this: Is it sustainable? By that I mean, is going green good for business, on and off the pitch?
Dale Vince: We’re building a football club that’s both environmentally and financially sustainable. We got involved for two reasons – social and environmental. The club is a big part of the local community, with a rich tradition, and it needed rescuing. For us, it was an investment in the local community. Secondly, the club offered an opportunity to take our sustainable message to a new audience – a large and passionate new audience largely unaccustomed to dealing with sustainability issues.
GSB: Say more…
DV: Removing meat from the menu a few seasons ago is a good example of the way we’ve questioned the traditional way of doing things. We made that decision to improve the performance of the players. We then thought we should offer the fans the same food as we offer the players. There was quite a bit of media pick up, and we had live taste testing on Sky Sports News – it got people questioning the usual food they get at football grounds. I’ve since had people come up to me and say it’s inspired them to go veggie – which is a great thing.
GSB: How did the players react?
DV: They embraced it. If they can see the performance and nutritional benefits, they’ll go for it.
GSB: I guess I can see that but what about the fans? A vegan menu at a stadium/arena concession stand is hard to imagine.
DV: For the majority of our fans, the vegan menu was just not a big deal. There was a minority who did protest at the beginning, but that seems like a long time ago now. We don’t stop people bringing in their own food – what we’re doing is offering them greater variety when they get to the ground. It’s been a big success – food sales are up year on year, and our food is a much bigger part of the matchday experience now.
Dale Vince, OBE, Chairman of English football club Forest Green Rovers, the greenest team in sports. (Photo credit: Forest Green Rovers)
GSB: That really is surprising to me…and impressive. What about the first ever organic pitch?
DV: The pitch is fantastic. We would only go the organic route if the quality was the best – and the pitch regularly wins awards so we’re doing something right.
GSB: Reading between the lines, it seems to me that your definition of sustainability is one of consistent success, in terms of on-pitch and also in terms of greening.
DV: Exactly. The more successful the club is on the pitch, the more successful our sustainable message.
GSB: What do fans tell you about the greening? Because, I’m a serious fan (New York Jets—ARRRGGHH!—and now Forest Green Rovers!!) and I know what fans care most about is WINNING…
DV: Building a sustainable football club – in every sense of the word – means the team has to be successful, too. We’re in our 125th anniversary year, and there is an unprecedented buzz at the club at the moment. A twelve match unbeaten run just ended, and sit on the verge of securing a play-off spot* for the first time in our history. Attendances at The New Lawn are up by 25% already this season and we’re at the tail-end of a playoff push. But it’s also about improving the whole infrastructure of the club, making the entire matchday experience more of an event.
GSB: That has to be super-exciting!
DV: Yes, it’s exciting to sit on the verge of promotion to League Two** for the first time.
GSB: Fantastic! I read where FGR bought Electric Vehicles (EVs) for all of the players. Is that true?
DV: Not quite. Nissan provided us with eleven LEAFs a few seasons ago – which gave us a great PR opportunity to talk about how we’ll get around when the oil runs out.
GSB: Did the players like the Leafs? I would think they would prefer sports cars.
DV: They loved them.
GSB: Did the fans notice the EVs?
DV: Yes, there was a lot of chatter about it on our online fan forums. And we do have a few fans driving to the ground in EVs.
Five of the 11 all-electric LEAFs donated by Nissan to Forest Green Rovers in 2011. (Photo credit: Forest Green Rovers)
GSB: Dale, it seems as though you’ve dotted every green “I” and crossed every green “T”. Where do you go next?
DV: There’s always more to do. We’re looking at having an electric team bus—but such a thing doesn’t exist yet. We want to build a ride share app so we have more fans/car at both our home and away matches.
GSB: Now I know you’ve set a high bar for FGR on the pitch. But for now, FGR is a small club, relatively speaking. Do you plan to bring FGR’s green approach to your bigger club brethren? And, if so, how will you go about it?
DV: We think it’s feasible for FGR to reach the English Championship (the 2nd level in English Football, just below the Premier League) – that will help give us a bigger voice. But we’re already talking to other sports clubs and organizations about what we do.
LB: Could you give an example?
DV: We founded Sustainability in Sport, a non-profit organisation that shares best green practices with other English sports clubs. We founded SiS with Gary Neville, the former Manchester United captain. Our biggest event was Neville’s farewell match at Old Trafford (Man Utd’s home stadium) in 2011. The game was 100% wind powered—and that message went to the 75,000 in attendance and the millions more watching at home.
LB: Wow! All of this is amazing. FGR is now officially my favorite club!# Onward to League 2 and beyond!
* Two clubs from the Vanarama Conference get promoted to League Two, the first place finisher in and the winner of the 4-team playoff, featuring the teams that finish 2nd-5th.FGR sits in 5th place as of March 22.
** With promotion in English football also comes relegation. The bottom two finishers in League Two will go down to the Vanarama Conference.
# OK, FGR is my 2nd favorite club, behind the New York Jets. Given the Jets history, thank goodness relegation doesn’t exist in the NFL.