Green College Sports

Key Takeaways From Collegiate Sports Sustainability Summit


By Elyssa Emrich

The University of Colorado in Boulder, CO, the host of the recently concluded Collegiate Sports Sustainability Summit, a conference that brings together athletic directors, recreation department leaders, facility managers at college stadiums, sustainability directors, academics, students, government agencies and sponsors, is just about the perfect venue for this event: The campus is among the greenest in the US, the Colorado Athletic Department, spurred on by student initiatives, is on track to be the first in the US to go completely Zero-Waste, and, to top it all off, when I walked into the fifth floor suites of Folsom Field for the Summit’s kickoff, I was greeted by a spectacularly panoramic view of the Rocky Mountains.

“Yes,” I though to myself, “Boulder is the PLACE!”


Folsom Field Elyssa

The view of the Rocky Mountains from high atop Folsom Field, home of the Colorado Buffaloes and host of the recent Collegiate Sports Sustainability Summit. (Photo Credit: Elyssa Emrich)


And, I’m happy to say the content of the Summit matched quality of the venue! Here are my key takeaways:

  1. Campus Recreation and Club Sports

While varsity college sports has a far greater public profile, college recreation departments, which engage students through intramurals and other activities at workout facilities 7 days a week, reach a far greater number of students. A representative from NIRSA (National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association) noted that one of its strategic values is creating sustainable communities. According to NIRSA, students are engaged in sustainably at a greater degree than ever before and they are seeking campus partners to advance their efforts. We look forward to seeing what kind of specific sustainability programs NIRSA puts in place next year and beyond.

  1. Sponsorships: Sustainability Sells

College athletic departments across the country are seeing the positive impact “going green” can have on their bottom-lines by cutting costs through energy efficiency. Greening is helping a smaller but growing number of athletics departments improve their top lines by engaging corporate sponsors

The Summit highlighted a great example in BASF “The Chemical Company,”. Why would a chemical company want to invest in college sports sponsorships? To generate awareness of their sustainability programs. One of BASF’s core missions is to “create chemistry for a sustainable future.” They do this by connecting with and entertaining fans at sporting events so they will take ideas back home and to work.

BASF placed a particular emphasis on sponsoring Zero-Waste programs, including those of our hosts, the University of Colorado Buffaloes basketball team. At a recent 2014 home game BASF gave away kitchen containers to encourage families to start composting at home. Megan Eisenhard, General Manager for Buffalo Sports Properties, a division of Learfield Sports which handles marketing and sponsorship sales for Colorado University athletics, sold sponsorships to CU’s “Ralphie’s (the Buffaloes’ mascot) Green Stampede” (i.e. the umbrella program that includes “Zero Waste”) campaign to White Wave Foods, BASF, Eco-Products, Levy Restaurants and community groups such as the Girl Scouts. Her plans for the future go beyond Zero-Waste/Green Stampede to selling a bike valet and an energy efficiency sponsor.

Our hosts certainly don’t have a monopoly on green sports sponsorships. The inaugural Next Play competition, hosted by Davidson (NC) College, is a March Madness-style competition of student-led business plans that are designed to make the sports industry more sustainable. It involved the schools in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Sponsors, including Duke Energy, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Green Sports Alliance, provided funding for cash awards that went to the winners, which included reQwip, a mobile marketplace for selling new and used cycling and triathlon equipment.

  1. Leadership

The last key takeaway is the necessity of strong leadership at a college/university to make sustainability a lasting priority. This can be a challenge because the public’s main interest in college sports is wins and losses, not recycling and composting. That ain’t gonna change. So Athletic Directors and college/university Presidents must stand strong about sustainability in winning and losing seasons alike.

Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith, the keynote speaker at the 2013 Summit, sees the value of leading an environmentally conscious athletic department (Zero Waste at OSU football games that draw over 100,000 fans!) and even helps other ADs share his vision. Last month Smith moderated a panel at the annual National Association of College Directors of AthleticsNACDA conference about “Sustainability in College Athletics” that drew in a packed house.

He emphasized that, for a campus to truly “go green”, there must be collaboration between the athletic department, academics and other on campus organizations. Athletics, with its high profile, can certainly play a major role, but it can’t go it alone.

Parting Shots

Being a recent Wisconsin grad, I would like to see student involvement increased at the Summit, since younger generations see sustainability as the norm, are enthused about greening sports on campus and would love the opportunity to learn about what’s going on and to network.

One big challenge that became clear at the Summit is that small schools (i.e. Divisions II and III) have to do many of the same things (i.e. recycle, compost, educate students, fans, etc) the big (Division I) schools do, but with far fewer resources. A DIII athletic department may only have one person who is handling all stadium/arena operations while larger schools will have a staff similar to that of a professional team. And, since the DII/DIII schools reach a small fraction of the audience of most DI schools, it is more difficult to sell sponsors. DII/DIII schools have to be more clever, creative and hard working to make “going green” viable than their DI counterparts. Who said life was fair?

Finally, I may be mimicking “Captain Obvious” here, but college athletic departments need a Strategic Sustainability Plan. It is not enough to just have a recycling program or to host a green game; if an athletic department wants to maximize impact, minimize energy use and generate green sponsorship revenue, a Strategic Sustainability Plan is a MUST.

The good news is the NRDC has a website, “Collegiate Greening Advisor”, that provides schools with a template for all of their sustainability efforts that includes case studies, marketing materials, funding opportunities, tracking progress and much more. I recommend everyone check out this one stop shop for greening college athletic departments.



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1 Comment

  1. While the fact that corporations are loving the green sports sponsorship opportunities is likely a BIG point for any athletic department still not quite up to snuff in sustainability, I love that the student participation in recreational sports (its not ALL about the usual suspects of football, basketball etc) was a big focus/seen as a key focus area by this conference. And, I also love that there is still so much opportunity for true leadership (doing the systemic/integrated approach and not just switching out bulbs and collecting compost at the stadiums). Plus, it gives us all another way to root for our own alma maters ( #goblue ) and compete about something that actually really matters. Thanks for this great summary, Elyssa!

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