Well known global corporations, from BASF to Nike to Tesla, have dipped their toes in the Green-Sports waters. While it makes sense from PR and mission points of view, Green-Sports, for now, represents a small aspect of these companies’ businesses. At the other end are startups for which Green-Sports is everything, or close to it. GreenSportsBlog recently launched an occasional series, Green Sports Startups. It focuses on small (for now) that see the greening of sports as existential to their businesses’ prospects for success. Our first such startup was Nube9, a Seattle-based company committed to making recyclable sports uniforms in the U.S.A. from American fabrics. Today, we pivot to Eric Duea and Stephen Gabauer, co-founders of Underdogs United, a startup that looks to close the green-sports circle by getting sports teams to walk the green walk by buying renewable energy credits that support crucial greening projects in the developing world.
Long-time readers of GreenSportsBlog know that we believe the sports world has done a very good job greening the games themselves (i.e. LEED certified stadiums/arenas, Zero-Waste games, etc.)
Leveraging the massive power and size of the sports fan audience (by some estimates, 65-70 percent of humans worldwide) to fight climate change? Not so much just yet, even though sports has a strong track record in support of social movements, from civil rights to women’s rights and more.
But that is starting to change.
And, if Stephen Gabauer and Eric Duea have anything to say about it, Underdogs United, the Green-Sports startup these lifelong golfers-turned-eco-preneurs co-founded last year, will help the sports world have a measurable and significant impact on the fight to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of climate change.
Stephen Gabauer, co-founder, Underdogs United (Photo credit: Underdogs United)
Eric Duea, co-founder, Underdogs United. (Photo credit: Casa Bay Photography)
But first, some background.
For Stephen and Eric, it was sports first, then green. Stephen, who grew up in the Pittsburgh area, is an archetypical Western Pennsylvania sports lover. “I played baseball, basketball, tennis and golf. Diehard Steelers, Pirates and Penguins fan. Went to Penn State.” A chemical engineering major, he started his career in that field in Charleston, SC but quickly realized his true passion was sports.
To scratch that itch and also to continue a love affair with Germany that had been sparked during a college internship, Stephen found a masters degree program in International Sports Management in Konstanz, near the Swiss border. Sustainable golf course design and architecture became his focus — “my thesis was ‘Sustainable Tourism In The Golf Industry’.” Next was an internship and then a job with Scotland-based Golf Environment Organization (GEO), the non-profit dedicated to providing sustainability standards and support programs to the golf industry. Stephen managed development of OnCourse, a sustainability software that provides science-based tools for course superintendents, including “water management, energy efficiency, and a carbon calculator.”
Meanwhile, Eric grew up on golf courses in southern Iowa and knew from an early age that he wanted to work in the sport in some way, shape or form. “I was a strong player on the Iowa junior circuit and, in high school, led our team to the state championship. But, when I went to Methodist University, a Division III power in Fayetteville, NC., I knew my future wasn’t as a touring pro. 300 guys would try out for the men’s team. Our women’s team had won the NCAA D-III title in 25 out of 27 years at one point. It’s easy to get perspective quickly.”
So Eric became a PGA club teaching pro, working at clubs across the U.S., including the legendary Doral Country Club in South Florida and Wild Dunes in South Carolina, before moving to Sunriver, OR where he was in charge of the membership program at the exclusive Crosswater Club. His responsibilities included high-stress membership sales. Eric ended up burning out.
“High income golfers could afford Crosswater but there was nowhere in Central Oregon for the average family or junior golfer. I saw the need for a community 12-hole course, targeted to middle class families,” said Eric. As I started to put together the funding plan and the shoestring budget, I started to learn about the environmental aspects of golf course management. It intrigued me. The course didn’t end up getting enough funding so it never got built but the experience convinced me to work on the future and the sustainability of golf. So I went to Pinchot University on Bainbridge Island, WA for my MBA in Sustainable Systems. That’s where I really dug into sustainable golf.”
It was at Pinchot that Eric became aware of GEO. “I immediately reached out to them, they hired me as an intern and, then once I finished at Pinchot in 2015 they moved me over to Scotland for a job.”
Stephen and Eric started their collaboration while the latter was running GEO’s Sustainable Tournaments Program. They worked together to, per perform carbon footprint assessments for the European and PGA Tour events, as The Open Championship, hosted by the R&A#.
Eric Duea at the 2015 Open Championship (Photo credit: Underdogs United)
Stephen became fascinated with the opportunity to go beyond ‘reducing’ your carbon footprint and balance it out entirely – known as achieving ‘climate neutral.’ He learned about innovative social businesses in the developing world and market-driven technologies like clean cookstoves and water filters. These initiatives remove measurable CO2 from the atmosphere and produce certified ‘carbon credits’, which are then sold to corporations as a way to reduce and balance their carbon footprint. “I became very inspired by the statistic that 3 billion people are still cooking every meal over an open fire – especially after learning the consequences on the environment and people’s health. I wanted to experience for myself the challenges in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere — I knew that would be integral to my work.”
Jazzed by social entrepreneurship, and ready to get involved on-the-ground, Stephen’s next move was an easy one. He left GEO to pursue his passion for tackling these global challenges. So he went to Kenya and Uganda to work and partner with organizations focused on climate change and helping communities access critical services like food, energy, and water.
Meanwhile, Eric, pursued his own passion for taking on climate change through sports, as he worked on getting a GEO sustainability standard established for golf, partnering with the über-green Waste Management Phoenix Open and the RBC Heritage tournament in South Carolina.
And the two friends on the opposite sides of the world began to realize they were on opposite if complementary sides of a powerful Green-Sports economic equation. Stephen, in Africa, experienced the “supply” side — as in the overabundant potential supply of environmental projects that qualify for carbon credits, from clean water to renewable energy, from efficient cooking to reforestation. Eric, in the U.S., saw the “demand” side — as in the growing number of sports entities, from golf tournaments to college sports conferences, from the Super Bowl to the National Hockey League — ramping up the greening of their games, including via the purchase of carbon offsets.
And from those realizations, Underdogs United was conceived. Which means Stephen and Eric are living early-stage startup founder lives.
Until a couple weeks ago, Stephen was in East Africa, building relationships with partners like Impact Carbon to package life-saving and altering projects for Gold Standard certification^. “Many Ugandans now use firewood to boil water and cook meals,” imparted Stephen. “That is an extremely inefficient and carbon intensive process. Impact Carbon has a partially charcoal based stove that uses 70 percent less fuel, resulting in significant carbon reductions.” There is no shortage of potential supply of carbon credits from Kenya, Uganda, and across the developing world.
Stephen Gabauer of Underdogs United with two Ugandan officials, next to an energy efficient cook stove. (Photo credit: Underdogs United)
Eric, meanwhile, worked the corridors at the late June Green Sports Alliance Summit in Sacramento, talking up Underdogs United and the benefits of carbon offset purchases to team front office executives and venue operators and anyone else who would listen. Reactions, reported Eric, were promising, yet…
…Being Underdogs, the guys know success isn’t guaranteed. Will sports organizations put real funds behind carbon credit purchases? And if they are so inclined, wouldn’t, say, Real Salt Lake want to invest in offsets in Utah rather than Uganda?
Yet…the timing could just be right for Green-Sports supply and demand to intersect.
Think about it:
- The biggest challenge all sports are grappling with is how to keep or gain the affections and loyalty of Millennials and Generation Zers (Ms+GZers).
- Massive pluralities of Ms+GZers not only accept the reality of climate change, its human causality, they expect to be the generations to take action.
- Many Ms+GZers in the developed world want to help their developing world counterparts escape poverty.
- Really big sports advertisers, from adidas to Anheuser-Busch, get climate change and the Ms+GZers thing
- Sports, already greening its games aggressively, should want to partner with the really big sports advertisers on socially responsible marketing programs that appeal to — drum roll, please! — Ms+GZers!
You know, even though I really like the Underdogs United name, Eric and Stephen may not be underdogs after all.
# Together with the US Golf Association, the R&A governs the sport of golf worldwide, operating in separate jurisdictions whiles sharing a commitment to a single code for the Rules of Golf, Rules of Amateur Status and Equipment Standards. The R&A also manages The Open Championship (aka The British Open) and the Women’s British Open, among other top-level tournaments in the UK.
^ One verified ton of CO2 reduced equals one carbon credit. The price of one certified credit ranges from $5-$20/ton.
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