Well-known global corporations, from BASF to Miller-Coors to Nike, have waded into the Green-Sports waters. While it makes sense for them to do so from PR and mission points of view, Green-Sports, for now, represents a small aspect of these companies’ businesses.
Then again, there are startups for which Green-Sports is a significant part of their raison d’être. Last year, GreenSportsBlog launched an occasional series, Green Sports Startups that focuses on small (for now) companies and nonprofits that see the greening of sports as existential to their prospects for success. Our first three startups are Nube 9, a Seattle-based company committed to making recyclable sports uniforms in the U.S.A from American fabrics, Underdogs United, which helps sports teams already talking the green talk to walk the green walk by selling them renewable energy credits generated by vital greening projects in the developing world, and Phononic, a tech company that sees sports venues as important testing grounds for its audacious ambition to disrupt the set-in-its-ways refrigeration market, leading to a meaningful reduction in carbon emissions.
Today we talk with Derek Battle, founder of Play Fresh, a nonprofit that uses American football as a catalyst to help build environmental awareness among at-risk kids and teens. The goal is to give them the tools necessary to combat environmental risks and their adverse effects on their communities.
GreenSportsBlog: Creating Play Fresh as a nonprofit that aims to use football as a medium to teach kids about the challenges and opportunities presented by climate change is a novel approach to be sure. To understand how you came up with it, much less turn it from idea to reality has to be a fascinating story that, I imagine, starts with the football side of the equation. Am I right?
Derek Battle: Yes you are! I grew up playing football through high school in Charlotte, then played linebacker at the University of Delaware, Class of 2015…
GSB: …The Fighting Blue Hens!
DB: Exactly! I played as a freshman but tore my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), rehabbed, made it back to the team, started again, but then I tore my other ACL. And so that was it, football-wise, at least at that level.
Play Fresh co-founder Derek Battle (2nd from right) and the management team. From left to right: Marketing strategist Will Prstowsky, Co-founder Keon Williams, Battle, and COO Ena Linton (Photo credit: Play Fresh)
GSB: A brutal yet all-too-familiar story. So where and when did your interest in climate change come about?
DB: I always had a passion for science and majored in Energy and Environmental Policy. While at Delaware I met John Byrne of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy. He suggested I check it out, that this was where the future was heading and that there would be strong employment opportunities. So I did, found it interesting and that started me on the climate road.
GSB: So where did the connection between football and climate come from?
DB: As I was learning about climate change, I thought there could be a strong correlation between sports, environmental sustainability and the climate change fight.
DB: I did my senior thesis research on stadiums and energy efficiency. And I got an internship with the Philadelphia Water Department…
GSB: What did that entail?
DB: It was really cool — I worked on the first sewage geothermal solution in Pennsylvania. We investigated it for big public buildings, like Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Super Bowl Champion Eagles, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art…
GSB: Of “Rocky” fame…
DB: That’s the one.
GSB: Did those buildings end up implementing the sewage geothermal solution?
DB: Unfortunately, no. But it really inspired me. So then I did research for the Environmental Center on solar, wind and sewage geothermal on NFL stadiums, focusing primarily on M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, home of the Ravens.
GSB: What did you find out?
DB: That it paid off from a financial point of view. Again, the club didn’t implement it but it further cemented the idea that I wanted to work in the green-sports niche. That said, there weren’t opportunities in that niche when I graduated so I took a job in the insurance industry, focused primarily on construction safety. The key thing for me was that the job afforded flexibility in terms of hours and working from home. Which meant I could pursue green-sports. I went to the Green Sports Alliance Summits in 2015 and 2016 in Chicago and Houston. And I took online courses through the University of Seattle’s Sports, Sustainability & Leadership program in 2016-2017. Courses included policy, marketing and fan engagement.
GSB: Did Play Fresh emerge during this time period?
DB: Yes…In around December 2016, as I was learning a ton about sustainability and sports, I thought, “I know a lot about football already. Why not host an eco-friendly football camp where we could teach inner city youth about climate change?” I talked to some of my friends who’d played in the NFL — they gave me some encouragement. And then I reconnected with a high school friend, Keon Williams, who played cornerback at Gardner-Webb University in South Carolina. And he wanted to host a camp. But he wasn’t eco-minded, at least not to that point.
GSB: Did he become green-minded?
DB: Definitely. We became partners and I took some grant writing and policy courses through University of Seattle, which furthered my knowledge base for starting up a nonprofit. By that time I had moved to Baltimore, started networking, connected with a fellow named Joe Gamble who was running an NFL-endorsed “Play 60” program and coached youth football. Joel’s program along with a great guy Jeff Thompsons, and members from the Baltimore Office of Sustainability really helped me learn the social dynamics of the city so that my project would be accepted by the youth. We applied for 501-C3 status and produced a business plan, thanks to my girlfriend, Ena Linton, who is getting her Masters in Public Health at George Washington University — she sees Play Fresh as a public health initiative.
GSB: Then what happened?
DB: Spring 2017 was devoted to organizing the event. We modeled it on Council for Responsible Sport certification standards. Unfortunately, getting certified was too expensive for us just starting out, but we were still committed to developing sustainable operations. We connected with companies who were just as committed to reducing their environmental impact such as, Eco-Promotions. They supplied us with BPA-free water bottles, plus they planted a tree to offset the production of each bottle. Staff and participant t-shirts were made from recycled material and the screen printing was done with eco-friendly dyes by a local company, Momentum Printing.
GSB: That’s impressive. So when did you have the camp and how did it go?
DB: The camp took place on July 22 in Patterson Park in Baltimore City. We had 62 kids from 12 to 16 years of age and 20 coaches, including three with NFL experience. On the football side, we did all sorts of testing — 40-yard dash, shuttle run, etc. — and worked with them on how to improve their performance since college recruiters put a lot of stock on those results. And we held a variety of 7-on-7 scrimmages. On the sustainability side, we handled it in stealthy way in some respects.
Play Fresh athletes run the 40 yard dash (Photo credit: Play Fresh)
Younger Play Fresh athletes engage in flag football drills (Photo credit: Play Fresh)
GSB: How so?
DB: We provided healthy food and snacks and the water bottles. Kids who walked, biked and bused were entered into raffle to win Beats headphones. Throughout the day, we put the onus on the kids to improve their circumstances and their local environment, whether it be through recycling, using a reusable water bottle or participating in community clean-ups. The general messaging was that Under Armour inspires you all to “Protect This House” but at Play Fresh we want to Protect This WORLD!
Play Fresh attendees engage in environmental cleanup in Baltimore City (Photo credit: Play Fresh)
Sustainability Officer Kristin Hanczor provides Play Fresh athletes with reusable BPA-Free water bottles (Photo credit: Play Fresh)
GSB: I love that! Did your team talk to the kids about climate change?
DB: We felt that, as mentioned earlier, that a softer approach was the way to go. Climate change would not have resonated with these kids at that time. But getting them to be aware of and take care of their built environment, we hope, will allow them to be open to climate change going forward.
GSB: How much did it cost?
DB: With the sponsorship from Spornado, and some friends and family funding and not looking for a margin, we were able to drive the cost down to $20 but even that was too expensive for many kids.
GSB: That’s a sad reality…
DB: No doubt and we really can’t do it at that price again. But we are going forward this summer with two Play Fresh events. Our camps will be on June 16 in Charlotte — we’re looking for 100 kids at $30 each and then we’ll be back in Baltimore City in July — date is still TBD — again, going for 100 kids at $30 each. We’re hoping to get grants from Under Armour…
GSB: …A great local Baltimore company.
DB: Under Armour, Nike and/or adidas to help take us to the next level.
GSB: That was going to be my final question. How do you plan to scale Play Fresh?
DB: Our goals are to be like a “Nike Combine” on the football side and ramp up the eco-messaging. So, we will need to have a strong 2018 as a proof point for funders and then ramp up in 2019 with more events and markets. At the same time, we’re building out our ongoing and new Play Fresh initiatives. We have a partnership with Chip’n in which any athlete who volunteers six hours at a local event or organization will receive a complimentary pass to the Play Fresh camp. Through Chip’n’s mobile app, athletes can find local volunteer opportunities and our complimentary ticket offer. And we’ve got Play Fresh 3-D where children participate in a series of relays that test their knowledge of which everyday materials are compostable, recyclable and non-recyclable, as well as, educating them on how air pollution reduces community wellness. Additionally, with our Fresh Change initiative, we work to engage student athletes in community cleanups throughout school year. Really, what we’re looking to create is a living classroom for kids of all ages.