The GSB Interview: Kunal Merchant of Lotus Advisory, Bringing Green-Sports to Sacramento, Oakland and Beyond

Kunal Merchant occupies a fascinating perch in the Green-Sports world. A member of the Green Sports Alliance board, the Bay Area-based Merchant has a background in business, politics, and social enterprise. And as co-founder of Lotus Advisory with his sister Monisha, Merchant has guided the sustainability efforts on state-of-the-art green stadium and arena projects, from Sacramento’s Golden1 Center — the first LEED Platinum indoor arena in the world — to the nascent Oakland A’s ballpark project.

GreenSportsBlog spoke with Merchant about his work on Green-Sports projects, with the Alliance, and where he sees the movement heading.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Kunal, I can’t wait to dig into your story which takes place at the intersection of sports, politics, and sustainability. Nothing juicy there…

Kunal Merchant: It has been a fascinating ride to this point, Lew. I came to the sports world from the political side, working as Chief of Staff for then Sacramento Mayor and ex-NBA All Star Kevin Johnson. I served in that role during his first term, between December 2008 and June 2012, which was a dramatic time. The Mayor took office right as the national economy was entering the Great Recession. Sacramento was particularly hard hit by double-digit unemployment and a foreclosure crisis. Morale was low, and right when the town thought it couldn’t get any worse, we found out that our beloved Sacramento Kings – the one and only pro sports team in town – wanted to leave town.

The team had been struggling both on and off the court for years, including several failed attempts to build a new arena to replace what had by then become the oldest and smallest arena in the NBA. The Kings’ ownership felt that their best shot was to start over in a new city, with Seattle being the most likely destination. It was a punch to the gut for Sacramento, and in the Mayor’s office, we knew that how Sacramento responded to this challenge would have implications far beyond sports for the city’s economic and civic identity.

GSB: So how did you go about dealing with the significant headwinds?

Kunal: That’s a topic for a much longer conversation! But, oversimplified, there were three key checkboxes on our “to-do list” to save the team: (1) prove that Sacramento was a viable NBA market; (2) recruit a new ownership group willing to buy the team and keep it in Sacramento; and (3) develop a plan to build and finance a new arena. The arena was arguably the most critical – and difficult item – particularly since, for a market the size of Sacramento, some form of public investment was going to be needed.

Taxpayers were understandably skeptical about putting public money towards a basketball arena. But after studying similar situations around the country, we in the Mayor’s Office concluded that, under the right terms and structure, we could deliver a public-private partnership for a new arena that would be a win for the Kings and for Sacramento. To get there, we needed to generate transformative economic and community benefits, something that was only possible if we used the arena to anchor the broader revitalization of our blighted and long-underperforming downtown core.

In that respect, Sacramento really reminded me of the Denver of my childhood in the 1980s. At that time, Denver was perceived as a classic “flyover city” by people on the coasts. But over several years, the community and city leaders pushed through smart and strategic investments that led to a positive change in the city’s economic and cultural trajectory. Things really took off in the 1990s, in part due to the energy generated by Coors Field, the downtown ballpark built to be the home of our new Major League Baseball team, the Colorado Rockies.

 

Kumal Merchant Headshot

Kunal Merchant, co-founder of Lotus Advisory (Photo credit: Lotus Advisory)

 

GSB: I remember visiting Denver during the late 1990s and saw how Coors Field had seemingly changed a whole neighborhood. Was the ballpark built by the team, the city or some combination? The reason I ask is that there are many studies showing that public investments in sports venues are not efficient uses of the public’s money. Where do you come down on that question?

Kunal: Great question. Like a stodgy and aging arena, I think the rhetoric around public financing for sports venues is in serious need of an upgrade. There’s way too much dogma on a topic filled with nuance.

In the case of Coors Field, the project was a public-private partnership, where taxpayers made a significant investment. As a local resident who saw that area before and after Coors Field, I would argue that the taxpayers’ investment paid off handsomely in catalyzing a true economic and cultural renaissance that continues to this day.

But the success of Coors Field doesn’t vindicate all forms of public financing. The reality is that every situation is different, and plenty of sports facilities – too many I would argue – receive public funding in amounts and terms that are truly terrible deals for the public. When we were developing the Kings arena deal, we studied up on the good, bad and ugly of prior public subsidy deals. And we were determined that any arena deal we cut with the Kings would protect taxpayers and generate strong economic and community benefits.

That process in Sacramento began by fighting to locate the new arena downtown, and resist temptations by some in town to “play small” and simply refurbish or rebuild at the old arena’s suburban location.

GSB: The old Arco Arena is north of the city, kind of by itself off of I-5.

Kunal: Yes. At the time it was built in the mid-1980s, that building size and location made sense. But by the 2010s, we had different civic imperatives around sustainability and urban planning. Beyond the economic appeal of a downtown location – analysts forecasted $150 million in new annual economic activity each year – we wanted the arena project to reflect the values of a community that cared deeply about the environment. So we set – and ultimately met – incredibly ambitious goals for green design, air quality, water efficiency, energy efficiency, transit, food, waste diversion, and so on.

GSB: What was your role in the project?

Kunal: My role evolved over the course of the project. At the start, I was the Mayor’s Chief of Staff, representing the Mayor and City in almost every facet of our work with the NBA, Kings, City and community to save the team and develop the arena plan. When the NBA voted to keep the team in Sacramento in May 2013, and approve the sale of the Kings to a new ownership group, I moved over to the team side as an executive focused on making sure we followed through on our promises to the community on the arena.

That meant finalizing the public process to approve the deal, negotiating key labor and community benefit agreements, and continuing to engage the community in this truly once-in-a-generation project. It also meant championing what became the most ambitious sustainability agenda of an NBA arena to that date, anchored around achieving status as the first-ever LEED Platinum indoor sports arena.

GSB: That’s quite a transition. How did working for a sports team differ from working in municipal government?

Kunal: Well, it’s safe to say that spending a Tuesday night at an NBA game is a bit more fun than at a City Council meeting! And I used to joke with friends – only half-kidding – that I could get more done chatting with various folks at a Kings game than I could ever do in one month at City Hall. There were obvious advantages to working in a private sector context in terms of speed, agility, and efficiency. But this deal was a true public-private partnership where both bodies were integral. What’s most powerful to me is that my spirit and purpose on this project never changed regardless of what my business card said; from beginning to end, this endeavor was always about doing something really big and historic and transformative for the people of Sacramento. And both the City and Kings wholly embraced that mindset.

GSB: What did you do after the arena took shape?

Kunal: As Opening Day for the Golden 1 Center got closer, I started getting calls from other folks in sports who were impressed by what we’d done in Sacramento and wanted to see if I could help out elsewhere. To his credit, then-Team President Chris Granger was extremely supportive, and I was able to transition from being a full-time employee to a consultant able to take on other work. As part of that transition, I launched Lotus Advisory with my sister Monisha as a strategy and management consulting firm focused on driving positive change at the intersection of business, government and community. Because of my background, I ended up specializing quickly on sports-related projects, while my MIT-educated sister took on high tech clients like Airbnb. In the years since, we’ve been lucky to work with an amazing range of clients in a variety of industries and sectors.

 

Kumal Merchant at Golden 1 Center

Kunal Merchant touring construction of the Golden 1 Center and the Downtown Commons in 2015 during his time as a Sacramento Kings executive. The $1.5 billion dollar project includes a LEED Platinum NBA arena, hotel, and retail and entertainment district that has been the primary catalyst behind the new economic and cultural renaissance unfolding in Sacramento’s long-struggling downtown core (Photo credit: Lotus Advisory)

 

GSB: What are some the sports projects on which Lotus Advisory has worked?

In recent years, we’ve done a lot of work in soccer and baseball. I was the Chief Strategist for Nashville’s successful 2017 bid to join Major League Soccer, where we went from being on no one’s radar as a viable soccer city to finishing first in a twelve city race for the next expansion slot. A huge part of our success was powered by the people of Nashville – whose pride in their city is as strong as I’ve ever seen anywhere.

Similarly, I helped lead and advise Sacramento’s bid to join MLS for several years, particularly in shepherding their downtown stadium development plan through the planning, predevelopment and approval processes. The heart and soul of that bid are the supporters of Sacramento Republic, the United Soccer League (USL) Championship¹ club that took the city by storm when it launched in 2014 and has woven itself deeply into the cultural fabric of Sacramento with remarkable speed.

Currently, I’m working closely with the Oakland Athletics on their plans to revitalize the Oakland waterfront with a new privately-financed ballpark district near the Jack London Square area. It’s a really gorgeous project with a strong spirit of sustainability and environmental justice.

GSB: Very cool! What’s the status of Sacramento’s MLS bid? I know they’re looking to get to 28 teams by 2021 or 2022. Cincinnati United began play this month as the league’s 24th club, with Miami and Nashville set to join next year and Austin in ’21. So that means there’s one more slot left in the near term.

Kunal: Sacramento is one of two cities considered to be favorites for the 28th slot. I know that I’m biased, but I don’t think the competition is remotely close. Sacramento’s MLS bid stands alone as arguably the most resilient, mature, and comprehensive MLS bid in league history. Since embarking on the MLS journey in 2014, Republic FC has checked all the boxes time and again: a die-hard fan base, committed corporate support, a fully-approved and transformational downtown stadium plan; and a credible and committed ownership led by a formidable combination of Pittsburgh Penguins owner Ron Burkle and several local business leaders. MLS will be lucky to have Sacramento join its ranks and I’m cautiously optimistic that it will happen soon.

GSB: Good luck! When will the new stadium be ready and what are some of its green features? 

Kunal: Obviously the MLS stadium is contingent on entry into the league, but the stadium could likely be ready by either the 2021 or 2022 MLS season. As impactful as the Golden 1 Center is for Sacramento, the MLS stadium for Republic FC will be a game-changer in its own right.

The stadium will be built few blocks away from the Kings arena at a huge 240 acre site called the Sacramento Railyards that, when fully built out, will double the size of downtown Sacramento. The MLS stadium represents one of the first and largest major private investments in the Railyards in several decades, and will catalyze a historic wave of economic and community development. In terms of green features, the stadium will be another model of transit-oriented development, located a block from light rail, and a short distance by foot, bike, scooter, or rideshare from the rest of downtown. Republic FC has a terrific culture around local food and beer, so I’d expect some innovative sourcing strategies there as well.

 

Sacramento Republic MLS Stadium

Artist rendering of proposed Major League Soccer stadium in downtown Sacramento. The project will anchor an estimated $5B economic revitalization effort at Sacramento’s historic Railyards district (Credit: Sacramento Republic FC)

 

GSB: Turning to another long-running new stadium project, let’s talk about the Oakland A’s.

Kunal: The A’s have a truly visionary plan to revitalize the waterfront near Jack London Square through a new Major League Baseball ballpark. The project will be LEED Gold Certified and reflect a “ballpark within a park” theme, with an intimate 34,000 seat stadium nestled carefully into its urban surroundings. The ballpark is privately-financed and will anchor a new, vibrant waterfront district that will feature a mix of housing, including affordable housing, offices, restaurants, retail, small business space, parks and public gathering spaces. And the team is also showing tremendous leadership by leveraging the ballpark project to address longstanding environmental justice reform issues around air, soil and water quality faced by West Oakland residents for years.

 

Oakland Ballpark

Preliminary artist rendering for the proposed Oakland A’s ballpark near Jack London Square in Oakland. The project will be LEED Gold and reflect the A’s strong commitment to sustainable development and environmental justice (Credit: Oaklandballpark.com)

 

GSB: Add the A’s new ballpark to my sports bucket list. OK, before we go, let’s talk a bit about your work as a board member of the Green Sports Alliance. How did that come about?

Kunal: I’ve known and been a fan of the Green Sports Alliance since its earliest days, when Alliance leaders reached out to invite Mayor Johnson to the inaugural summit in Portland. The Alliance was hugely helpful in guiding my thinking on the Golden 1 Center, and I worked with the Alliance to help bring the Summit to Sacramento during the Golden1 Center’s inaugural season in 2017. I’ve continued to work closely with the Alliance since then, and at some point it just made sense to take on a more formal role. So, I joined the board last fall with a pretty important first project: co-leading the search for a new Executive Director. It was a fascinating process that yielded a terrific hire: Roger McClendon.

GSB: McClendon comes to the Alliance’s executive director role at a key inflection point in the Green-Sports movement. I like to say Green-Sports 1.0 — the greening of the games — is now almost if not quite a given. It was a necessary and obvious first step. But Green-Sports 2.0 — engaging fans, players and more to take positive environmental action, specifically on climate change — which is where I think is starting now, is a more complicated, heavier lift. What do you think?

Kunal: I totally agree. There are fundamental questions facing the green sports movement and the broader environmentalist community at the moment. The science around climate change grows more dire by the day, with the recent IPCC report advising that humanity has really just a handful of years left to aggressively decarbonize or face catastrophic consequences. So the cost of inaction is escalating. With that as backdrop, the Alliance is asking ourselves: what are we going to do? Our ethos has been to meet people where they are. Which means that if a league, an event, a team is aggressive on climate, we’ll support them. If they’re going slowly…

GSB: …Or not even talking climate at all?

Kunal: …we’re not going to push them too far beyond their comfort zone.

GSB: But doesn’t that imply that it’s ok for sports not to go fast enough? That seems risky at best.

Kunal: Well, it’s tricky. But here is a reason to be optimistic: things are impossible until they’re not. Looking at history, there are many social movements that looked bleak for years, or even decades, right until a period of rapid change that completely upended the status quo. I’m heartened by the younger generations — Millennials and Gen Zers — who will increasingly hold all institutions, including sports teams, accountable for the issue of climate change. The Alliance needs to be ready, and I think we’re taking important steps in that direction. If there’s one thing that I’ve come to appreciate deeply in my career, it’s that, with vision and leadership, sports can be an extraordinary platform for positive change. And on issues of climate, we can’t afford for sports teams, leagues, or fans to sit on the sidelines anymore.

GSB: With some well-timed and positive pushing from organizations like the Alliance, I’ll say. To be continued, Kunal!

 

¹ The USL Championship is the second-tier of North American professional soccer, one level below MLS.

 


 

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Tommy Caldwell and Other Elite Rock Climbers Team Up to Fight Climate with POW Climb

A group of the top U.S. rock climbers who are also concerned about climate change have worked with Protect Our Winters to launch POW Climb, a new division that will focus on engaging the climbing community to join the climate fight.

GreenSportsBlog spoke with elite professional climber Tommy Caldwell to find out how he came to support POW and POW Climb as well as what he hopes will result from his efforts.

 

“It’s time to give the climbing community a platform to speak up about climate change.”

So said Tommy Caldwell regarding Monday’s launch of POW Climb, a new division of the Protect Our Winters’ (POW) Alliance.

Protect Our Winters turns passionate outdoor and winter sports enthusiasts of all levels into effective climate advocates. The Alliance is POW’s community of elite athletes (skiers, snowboarders and more), thought leaders and forward-thinking business leaders working to affect systemic political solutions to climate change.

One of the top professional climbers in the U.S., Caldwell joins fellow climbers and Alliance members Conrad Anker, Adrian Ballinger, Emily Harrington, Angela Hawse, Beth Rodden, Matt Segal, and Graham Zimmerman as charter members of POW Climb.

 

LIFELONG CLIMBER AND ENVIRONMENTALIST SEES THE EFFECTS OF CLIMATE CHANGE 

That Northern Colorado native Tommy Caldwell is a world class climber and an up-and-coming climate change fighting eco-athlete would surprise absolutely no one once they learned the outlines of his story.

“I grew up climbing in Rocky Mountain National Park,” Caldwell recounted. “My dad, who taught during the school year, was a mountain guide there. We climbed every weekend. I was climbing in Yosemite when I was three years old. In my teens, I climbed in the Alps and Bolivia. Of course this meant I was in nature all the time and developed a deep passion and appreciation for it.”

 

Tommy Caldwell

Tommy Caldwell of POW Climb ascends the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park (Photo credit: Brett Lowell/Red Bull Media House)

 

Rock climbing globally for more than three decades means Caldwell has experienced the impacts of climate change up close.

“I’ve been climbing in the Argentine part of Patagonia since my early twenties,” Caldwell recalled. “You can’t miss or doubt climate change when you go there over a period time. There’s one incredible mountain, Aguja Poincenot, its east face is accessible only by traversing a glacier. Or, should I say was accessible. Fellow climber Topher Donahue told me the glacier was passable in the 80s and up through part of the 90s. By the time I first visited there in 2003, the glaciers had receded and broken up to the point where crevasses blocked the passage. The beautiful approach from the east is now virtually inaccessible.”

 

Aguja Poincenot

The lower east face of Aguja Poincenot in the Argentine section of Patagonia is now virtually inaccessible to climbers. (Photo credit: Elvis Acevedo)

 

Sadly, reported Caldwell, the weight of climate change’s impacts is heavier on mountains that are still being climbed: “Now, in some parts of Patagonia, virtually when there’s a good weather window for climbing, someone dies. That’s because the mountains are thawing for the first time since climbers started visiting the area. Rocks loosen and ultimately fall. Death from sporadic rock fall is becoming common. I question weather I should climb in those mountains anymore — hey, I have kids now.”

 

ON BECOMING A CLIMATE CHANGE FIGHTER AND PART OF POW CLIMB

Patagonia played a key role in Caldwell joining the climate change fight.

Patagonia the outdoor apparel company, that is.

“I got into climate activism when I became an Ambassador for Patagonia, a sponsor of mine,” said Caldwell. “Then, as a board member of the Access Fund, the advocacy organization for climbing, I got into lobbying in DC on climate change as well as other issues that are clearly important to climbers. In fact, my Access Fund colleagues and I lobbied, through our ‘Climb The Hill’ initiative, on behalf of the bipartisan Land and Water Conservation Fund Act which became law as part of a bigger bill that was signed by the President on Tuesday.”

Caldwell, who was featured in the must-see “Free Solo,” which won the Academy Award last month for Best Documentary, sees POW Climb as the next step in his climb up the climate change activism mountain, with the next challenge being carbon pricing.

“POW reached out to me a few months ago. I then went to an Alliance athlete training, heard from the scientists, saw their legislative and electoral strategies and I was all in. I’m excited to push on carbon pricing and to help elect candidates who will support it and other climate change fighting actions. Now is the time.”

 


 

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The GSB Interview: Roger McClendon, New Executive Director of the Green Sports Alliance

Roger McClendon was named Executive Director of the Green Sports Alliance on January 15. The former Chief Sustainability Officer of Yum! Brands took a break from the whirlwind of his first six weeks weeks on the job to talk with GreenSportsBlog about his path to the Alliance and his early thoughts on where the organization needs to go.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Congratulations, Roger! I’m sure you’re being pulled in a million directions, so let’s get into it. When did your interest in sustainability and sustainable business begin?

Roger McClendon: Thank you, Lew, for the opportunity to talk to GreenSportsBlog readers. I’m an engineer by academic training and a graduate from the University of Cincinnati. Early in my professional career I studied and worked on automating manufacturing processes in a paper mill using control theory and algorithms to improve production efficiency. I also worked on wastewater treatment and power generation systems. Those projects focused on important questions like how do you reduce waste and improve the process as well as save money?

So it was that mindset that drew me to sustainability, technology, and innovation. Of course this work became the foundation of my environmental sustainability experience and background. And, as time went on, I became interested in the social and governance sides of the sustainability equation as well. Things like diversity, how workers are treated, human trafficking, public policy, shareholder proposals, etc. These are, I think, undervalued aspects of the sustainability world, and was something I pushed in my role as Chief Sustainability Officer at Yum! Brands.

 

roger mcclendon gsa

Roger McClendon, the new executive director of the Green Sports Alliance (Photo credit: Green Sports Alliance)

 

GSB: Speaking of the CSO job, that didn’t exist before you took it on in 2010. How did you come to create it? And how did Yum! Brands management react?

Roger: Sustainability was not really on top management’s radar screen when I brought it to them in 2009-10. But you have to understand David Novak, the founder of the company, which was a spinoff of the restaurant brands KFC, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell from PepsiCo was a passionate values-driven leader. His management style recognized that, by putting people first, profits would follow, not the other way around. Before the Yum! Brands spinoff, I had worked my way up through the engineering ranks at KFC and, in so doing, had seen that prioritizing sustainability would grow profits and drive new business.

So after the spinoff, I saw that the new company had a Corporate Social Responsibility or CSR function but there was a big gap: Sustainability was not included. I saw this as a huge opportunity for the company. I conducted some benchmarking studies internally to see how applying a sustainability lens — efficiency, innovation, environment — could improve our best practices. Then I looked outside the company to see how corporations like GE and P&G were treating sustainability. Eventually, I made a presentation to top management about how sustainability could be a powerful business driver. They loved it! David did ask ‘Why should I make you CSO?’ I said ‘Because I’m already doing the job!’ And that was that.

 

David Novak Yum!

David Novak (Photo credit: Yum! Brands)

 

GSB: Great story! Was there any pushback from management and/or the rank-and-file at Yum! Brands about sustainability? Did some say things like ‘Why are we doing this tree hugger, Berkeley stuff?’

Roger: There was some of that cultural stuff but the broader challenge was that big change is difficult, especially in a penny-profit business like restaurant chains. I mean, we worried about each napkin that we bought. Getting 16, 17 year-old employees and franchisees to implement programs and promotions was always a heavy lift.

GSB: How did you overcome that?

Roger: Well we always looked to show all stakeholders how sustainability aligned with value creation. And we emphasized, especially with millennial and GenZ employees, that we were transforming Yum! Brands into triple bottom line company — People, Planet, Profit. And now the company is well on its way to living those values.

GSB: Aside from the very important transition on corporate values, what were some of Yum! Brands biggest sustainability wins during your tenure as CSO?

Roger: Thanks for asking. We helped drive energy efficiency initiatives that have resulted in an estimated savings of 4.3 megawatt hours (mWh) of electricity globally. Yum! Brands also created Blueline, a sustainable restaurant design, build, operational, and maintenance standard that uses key restaurant-relevant aspects of LEED, paired with proven, actionable solutions in areas such as lighting and optimized hood exhaust and ventilation systems.

These initiatives and more resulted in Yum! Brands being named to the Dow Jones Sustainability North America index in 2017 and 2018. We also earned Top 100 Best Corporate Citizens status by Corporate Responsibility Magazine, also in 2017 and 2018.

GSB: Have any of the major Yum! Brands messaged sustainability to consumers?

Roger: Consumer messaging really has been centered on the local level rather than through national ads. KFC in Australia did a local campaign around its switch to canola oil. That screams sustainability and health without actually saying it. And the folks got it.

GSB: Which is great. I understand you retired from Yum! Brands last spring but you’re way too young to be fully retired. Was Green-Sports and the Alliance on your radar at the time?

Roger: Not really. I mean, I was well aware of the sports greening movement, especially since KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell sponsor all manner of sports. And I’d been at conferences at which folks from the Alliance spoke. So I knew Green-Sports was a growing and good thing but I wasn’t looking at it as a landing spot when I retired from Yum! Brands.

Instead I worked with the Aspire Basketball Foundation in Louisville where my family lives. It teaches life skills, leadership, and personal development to high school students and those in a gap year before college, all through the prism of basketball, which I played at the University of Cincinnati and love. That’s what I was doing when I heard about the opening at the Alliance. I reached out to Scott Jenkins, the Board Chair at the GSA and we talked about the job, how I would be able to magnify the impact of Green-Sports at a high level. I thought, ‘this sounds like a great fit’ so I went for it.

 

roger mcclendon uc hoops

Roger McClendon, while a member of the  University of Cincinnati Bearcats, launches a jump shot over Virginia Tech’s Dell Curry, aka Steph Curry’s dad (Photo credit: University of Cincinnati Athletics)

 

GSB: And you got it!

Roger: I’m very thankful and realize that, as I take this position, I realize I stand on the shoulders of giants who created the Green-Sports movement like Christina Weiss Lurie, minority owner of the Philadelphia Eagles and their Go Green initiative, the late Paul Allen, owner of the Portland Trail Blazers, Seattle Seahawks and Sounders, and an early funder of the GSA, and Allen Hershkowitz, one of the true Green-Sports visionaries.

GSB: Indeed. And, as you take the helm at the Alliance, you do so as the movement is at what I see as a pivot point, from a Green-Sports 1.0 world, in which the focus is on greening the games and venues, to the Green-Sports 2.0 world, in which the emphasis shifts to engaging fans, both those who attend games and those who consume sports via media. I know it’s early days, but with that backdrop, what do you see as the top two or three items on your agenda?

Roger: That’s a great way to frame it, Lew. And you’re right, it’s early days. So my first order of business is engaging the Board, teams and venues, and the media to get a great sense of the state-of-play in Green-Sports. At the same time, I think we need to take a look at what’s next — Green-Sports 2.0 as you call it — and then what comes after that.

GSB: Green-Sports 3.0?

Roger: That’s right.

GSB: What do Green-Sports 2.0 and 3.0 look like to you right now?

Roger: First, it’s important to note that the sports world has done an admirable job on Green-Sports 1.0, greening the venues…

GSB: Thanks certainly go to the Alliance for its part in 1.0.

Roger: I wasn’t here for that work, obviously, but I’ll accept that thanks on behalf of the people who were. The greening of stadiums, arenas, and training centers needs to continue. And then we need to go forward on not only fan engagement, but also on helping our member teams, venues, leagues and more take on environmental and social issues in ways that have measurable impacts. The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs can serve as great metrics for us.

GSB: Absolutely. Of course seven of the 17 SDGs focus on the environment¹. Going forward, will the Alliance work mainly on helping its members on those seven green SDGs? Or will it look to put as much weight on the social and governance aspects of sustainability, as it does on the environment?

Roger: The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is one framework that I think the Alliance can leverage with our key stakeholders and determine where we should focus and prioritize. It can help us focus on what has the most material impact to our partners, members, fans, and communities as a whole.

There is a process of engagement, alignment, strategy development and execution planning that the Alliance will facilitate with our partners, members, and other key stakeholders. I anticipate that the Alliance and our partners will focus primarily on social and environmental sustainability issues and less on governance.

GSB: Finally, I want to get your take on climate change. I think it’s fair to say that the sports world at large and the Alliance to this point have, for the most part, stayed away from the topic. How do you want to take it on?

Roger: Well this gets into what problems do we want to help solve. Can we impact things like access to clean drinking water, dealing with drought, wildfires, and more? I say yes and we need to get involved in a strategic, focused way to do that sooner rather than later. But do we need to get into the politics of climate change? I think we should stay away but, at the same time, focus on doing what we can to help venues and teams to reduce their emissions.

GSB: Understood. Thing is, I think it will be much harder to stay away from climate change and the politics surrounding it with the recent introduction in Congress of the Green New Deal proposal. How might the Alliance’s alter its approach to climate change in a Green New Deal world?

Roger: We don’t have to debate climate change as the science is evident. We do have to act as a responsible citizen, business, community, city and country. We need to focus on improving sustainable operations and supply chains as well as partnering and investing in smart city infrastructure and develop social and environmental awareness and engagement movements to engage future generations.

GSB: Sounds good, Roger. I look forward to our future conversations to see the types of Green-Sports 2.0 initiatives the Alliance undertakes under your leadership, particularly on fan engagement and climate change. In the meantime, all the best.

 

¹ Seven SDGs that focus on the environment are Clean Water and Sanitation, Affordable and Clean Energy, Sustainable Cities and Communities, Responsible Consumption and Production, Climate Action, Life Below Water and Life on Land. The rest of the SDGs are: No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health and Well-Being, Quality Education, Gender Equality, Decent Work and Economic Growth, Industry/Innovation/Infrastructure, Reduced Inequality, Peace and Justice, Partnerships to Achieve the Goals

 

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GSB News and Notes: Kevin Anderson, 5th Ranked Tennis Player and Eco-Athlete; Seattle Sounders Call Climate Change a “Crisis”; Climate Denying Ski Federation President Remains at Helm Despite Pressure to Resign

In a TGIF GSB News & Notes, we share two positive news stories and one naggingly troubling if still hopeful note.

On the positive side, Kevin Anderson, the world’s fifth ranked men’s tennis player, took on the plastic waste issue in Jon Wertheim’s SI.com much-read mailbag column. And the Seattle Sounders used the term “climate crisis” (Italics my emphasis) when they announced their commitment to going carbon neutral in the season that kicks off on March 2. I’ve never seen a team put the words “climate” and “crisis” together before.

On the flip side, despite many calls for his resignation, Gian-Franco Kasper remains the President of the International Ski Federation (FIS) almost three weeks after he outed himself as a climate change denier. But an effort to generate public pressure to force his resignation, led by Protect Our Winters, shows no signs of slowing down.

 

KEVIN ANDERSON, WORLD’S 5TH RANKED TENNIS PLAYER, SERVES UP PLASTIC OCEAN WASTE TO SI.COM READERS

South Africa’s Kevin Anderson instantly became one of the world’s most well-known eco-athletes on Wednesday when he took on the plastic ocean waste issue — and tennis’ contribution to it — in Jon Wertheim’s popular SI.com mailbag column.

I know what you’re thinking: “Wait, who is Kevin Anderson? And how popular is tennis, really?”

 

Kevin Anderson

Kevin Anderson (Photo credit: Tony O’Brien/Reuters)

 

The hard-serving, 6′ 8″ Anderson is currently the fifth ranked men’s player in the world¹, having reached the finals of two grand slam tournaments since 2017. You might remember this incredible left-handed shot (Anderson is a righty) after having tumbled to the grass late in his marathon, 6 hour-plus 2018 Wimbledon semifinal vs. John Isner that propelled him to the final.

 

 

As to tennis’ popularity, a 2018 WorldAtlas.com study reports that the sport has 1 billion fans globally, enough to make it the fourth most popular sport on the planet, trailing only soccer (#1 at 4 billion fans), cricket (2.5 billion), and field hockey (2 billion). To my knowledge, the only active eco-athlete who be more well known than Anderson is Mesut Özil, the German soccer star who currently plays for Arsenal.

Back to Wertheim’s mailbag.

The first question came from a reader in Toronto who asked, “When is tennis going to stop its environmentally unfriendly use of plastic?”

Instead of answering it himself, Wertheim gave Anderson, “tennis’ green czar” (who knew??), the court.

An excepted version of Anderson’s reply reads this way:

That your question was submitted to Jon Wertheim’s mailbag makes me very pleased to know that tennis fans are also taking the plastics issue seriously.

Reducing plastic pollution — and particularly keeping plastic waste out of the oceans — is one of my biggest passions. In fact, in December I hosted a charity event at home in Florida with a portion of the proceeds benefitting Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas Alliance. Once your eyes are opened to the plastic pollution problem, it’s hard not to care about the consequences. I hope that tennis players can be leaders in this space to raise awareness and help make the public more mindful of reducing single-use plastics when possible.

As a member of the ATP Player Council, I’ve been sharing my passion for this issue and last November, the ATP developed measures to reduce its negative impact on the environment at the Nitto ATP Finals in London. For the first time ever, players were given reusable bottles for on-court use, staff were given reusable bottles and encouraged to refill them at water stations, and fans were given reusable cups when they purchased drinks at The O2 (Arena). There are many more things that can be done in the future, but I believe this was a great first step in the right direction.

I’m hopeful we can continue to make other changes, such as do away with plastic racquet bags after re-stringing (which I always politely decline or make sure to recycle), put recycling bins at all tournaments for fans to dispose of their rubbish properly (and on the practice courts for players), and most importantly – provide education. If we can get more and more tournaments, players and fans to recognize the issue we have on our hands, and just how dire of a situation it is, we can make more change. 

 

GSB’s Take: So glad to hear Kevin Anderson is leading the anti-plastic ocean waste movement on the ATP Tour. Hopefully he is recruiting others, including his women’s tennis counterparts, to join his effort. And if his interest in plastic waste becomes an on-ramp to a broader commitment to the climate change fight, all the better.

 

SEATTLE SOUNDERS, MLS’ FIRST CARBON NEUTRAL CLUB, USES “CLIMATE CRISIS” TERM

The Seattle Sounders committed to going carbon neutral starting with the 2019 season — FC Cincinnati visits CenturyLink Field on March 2 to kick off the new campaign — marking them as the first professional soccer team in North America to do so. In a press release announcing the move, the club pledged that their “operations will make no net contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide, the leading cause of the climate crisis.”

Wait a second.

Did you notice anything special in that press release quote? Because I sure did.

A North American pro sports team, used the term “climate crisis.

At first glance, the Sounders’ use of climate crisis should not raise eyebrows. After all, a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) study released in October said that humanity has but 12 years to cut carbon pollution by 40 percent if we are to avoid catastrophic consequences.

But widen the lens a bit and one sees that most pro teams, including those who have done great green work for years, do not even speak of climate change. At all. Benign terms like “sustainability” and “environmentally responsible” are used much more frequently.

It says here that the Sounders use of climate crisis is at least as big a deal as the team going carbon neutral.

And that’s saying something because the club’s carbon neutral commitment is certainly important and substantive.

One reason is that the Sounders included fan travel to and from games — which represent 28 percent of total emissions — in its calculations. Some teams and leagues that have claimed carbon neutrality have not done so.

 

Fan travel accounted for 28 percent of the Sounders’ emissions in 2018, trailing only team travel (33 percent) and CenturyLink Field operations (29 percent)

 

Team management partnered with Seattle-based Sustainable Business Consulting to calculate its greenhouse gas emissions and develop plans to reduce its impacts where possible. For emissions unable to be eliminated – such as team travel for matches, scouting and other business – the Sounders are offsetting their emissions through the Evergreen Carbon Capture (ECC) program of Forterra, a regional nonprofit. Using the club’s contribution to ECC, Forterra and its partner DIRT Corps are joining with the team and fans to plant hundreds of trees in a part of the region that needs added tree cover. This not only reduces CO₂, but enhances air and water quality.

“We’re incredibly excited to announce that our club is officially carbon neutral,” said Sounders Owner Adrian Hanauer. “The Sounders have always been committed to investing in our community, and that includes recognizing the immense responsibility we have as environmental stewards.”

And climate crisis fighters.

 

Adrian Hanauer

Adrian Hanauer, owner of the Seattle Sounders (Photo credit: Seattle Sounders FC)

 

GSB’s Take: This is a win-win-win Green-Sports story if I ever saw one: Win #1: The Sounders go carbon neutral. Win #2: The club includes fan travel in their emissions calculations. Win #3: Rightfully calling climate change a CRISIS is a big step forward. Kudos to the Sounders for doing so. Will this give other pro teams across all sports the confidence to use the words “climate” and “change” together? Watch this space. Note that I’m starting slowly here and not asking teams to say climate “crisis”. Yet. If you want to let the Sounders know that you appreciate their bold green-sports steps, click here.

 

CLIMATE DENIER GIAN-FRANCO KASPER REMAINS IN POWER AS HEAD OF INTERNATIONAL SKI FEDERATION; 

We close the week with an update on the Gian-Franco Kasper story.

The President of the International Ski Federation (FIS) denied climate change in a February 4 interview, saying, “There is no proof for it. We have snow, in part even a lot of it. I was in Pyeongchang for the Olympiad. We had minus 35 degrees C. Everybody who came to me shivering I welcomed with: welcome to global warming.”

 

Gian Franco-Kasper

Gian-Franco Kasper, President of FIS (Photo credit: Mark Runnacles, Getty Images)

 

Protect Our Winters, the nonprofit made up of elite winter sports athletes who advocate on behalf of systemic political solutions to climate change, quickly wrote an open letter calling for Kasper to resign and encouraged its followers to do the same.

As of February 19, over 8,300 letters had arrived in FIS’ in box.

But that’s not all.

  • Jessie Diggins, who won Olympic gold at Pyeonchang 2018 in cross country skiing, and other elite winter sports athletes like Jamie Anderson, Danny Davis, and Maddie Phaneuf, made strong statements condemning Kasper’s remarks.
  • Companies from throughout the snow sports world — from Aspen Skiing Company to Burton, from Patagonia to Clif, and more — pushed the word out
  • The coverage of POW’s open letter generated more than 200 million media impressions worldwide: The New York Times, ESPN and The Daily Mail, among many others, got into the act.

Now, as of February 21, Kasper remains in office. But for how long will that be the case?

 

GSB’s Take: The POW letter campaign is ongoing. If you believe Kasper should go and would like to participate, click here.

 

 

¹ Anderson currently sits below #1 Novak Djokovic, #2 Rafael Nadal, #3 Alexander Zverev, and #4 Juan Martin del Potro in the ATP rankings. He is ahead of #6 Kei Nishikori and #7 Roger Federer.

 

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GreenSportsBlog Imagines a Green New Deal for Sports in Matt Chester’s “Energy and Policy Blog”

Matt Chester, writer/editor of the excellent Chester Energy and Policy blog, posted a thought-provoking story in which he asked practitioners in a variety of fields about what a Green New Deal could look like in their areas of endeavor. He was very kind to ask yours truly to offer some ideas for a sports version of the GND. 

 

Matt Chester’s “Energy and Policy Blog” is always an interesting read, striking a strong balance between “just the facts”-ness and wonkishness.

So when he called to say he was writing a story about what a Green New Deal would look like across a variety of sectors, from higher education to movies to the internet, I was intrigued. When he mentioned that sports would also be a topic area, I became really interested. And, when Matt asked if I would be open to developing some thought starters around a Green New Deal for sports, I said yes in about two seconds flat.

Click here to read his post and some of my ideas for a sports Green New Deal.

For those who’ve been living under a rock the past couple of weeks, the Green New Deal is a resolution that was introduced in late January in Congress by freshman Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY14) and Ed Markey (D), the junior senator from Massachusetts.

 

AOC Markey

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY14) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a Green New Deal resolution in both houses of Congress on January 30. Standing in the background is Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR)  (Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images)

 

The GND resolution offers a sweeping plan to make the United States carbon neutral by 2030, upgrade the energy efficiency and sustainability of national infrastructure and private businesses, and create “millions” of jobs in the process. Click here to link to an analysis of the Green New Deal from the February 7 issue of Vox.

It is important to note the Green New Deal resolution is not a bill.

A resolution is a statement of principles while a GND bill (or bills) would be an actual piece(s) of legislation based on those principles. The bill would need to be passed by the House and Senate, then signed by the President (or overridden by a 2/3 vote by each body of Congress in case of a very likely veto from this President) to become law.

 

GSB’s Take: The Green New Deal is at the beginning of what looks to be a long, bumpy yet important ride through Congress. Good going by Matt Chester to broaden the GND conversation beyond the world of politics by getting people to think of what analogous “Green Moonshots” would look like in film, higher education and sports.

As far as the Green New Deal as a policy matter is concerned, I see some great things in it as well as some caution flags. You can be sure that we will examine the plusses and minuses of the GND in the coming days, as well as cover how the sports world reacts to it. And we will build upon the Green New Deal of Sports thought starters we presented today. Please share you own ideas in the comments section below.

 


 

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International Ski Federation President Denies Climate Change; Protect Our Winters Urges Him to Resign

Gian Franco-Kasper, the President of the International Ski Federation (FIS¹), showed himself in an interview last week to be a virulent denier of climate change. His comments were made at the beginning of the 2019 FIS Alpine World Championships in Åre, Sweden. Ironically, the organizers had recently earned ISO 20121 certification as a sustainable event.

Almost immediately after the Franco-Kasper story broke, Protect Our Winters (POW) launched a campaign that is pushing for his resignation.

 

The skiing story of the week was the bronze medal earned by Lindsey Vonn of the U.S. in the final race of her storied career, the downhill at the 2019 FIS Alpine World Championships in Åre, Sweden.

Unfortunately, Vonn’s farewell had to share the stage with the news that the President of FIS¹, the governing body of international skiing, has views on climate change that mirror those of noted denier-skeptic, President Donald Trump.

Gian Franco-Kasper’s climate change-denier bona fides came to light in an interview with René Hauri in the February 4th issue of the German language, Zurich-based newspaper, Tages Anzeiger. The next day, Dvora Meyers posted a column in Deadspin that, along with her biting analysis, translated the 75 year-old FIS leader’s comments into English.

 

Gian Franco-Kasper

Gian Franco-Kasper, President of FIS (Photo credit: Mark Runnacles, Getty Images)

 

Here, from Meyers’ piece, is Franco-Kasper expressing climate change denial, using the old it’s-cold-out-somewhere-so-climate-change-can’t-be-happening” trope:

“There is no proof for it. We have snow, in part even a lot of it. I was in Pyeongchang for the Olympiad. We had minus 35 degrees C. Everybody who came to me shivering I welcomed with: welcome to global warming.”

And here he links his disdain for environmentalists to a fondness for dictators:

“It’s just the way that it is easier for us in dictatorships. From a business view I say: I just want to go to dictatorships, I don’t want to fight with environmentalists anymore.”

And then, for good measure, Franco-Kasper added this note on immigrants to Europe:

“The second generation of immigrants has nothing to do with skiing. There are no ski camps anymore.”

All of these quotes could easily have come from the current occupant of the Oval Office. Yet, even Trump hasn’t made the climate denial-dictator connection, at least as far as I’m aware. Per a CNN report, Franco-Kasper tried to walk back the Love-A-Dictator comment — I’ll leave it to the reader to judge his sincerity — but not his climate change denial nor the immigrant-bashing.

Two days after the Deadspin story broke, Protect Our Winters, the nonprofit made up of elite winter sports athletes who advocate on behalf of systemic political solutions to climate change, issued this call for Franco-Kasper’s resignation:

“The snowsports community should be demanding climate action, and not tolerate those who dismiss science to remain in positions of leadership. That’s why are asking the newly formed Outdoor Business Climate Partnership² and the outdoor and snowsports community at large, all of whom rely on a stable climate to power our $887 billion industry, to join us in calling for Mr. Franco-Kasper’s resignation.” 

According to POW, the Franco-Kasper interview brought out into the open what had been whispered about in ski industry circles for years: That FIS leadership is still unwilling to acknowledge — let alone act upon — the overwhelming scientific evidence supporting the reality of human-caused climate change that threatens the entire snowsports industry.

Franco-Kasper’s climate change denial stands in stark contrast to the strong sustainability leadership displayed by the organizers of the 2019 FIS Alpine World Championships in Åre, Sweden, taking place now through the 19th. It recently earned certification as being compliant with the ISO 20121 standard for sustainable events.

 

Are 2019

Riikka Rakic (r) sustainability manager for Åre 2019, helped lead the effort that resulted in the championships earning ISO 20121 certification as a sustainable event (Photo credit: Iana Peck, Åre 2019)

 

GSB’s Take: This one is easy. Franco-Kasper’s climate denial, along with his preference for dealing with dictators rather than democracies, make him 1) scarily Trump-like, and 2) clearly unfit to be the leader of the governing body of a sport that is suffering consequences of climate change in the here and now. 

What is not easy to comprehend is how this man, whose views on these issues apparently have been well-known inside international skiing circles, has been able to remain in office since 1998.

POW has started a letter-writing campaign to FIS, urging Franco-Kasper to resign. If you agree he should go and would like to participate, click here.

If the letter-writing effort proves successful and the Franco-Kasper Era (Error?) finally ends, here, in no particular order, is an admittedly U.S.-centric list of three potential successors FIS should consider:

  • POW’s Executive Director and avid snowboarder Mario Molina, 
  • Longtime skier John Kerry, who, as Secretary of State under President Obama, was a driving force behind the ultimate adoption of the landmark 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
  • Val Ackerman, first commissioner of the WNBA and currently commissioner of the Big East Conference. She would bring trail blazing executive experience, has a global perspective³, and, based on a brief conversation I had with her in 2018, gets it on climate change.

 

¹ FIS =The French version, Federation International de Ski
² The Outdoor Business Climate Partnership is comprised of the National Ski Areas Association, Outdoor Industry Association and Snowsports Industry America
³ Ackerman, during her days at the WNBA in the late 90s, worked closely with then-NBA commissioner David Stern, arguably the person most responsible for the explosion in the global popularity of the league.

 


 

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GreenSportsBlogger Lew Blaustein to Moderate “Green-Sports and Its Impact on Climate Change” Panel in NYC on March 11

The event, which is open to the public, will take place at the Princeton Club of NYC at 6:30 PM on Monday March 11th. Admission is $15. Tickets can be purchased by clicking here.

Over the past 15 years or so, Green-Sports 1.0 — the greening of the games themselves — has largely been a success. From LEED certified stadia and arenas to Zero-Waste games to locating sports venues close to mass transit, Green-Sports has become mainstream within the sports facilities world, even if it is unknown to most fans. 

As we turn the page to Green-Sports 2.0 — engaging fans and other sports stakeholders to take positive environmental actions — we have to acknowledge that to date, the sports world has largely been slow to directly address climate change. There are understandable reasons why this has been the case, chief among them the fear of getting tangled up in the politics of the issue.

Yet, given the increasing severity and immediacy of climate change, it says here that avoidance is no longer an option if the sports world is as serious about walking the green walk as it is good at talking the green talk. 

Of course, answering the question of how sports should engage on climate change is the tricky part.

That will be the centerpiece of “Green-Sports and Its Impact on Climate Change,” a  discussion I will moderate with a top-shelf panel at the Princeton Club of New York City (15 West 43rd Street) Monday evening March 11 at 6:30 PM. The panel will consist of:

Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, co-founder and ex-President of the Green Sports Alliance, Chairman of the Board and Founding Director of Sport and Sustainability International (SandSI) and the newly-minted Environmental Science Advisor to the New York Yankees. He is also co-founder of the Broadway Green Alliance and of the Environmental Paper Network. From 1988–2016, Hershkowitz served as Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental nonprofit. 

 

Allen Hershkowitz J. Henry Fair

Dr. Allen Hershkowitz (Photo credit: J. Henry Fair)

 

Rita Ricobelli Corradi was Director of Sustainability for the United Bid Committee of Canada, Mexico and United States LLC, which won the right the host the 2026 FIFA World Cup. In 2007, she joined Columbia University’s Earth Institute, spearheading a science-based approach in the use of sports for sustainable development.

 

Ricobelli Rita b-w

Rita Ricobelli (Photo credit: Rita Ricobelli)

 

Jenny Vrentas is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated (SI) and The MMQB, SI’s pro football website. She covers both on-field and off-field NFL-related stories. On the latter, Vrentas often deals with social and political issues, although she hasn’t tackled climate change yet. Before SI, she spent six years at The Star-Ledger (Newark), as beat reporter for the New York Giants (2012) and the New York Jets (2010-11). The 2018 season was her 12th covering the NFL. 

 

Jenny Vrentas SI.com

Jenny Vrentas (Photo credit: Twitter)

 

Tickets are $15 and can be purchased by clicking hereIf you are in the New York City area the evening of Monday March 11th, please join us. And if you know anyone who might be interested in attending, please share this post with her/him.

 


 

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