The GSB Interview: Justin Zeulner, Previewing the 2017 Green Sports Alliance Summit

THIS IS PART TWO OF A TWO-STORY SERIES ON THE GREEN SPORTS ALLIANCE.

Part One, posted Thursday, centered on the Alliance’s statement about President Trump’s decision to pull the U.S out of the Paris Climate Agreement (#Prexit) and its new “Live Green or Die” initiative.

Today’s Part Two is devoted to the seventh annual Green Sports Alliance Summit, taking place in Sacramento, CA at Golden 1 Center, the new LEED Platinum home of the NBA’s Kings, June 27-29. The Summit’s theme is PLAY GREENER™. What does that mean, exactly? To find out the answers to this and other Summit-related questions, GreenSportsBlog spoke with Alliance Executive Director Justin Zeulner. NOTE: The interview took place before Prexit. 

 

GreenSportsBlog: Justin, I know things must be crazy with the 2017 Green Sports Alliance (Alliance) Summit in Sacramento close at hand so thanks for taking the time to talk. Tell us, what does the Alliance mean by the PLAY GREENER theme for the Summit?

Justin Zeulner: My pleasure, Lew. To us, PLAY GREENER, which is not only the tagline for the Summit, but also for the Alliance more broadly, means anyone and everyone in the sports industry can get involved in the sports greening movement. We’re focusing this year’s Summit on how fans, athletes, and communities are getting engaged around sustainability. At the Summit, attendees will hear stories about how teams, leagues, venues, and athletes are doing this through our plenary and panel discussion. Many of our breakout sessions will even provide road maps for how they’re doing this inspiring work. To give you a sense of what I mean by that, let’s go back a few years. You know well, and have written about how the sports greening movement’s early days were mainly inward focused, concentrating on the greening of the games at the stadium, at the arena—from LED lights, to LEED certified stadiums, to recycling. Well that work has become the norm now; the green sports standards are pretty much set. The Summit is going to highlight how the next, impactful opportunity for green sports and the Alliance is to be outwardly focused. How teams are connecting with fans, at the stadium but also, crucially, at home, to get them making mindful, greener decisions; how teams and leagues are working with environmental non-profits and community groups; how corporate sponsors are getting behind green sports initiatives; and more.

 

Zeulner headshot_PBJ

Justin Zeulner, Executive Director, Green Sports Alliance (Photo credit: Green Sports Alliance)

 

GSB: Well, you’re certainly talking GreenSportsBlog’s language, Justin. So many more fans consume sports on TV, online, and through other media than actually attend games. So you, we, have to get them involved in green sports.

JZ: And that we’ll be in Sacramento for PLAY GREENER is no accident. As we are being hosted by one of the leaders of the sports greening movement, the Sacramento Kings, at the LEED Platinum Golden 1 Center. The arena, a result of an innovative private-public partnership, demonstrates that Greater Sacramento is dedicated to being green through eco-smart buildings that is leading to a healthier community, not in some distant future but now, and in the near-term future. PLAY GREENER connotes a sense of urgency, that the time to act on environmental issues, on climate change, is now. We can’t leave it solely to our kids.

GSB: Amen! Do you think fans, whether at the ballpark or at home or on their mobile device, are ready to PLAY GREENER? By that I mean are they open to receiving environmental, climate change messaging through sports?

JZ: Yes! In fact, research shows fans are open to green messaging through sports. Because when people are in the sports environment, no matter where they’re consuming sports, they’re no longer Democrats or Republicans. Rather, they are Yankees fans or Cubs fans or you name it. And the word fan is absolutely key here. The passion of the fan differentiates sports from other forms of entertainment. If you reach them with a positive environmental message while people are in their fan mode, you can get to them.

 

Golden 1 Center

Golden 1 Center, home of the NBA Sacramento Kings and the site of the 2017 Green Sports Alliance Summit (Photo credit: Sacramento Kings)

 

GSB: Sounds like you’re talking about green sports, Version 2.0.

JZ: I think Version 5.0 is probably more accurate…

GSB: You know what? I agree…As there have been several inflection points for the sports greening movement over the past few years…

JZ: When you take a step back, you can see that the sports greening movement is in the midst of a typical evolution in its “product life cycle.” At first, we had to build the foundation…the greening of the games at the venues. This allowed teams, venues and leagues to walk the walk. And the Alliance went from its foundation of 6 member teams to nearly 500, in 15 leagues and now in 14 countries–all in six years time. So the foundation is rock solid. Now we’re building the house, influencing society at large on climate change through sports. As I said before, the time is ripe for society to look inside our house to see what we’re doing. And what they’ll see when they look in are fan and community engagement programs, they’ll see more athletes getting involved. And—this is really important—all stakeholders in green sports will surely notice that the Alliance is moving from a model that focused mainly on the Summit as “the main thing”, with webinars mixed in, to a model that includes year-round, PLAY GREENER campaigns. Campaigns that include the Summit and webinars, but also the second annual Green Sports Day, October 6, as well as publications—like our Champions of Game Day Food Report and upcoming reports around paper and water.

GSB: How will PLAY GREENER play out in Sacramento?

JZ: We’re starting off with golf, which as you know, is innovating at a rapid pace in terms of the environment, from the PGA of America to the USGA to the R&A in the UK and beyond. A pre-Summit golf tournament, in concert with the Sacramento Kings Foundation, will kick things off at Granite Bay, a greening course…The Alliance is assisting there. Foursomes will see what is happening from a sustainability perspective as they play the course. And then there will be green golf content at the Summit. Another key area at the Summit will be food. The Kings will, at the Summit, share their approach to using local food at the arena, along with their concessionaire, Aramark.

 

Chip In Golf Invitational

 

GSB: Both are leaders in at the intersection of sports and sustainable food.

JZ: Absolutely. Another area we will be exploring at the Summit is measurement, where are we on measuring the sustainable efforts of our teams and how we can do better. This is a must for the Alliance and for the sports industry more broadly. We’ll be talking about how teams and venues are measuring water usage, energy and food waste. Also, the community impact of the teams’ and venues’ sustainability programs will be examined. What’s been really gratifying is that teams and leagues have really been pushing measurement of environmental impacts, which has attracted the interest of the EPA and of the DOE.

GSB: Makes sense. As the expression goes, what gets measured gets managed and what gets managed matters. Plus measurement—after all, what are batting average, third down conversion rate, player efficiency ratings, but measurement tools—is endemic to sports. I understand that the Pac-12 is having a “summit within the Summit” of sorts…What will that be about?

JZ: I’m glad you brought that up. In the big picture, we see the college sports in the US as a great area for growth of the sports greening movement. That’s certainly been the case the last few years. In fact, Ray Anderson, Athletic Director at Arizona State University and an Alliance board member, introduced us to leaders at the other Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and SEC) and the NCAA. And he was a prime mover behind the first Pac-12 Green Sports Conference, which will take place in Sacramento the day before the Alliance Summit kicks off. It will take a deep dive into the many and varied green sports efforts undertaken by the conference and its member schools.^ We expect attendees from the other Power 5 conferences, non-Power 5 conferences, as well as Division II and III, to benefit from the sessions. In addition to the Pac-12, we’re also going to have a Green Sports Youth Summit, a joint effort of the Alliance, Climate Sports Student Summits, and the Kings Foundation. Hosted by radio personality Diana Dehm, we will have speakers from Disney, the How Low Can You Go Challenge, and more…

GSB: The in-school carbon reduction challenge that was started in Florida by Linda Gancitano?

JZ: Exactly. And we will also have, as in past years, our Women, Sports & the Environment Symposium. Our opening night speakers will include the Mayor of Sacramento, Kings owner and green sports visionary Vivek Ranadivé. And Basketball Hall of Famer Bill Walton will be interviewed by Abe Madkour, Executive Editor of Sports Business Journal.

GSB: Bill Walton? That is PERFECT. All-time great player. Announcer. Outsized personality. Grateful Dead Head. Environmentalist.

 

Walton

Bill Walton: Two time NCAA championship winner (UCLA), two time NBA champion (Portland, Boston), member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, NBA and college basketball announcer, Grateful Dead Head. And Keynote Speaker at the 2017 Green Sports Alliance Summit. (Photo credit: Awful Announcing)

 

JZ: I knew him when I worked with the Trail Blazers in Portland—he’s a real climate change advocate who knows what he’s talking about. Jeremy Jones from Protect Our Winters (POW) is also on the docket, as is sustainable surfing, and much more.

GSB: What Jeremy Jones and POW are doing is fantastic, especially their lobbying for climate action in Congress. Speaking of politics—nice segue, right?—have you noticed any slowing of interest on greening issues among team owners since the change of administrations in Washington in January. My educated guess is many team owners likely supported Donald Trump, not exactly a climate change fighting champion.

JZ: We have not seen any slow down of greening from any team owners, any league, or from sponsors. In fact, we’ve seen the opposite—more engagement by teams on sustainability since the election.

GSB: That’s great to hear. Sounds like it will be an active, fun and substantive summit. I can’t end our talk without bringing up the media—or, to be accurate, the lack of media attention green sports has gotten. How does the Alliance hope to combat that, at the Summit and beyond?

JZ: Well, we know we need to get the great green sports stories to media outlets. And they should cover them for two reasons: 1. Their audiences will like them, and 2. They’re powerful stories. I am confident increased media coverage will happen, naturally and organically.

GSB: Is that something the Alliance will be measuring over the coming months and years?

JZ: We already measure it, in the context of our members and the Alliance. We’ve seen a 60% increase in media references to our organization over last year. Let’s not forget the social conversations either—in 2016 we found #greensports saw an over 350% increase in use across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram! We only anticipate the coverage to increase and the conversations to amplify!

GSB: Those are strong results and I hope you’re right. But “I’m from Mizz-ou-rah” on this: I feel network and local sports broadcasters need to do much more to publicize green sports. One more thing: If people want to PLAY GREENER and attend the 2017 Green Sports Alliance Summit, how do they go about it?

JZ: Easy. Just go to http://summit.greensportsalliance.org/register/ and you can sign up in a few minutes.

 

 

^ Pac-12 school roster: Arizona, Arizona State, Cal-Berkeley, Colorado, Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford, UCLA, USC, Utah, Washington and Washington State

 

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