The GSB Interview: Sheila Nguyen, Executive Director, Sports Environment Alliance

The Green-Sports movement is in its early days in Australia and New Zealand. After speaking with Sheila Nguyen, the visionary, “won’t take no for an answer”-type Executive Director of the Sports Environment Alliance (SEA), the organization leading the charge Down Under, I am confident that the Green-Sports movement is in great hands. 

 

GreenSportsBlog: Sheila, it’s clear from your American accent that you’re not originally from Australia. How did you get from here to there and how did you come to begin and lead the Green-Sports movement Down Under?

Sheila Nguyen: It’s a long story, Lew…

GSB:…I’m not going anywhere. Go!

SN: OK you asked for it! My parents are refugees from Vietnam, leaving during the war in the late 70s. They landed in Boston before moving to Lowell, where I was born. They wanted to get into the American culture so when my brother was born, they named him Larry after Larry Bird.

GSB: I’m trying to think of the sports figure who’s name is Sheila and I’m drawing a blank.

SN: Well they named me after a French singer named Sheila so not everything was Americanized. Anyway when I was a young girl, my parents, being very traditional, kept me inside all the time. I became obese. I ended up forging my mom’s signature to get the ok to play youth soccer when I was 10. They called me “The Bulldozer”. I was hooked on sports. It was really a life-changing event for me. We moved around a lot but I became incredibly active, swimming, cheerleading, you name it. And sports became embedded in my DNA.

GSB: WOW! Amazing. What did you do with this sports passion?

NGUYEN_headshot

Sheila Nguyen, Executive Director of Sports Environment Alliance (SEA). (Photo credit: Sheila Nguyen)

 

SN: I rowed at the University of Vermont, was a psychology and sports medicine major. And I had a summer internship at the University of Albany when the New York Giants trained there. So I got even more into it. In fact, when it came time to look at grad schools for Sports Psychology, I only considered schools that were in that year’s NCAA Men’s basketball tournament. And whichever school made it the furthest into the tourney, that’s where I was going!

GSB: For real? Basing your graduate school selection on March Madness?

SN: That year, Villanova, Michigan State and Temple all made it into the tournament; Temple got all the way to the Elite Eight. Next thing I knew, I was headed to North Philly. Then I decided to get a PhD. in Sports Business and Corporate Social Responsibility at Florida State

GSB: Did they make a deep NCAA Tournament run that year?

SN: No…I didn’t make my PhD decision based on the NCAA’s- I chose them as they were ranked in the top 5 for doctoral studies in sport business. My dissertation was on How Sports Can Be a Force for Good…And Good Business—I was able to provide evidence that this was the case; that doing good enhanced the business, as a whole, with lots of organizational outcomes like employee loyalty.

GSB: So where did the environmental sustainability piece come in?

SN: Again going back to my parents and their backgrounds as refugees…they were incredible savers; they wanted absolutely no waste. And one of my childhood friends had hippy parents. They composted, for goodness sakes!

GSB: In the 80s? Composting?

SN: Yep! So I was an environmentalist from when I was about eight years old.

GSB: I’m quite sure I had no idea what composting was when I was 28, much less eight. That is great to hear. So I get where your greenness comes from as well as your passion for sports.  How did you come to combine the two?

SN: Great question. It goes back to 2007 when I started my job as Assistant Professor in Sport Management at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia…

GSB: Ahhhhh! So THAT’S where Australia comes in! I was going to ask about that. OK, continue…

SN: And in 2008 I started to do some research on the intersection of environmental sustainability and the sport industry- when I posed it to my class of sport industry professionals, their reaction was evidence that the industry was highly disconnected to their responsibility to their spaces and places of play.

GSB: They didn’t care…Not good.

SN: Fast forward to 2011, when I was a visiting scholar at Notre Dame in Business Ethics.

GSB: So I assume you went to a Notre Dame football game or two?

SN: Absolutely!! What an experience! An even more important one was, while at Notre Dame, I found out about the Green Sports Alliance, went to their first Summit in Portland. That was my “Eureka! Moment” where I said to myself “We have to bring this to Australia!” I talked to the folks at the GSA about doing so but, at the time, they were much more focused on growing their footprint and influence in North America. So that’s when I thought, “I’m going to build something like GSA to represent and attend to the needs of this region.”

GSB: How did you go about it? That seems like a massive undertaking, especially for someone who already had a full time job.

SN: You’re right. But I wasn’t going to wait around. So in 2011, I started talking to organizations like the AFL (Aussie Rules Football), Tennis Australia and other major sports organizations in the country. There was a modicum of interest in doing something around sustainability. Luckily, shortly after starting at Deakin, I met Malcolm Speed, one of the most important figures in Australian sport. Malcolm became my mentor and without him, the Sports Environment Alliance would not exist.

GSB: Who is Malcolm Speed?

SN: I’ll answer that this way: In 2013, David Stern, at that time still commissioner of the NBA, said “35 years ago, a man walked into my office, saying he wanted to start a basketball league in Australia. That man was Malcolm Speed. The lesson? Always keep your office door open!” Malcolm started professional basketball in Australia. He’s a globally reputed and respected sport administrator, and I think he has a crystal ball because he can foresee the industry challenges, like environmental degradation and its impact on our industry.

SEA Malcolm Speed

Malcolm Speed (Photo credit: Sports Environment Alliance)

 

GSB: Man, I want Malcolm to be my mentor!

SN: Well, I’ve got him! Anyway, we knew that the North American sports industry had advanced in terms of considering ways to protect our planet, so in 2013 we decided to host a symposium, one in Melbourne and one in Sydney, and we invited North American leaders to share their insights alongside local leaders. We were fortunate to get a number of amazing industry eco-warriors like, Kevin Carr at the NBA, Brian Thurston at Waste-Management, and Brad Mohr, who then worked for the Cleveland Indians in sustainability and now does so for the Browns, to come down and present. We also had leaders from this part of the world doing amazing things, and pretty much all of the major sports associations attending the event—Aussie Rules, Rugby Union, Rugby League, A-League Soccer, Tennis Australia, Cricket Australia, Golf, Basketball, Netball

GSB: That sounds like a phenomenal level of participation…Who funded this? And how many people showed up?

SN: Deakin supported us and I chipped in to fund it…

GSB: You dipped into your own pocket? That is true devotion…

SN: I look at it like an investment, both in my own future in green-sports and for the environment more broadly. We had about 200 attendees, which we were happy about.

GSB: I’ll say! Australia is less than 10 percent of the US population so that would be like drawing 2,000 or more in the States. That’s really impressive, Sheila. So what were the key take-aways?

SN: That the stadium and arena operators needed to be heavily involved up front. One reason is they could convert knowledge on sustainable operations to practical improvements most easily. And number two is that sports are run differently in Australia as compared to North America. Down here, for the most part, teams are tenants of the stadium and arena owners so they haven’t yet leveraged their position to engage fans on sustainability through education through entertainment, aka, “edutainment.”

GSB: But sustainability isn’t really “entertainment”…it’s more of a cause. Don’t teams do cause marketing in Australia?

SN: They do get involved in some causes- in fact, they are highly involved with various causes, such as breast cancer awareness, racial vilification, and so on, but the environment is less ‘humanized’ and thus, the sporting public has had a more challenging time in engaging it and also probably see it as more of a future problem to be dealt with later.

GSB: It seems like the teams are letting themselves off the hook…also the “environmental problems are in the future” attitude is something we fight in North America as well. How do you start the conversation with the industry?

SN: I start off by reminding them about their ‘locality’ and what is important in this part of the world to protect.   I say we need to protect Australiana, the 24,000 unique species of flora and fauna that exist only in Australia. The other message we share is on how environmental changes can impact our communities. In the 2000’s, Australia experienced serious drought. Community sport was affected as the grounds couldn’t be watered. You might think, “oh this is a problem, but, in the scheme of things, not that big of one.” Well, you would be wrong. Participatory and community sports are huge parts of the Australian culture and the drought cut that off in many cases, which impacted the community connectedness. In many parts of remote and rural Australia, sport is a way of life and a means to socialize and feel connected to one’s neighbors, who may live many kilometers away. As a result, the story is, and there are data to support it, that the drought-related cancellation of community sports led to a marked rise in depression, mental illness and even suicide from the increasing feeling of isolation and loss of identity and connection. So, we would like to say, that this movement is about protecting our communities as much as it is about protecting our spaces to play.

GSB: I had no idea. That is a HUGE story that needs to be told more broadly. Now it makes perfect sense to me that the Sports Environment Alliance was created. How did it happen?

SN: Malcolm and I started to put it together in 2014 as we saw interest in the topic at the symposiums held then. We created the Sports Environment Association (SEA) with a simple mission: To get sports to minimize its environmental impact. We saw this goal as attainable because, if done right, it would also lead to cost cutting, which venues and sports federations would appreciate as they are searching for ways to become more financially independent. In my spare time, as I was still working full time, Malcolm and I chipped away at spreading the ‘good word’, and in our first year, 2015, we were able to get 15 foundation members, including Tennis Australia, Cricket Australia, among many other amazing leaders, including, an AFL club, the Melbourne Cricket Ground and the City of Melbourne itself.

Melbourne Cricket Ground Mat Tubb – Airship Solutions

Aerial view of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, one of Australia’s most venerable sporting venues and a founding member of Sports Environment Alliance (Photo credit: Matt Tubb, Airship Solutions)

 

GSB: WOW! That’s impressive, Sheila, well done! What are the next steps for SEA?

SN: Now that we’ve got the national sport and other industry leaders on board, we are focused on spreading the good word about the role the industry can play in bettering our environmental health.  This is why our first step in addressing our mission was to build awareness of the movement and of the respective issues. In 2016-17, our main aim is to grow the ‘herd,’ through alliance membership. To that end, we just hired both our first and second employee ever—we’re a true startup, having been all volunteers up to now, Lew! And to be truly regional, we are excited to embrace our Trans-Tasman friends from New Zealand. On the latter, we recently secured Auckland Stadiums as our first Kiwi Foundation member, as they represent an enthusiastic and eco-focused group of nine facilities, which can make a world of difference and motivate the rest of the country’s sports industry to be part of the movement. Eventually, should it make sense, we hope to influence and increase the regional representation to the whole of Asia Pacific, and I think we can. Some other exciting news, we’ve started an athlete ambassador program. In fact, Daria Gavrilova, number 20 globally ranked female tennis player, and Marcus Bontempelli, an AFL player, were just featured in the Melbourne Herald Sun, sharing their support of the environment through the #SEAAmbassadors hashtag.

Daria Gavrilova HD Pix

Daria Gavrilova, Australian tennis star and supporter of Sports Environment Association (Photo credit: HD Photos)

 

GSB: That is so exciting. Good luck on all fronts! One last question…It seems as though SEA is not bringing climate change into the mix. Is that an accident? Or are the politics of climate change in Australia toxic, similar to the situation here in the US?

SN: We haven’t really used the term climate change in our mainstream communication, but as you are aware, it is a highly politicized topic- in fact, I would say, it has been a political football. And, while we love sports, we don’t play games with climate change. For us, it is about impact on the ground, and minimizing our impact on the ground is our priority.

GSB: But isn’t avoiding saying the words “climate change” just acquiescing to the deniers and skeptics?

SN: As the first Green-Sports organization in our part of the world and as a start-up, we are taking first things first with the sports industry. That means getting the industry to recognize its crucial societal role, and two, to encourage sporting organizations, stadiums and other industry friends to be more environmentally friendly. That doesn’t mean we’re ignoring climate change; we’re just leading with overall environmental change at present, hence our motto #SEAtheChange . But don’t worry; we’re already partnering with various great groups focused on climate change issues, such as the Climate Institute, the Australian Conservation Foundation, and many others. I say, to use an American football or gridiron analogy, move the football 10 yards at a time- that’s progress, and we’ll eventually get that climate change touchdown.

GSB: I know that dealing with climate change and sports is challenging in Australia as in the US. And, since you’re a startup, I think you’re right to focus on action now and take on climate change directly down the road—just not too far down the road J I look forward to coming down to Australia to check out SEA’s progress for myself.

SN: You got it Lew- any friend of the environment is a friend of ours.

 


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