The GSB Interview: Ryan Hall, Greening the College Football Playoff

With the 2017 college football season set to move into high gear this weekend, GreenSportsBlog takes a look for the first time at the Greening of the College Football Playoff (CFP). The CFP, now about to enter its fourth season, draws higher television ratings than just about any other non-NFL sports event in the United States. Given its incredibly high profile, a strong greening program could resonate throughout broad swaths of American sports fandom. To understand what the CFP has done, sustainability-wise and where its green efforts are going, GreenSportsBlog talked with Ryan Hall, its Director of Community Relations.

GreenSportsBlog: Ryan, before we get to the nuts and bolts of the greening programs at the College Football Playoff (CFP), I gotta ask you: How did you get to be the CFP’s Director of Community Relations?

Ryan Hall: Well Lew, I grew up in Austin and went to Rice University there as an undergrad. Went on to Notre Dame for law school…

GSB: A step up in class in terms of football and basketball I’d say…

RH: You’d be right about that but I didn’t drink the Notre Dame Kool-Aid, didn’t become a huge fan. But I did meet my future wife the first day of orientation in South Bend.

GSB: Congratulations!

RH: Thank you. Anyway, I practiced as an attorney in Cincinnati for three years before going to work for the NCAA in Indianapolis in the compliance department. Did that for seven years. Then my wife’s firm opened a Dallas office so we moved down there — strong family connections.

GSB: And Dallas is where the College Football Playoff headquarters is…

RH: Given my experience at the NCAA, I was able to make some connections at the CFP. I ended up taking the job of Director of Community Relations in 2015, right after the first CFP. Sustainability, through our “Playoff Green” initiative, is a core part of my job, in addition to developing and ultimately executing the community relations programs during CFP Week, communication of, and enforcement of regulations, as well as membership relations.

 

Ryan Hall CFP

Ryan Hall, Director of Community Relations, College Football Playoff (Photo credit: College Football Playoff)

 

GSB: So talk about Playoff Green. What is it?

RH: The folks at the CFP knew from the very beginning that we needed to have a strong green commitment and thus a fan-facing program. Early on, we engaged Jack Groh, who manages the greening programs for the NFL, including at their premier events, the Super Bowl and NFL Draft, to build Playoff Green for us.

GSB: Jack is a natural fit for yo…

RH: You got that right!

GSB: Why do you think green was so central to the CFP?

RH: Well, from before the time I got here until now, the organizers of the CFP have realized that we have a responsibility to do more than put on a great semifinals and national championship. Of course, that is our primary task but, since we see the CFP as being a game changer in the “Big Game” landscape, we also want to be a positive game changer on societal issues…

GSB: Like sustainability and climate change? That makes sense to me, especially since colleges and universities have millions of students who study climate change, sustainability and the like…

RH: Exactly right. For those reasons and more, we knew we had to make the CFP a green event and get students into it. Not only college students, but also young people all the way down to the grammar school level. So we need our green program to have strong educational components down to the district level, including curriculum. And there are, of course, strong “big game” precedents for green community programs, including the Super Bowl, Olympics and FIFA World Cup. But, along with the Final Four, we’re the only big game event that has a potential army of college students, passionate about sustainability, at our disposal.

GSB: So how did you go about building the CFP greening program? Is climate change a part of it?

RH: Well, we created a foundation almost at our creation, the CFP Foundation. Our greening curriculum that gets deployed in the markets where our games are played each year has climate change as a core pillar. Our team has educators and it’s on us to 1) be leaders, educationally-speaking, and 2) leave the cities and towns that host us in better shape than when we arrived.

GSB: So talk about the specifics of the CFP greening programs…

RH: The true heart of Playoff Green has been tree planting. It started as a challenge, as a competition between groups of students from the four competing schools in parks at the game sites. The students were really into it, as were the localities. Then, with Jack Groh’s guidance, we broadened the project from parks into schools. For our 2017 game in Tampa, we ran a semester-long project in which we planted trees on the grounds of underserved public schools. In 2018, we expect Atlanta, host of the the championship game, to go even bigger as our curriculum and tree planting will reach even more schools.

 

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Playoff Green Campus Challenge at Bailey Elementary, Dover, Florida, January 6, 2017 (Photo credit: College Football Playoff)

 

GSB: Atlanta is a great place, from a green-sports point of view, especially with the championship game being played at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, expected to be the NFL’s first LEED Platinum-certified stadium.

RH: We are very excited about being in, arguably, the greenest football stadium in the USA. It will be our biggest Playoff Green yet, especially with our partners at the Atlanta College Football Playoff Host Committee working with Jack Groh. The campus challenge will be bigger and better, involving more kids, from grammar schools to middle schools to high schools. We are also working with DonorsChoose.org the great nonprofit that helps fund teachers’ projects in underfunded districts. As schools become involved and meet the parameters of the Playoff Green challenge, we provided gift cards to DonorsChoose.org that help teachers at the school fund projects. We put resources directly into the school and classrooms.

 

CFP Bins 2017

An example of enhanced Trash and Recycling efforts at 2017 College Football Playoff events in the Tampa, FL area (Photo credit: College Football Playoff)

 

GSB: Are CFP corporate sponsors getting involved with Playoff Green, and if so, what does that look like?

RH: Corporate sponsorship is coming but we need to do it right — it’s a bit of a challenge, as we want to make sure there’s not a whiff of greenwashing. So we will be careful but it will happen.

GSB: That makes perfect sense. Finally, how are you and the CFP going to get the Playoff Green story out to the broader public? Will ESPN promote it? Because my biggest concern, and it’s not limited to the CFP, is that mega-events will keep their greening good works under the radar. This has largely been the case with the Super Bowl — my sense is that precious few know that the Super Bowl has been carbon neutral for more than a decade — and with the FIFA World Cup. Thankfully, the organizers of the Rio 2016 Olympics produced a vignette on climate change during the Opening Ceremonies that was viewed by an estimated worldwide audience of 1 billion people. Will ESPN tell the Playoff Green story on air?

RH: Great question. Outsiders really don’t know how great a partner ESPN has been, especially as it relates to Playoff Green. They’ve provided resources in terms of the implementation of Playoff Green and the tree planting, including funding. Playoff Green public service announcements (PSA’s) will be aired in stadium in Atlanta.

GSB: What about on air? Because 25 million people will watch the game on ESPN as compared to maybe 75,000 in stadium.

RH: That’s something we’ll work on in future years with our TV partner, ESPN as well as future partners.

GSB: That’s great…you know we will follow up on that down the road.

 


 

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Two Less-Than-Stellar Views of the Greenness of College Football’s National Championship Game and Bowl Season

Clemson’s 35-31 win over Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in Tampa, FL on January 9 was an instant classic. Unfortunately, the greening initiatives surrounding the game didn’t come close to living up to what took place on the field. And, according to Todd LeVasseur of the College of Charleston (SC), that’s nothing: The entire premise of college football’s 42-game postseason bowl bacchanal is an unsustainable “Carbon Bomb.” 

 

AN UNINSPIRING GREENING EFFORT AT THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP

With sincere apologies to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of the sustainability of mega sports events bends towards greening, but sometimes the gears shift into reverse. The green success stories (London 2012 Olympics, the Bay Area Super Bowl 50 Host Committee’s stellar work in 2016, EURO 2016, etc.) generally build upon each other. But, along with the wins there are also the green draws/mixed bags (Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, Rio 2016 Olympics), along with a loss (the Houston Super Bowl LI Host Committee does not have a greening program) here and there.

The greening efforts surrounding the third annual College Football Playoff National Championship game, known as Playoff Greenfall squarely in the mixed bag category, failing to live up to the stellar quality of the game on the field.

It should have been a win.

Given the innovative sports-greening work being done on campuses from Ohio State to Colorado to UCLA and beyond, one would think Playoff Green would offer up state-of-the-art sustainability measures. Instead, Playoff Green seemed to settle for a field goal instead of going for a green “bomb.”

Yes, Playoff Green handled the basic blocking and tackling of green mega events, including:

  • Recycling at Raymond James Stadium, where the game was played.
  • Unused Food Donation to the Feeding Tampa Bay food bank.
  • Repurposing of construction materials, signage and other event materials.
  • Renewable Energy Certificates from TECO/Tampa Electric powered Raymond James Stadium and the downtown Championship Campus.

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Clemson fans celebrate their team’s 35-31 last second upset over Alabama in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium (Photo credit: Julio Ochoa/WUSF TV)

 

The most innovative aspect of Playoff Green was the Gerdau Playoff Green Campus Challenge. Ten Hillsborough County schools were challenged to implement a series of sustainability projects on their campuses. Schools that successfully completed the Challenge earned grants for school supplies and urban forestry projects. This is a good program, especially for the students in Hillsborough County.

It’s just not good enough. Not at this point in the Mega Sports Event life cycle. We expect and deserve more. Here are some ideas as to what more could look like:

  • A Clean-Tech pitch-off from “green teams” from the four participating schools in the college football playoff plus local schools like University of South Florida.
  • Borrowing from UCLA’s EcoChella concert series, a concert the Saturday night before the championship game, powered by students from the competing schools and local Atlanta universities riding stationary bikes.
  • Power the Fan Village by mobile clean bio-fuels or other renewables
  • Playoff Green scoreboard and pre-game broadcast mentions (game broadcast would be better but pre-game would be a good start) as well as a section in the game program.

To the people managing the operations 2018 College Football Playoff Championship Game at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, we say you’re welcome.

 

MAKING THE CASE FOR RADICAL DOWNSIZING OF COLLEGE FOOTBALL’S CARBON FOOTPRINT IN FOOTBALL-MAD SOUTH CAROLINA

Todd LeVasseur, Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Environmental and Sustainability Studies, and the Director of the Quality Enhancement Plan at the College of Charleston (S.C.) is an even tougher grader than yours truly when it comes to the greening (or lack thereof) of college football’s post season, and college sports more broadly. He also has a heaping helping of guts.

You see, LeVasseur penned “College Football Has a ‘Carbon Bomb’ Problem,” an Op-Ed that ran in the December 26, 2016 issue of the Charleston Post and Courier.  

The “carbon bomb” to which he refers is the environmental profligacy of big time college sports in general (“institutional prioritization of athletics and the hidden ecological impacts of that prioritization”), with the über-carbon intense college bowl season (teams and fans flying all over the country for 42 mostly meaningless games) his particular focus. LeVasseur asserts “Colleges [and universities] are living in a reality at odds with basic climate science when they think it is ethically just to fly student-athletes and students across the country to play in and support a game whose importance is blown entirely out of proportion when compared to the true point of college: to develop critical thinkers who can change the world for the better.”

levasseur-cofc

Todd LeVasseur, College of Charleston (Photo credit: College of Charleston)

 

Now, you might say, “LeVasseur is a pointy-headed, anti-sports snob.” And you would be wrong—he is a fan of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs and English Premier League soccer/football. He says he is fine with college sports but would like to see a much more limited, constrained version than is currently the case. In LeVasseur’s college football (and basketball) dreamscape, teams would:

  • Be a train ride apart from their league rivals
  • Travel on buses powered by biodiesel
  • Serve vegan options at the stadium (a la Forest Green Rovers of English Soccer’s 5th tier)

His model sounds more like the Ivy League (schools from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire), than the Southeastern Conference, which runs from Florida to Missouri or the American Athletic Conference, which stretches from Storrs, CT to Houston.

For LeVasseur’s approach to go from column to serious consideration to anything close to reality, there are some, as of 2017, insurmountable obstacles to overcome: A relative lack of concern in the U.S. about environmental and climate issues. The nationwide religious fervor surrounding big time college football and basketball. And the gazillions of dollars that go with the color and pageantry and rah-rah. So one could imagine that LeVasseur’s column, appearing in a paper in the middle of Clemson/University of South Carolina Country, might have sparked a wee bit of controversy (which is why I cited his intestinal fortitude in writing the story.)

Controversy was exactly the reason LeVasseur wrote it: “When I was made Director of the College’s Quality Enhancement Plan devoted to sustainability literacy, I met with the College of Charleston’s Marketing Director about promoting the plan to students and the broader community. I jokingly stated that I would believe higher education, broadly, was taking sustainability seriously when institutions were ready to have an honest discussion about the impacts of college sports. He encouraged me to generate an opinion piece along those lines.”

He says only one virulently negative response (“maybe you should leave the country…”) made it to his desk. Of course that could be a function of the fact that he doesn’t “search out the comments, there’s too much hate out there.”

It says here there’s about as much reason to hate on LeVasseur’s ideas as there was a reason for a Carbon Bomb to be unleashed by the playing of the St. Petersburg Bowl between Miami, OH (a mediocre 6-6) and Mississippi State (sub .500 at 6-7).

 

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