The GSB Interview: JoAnn Neale, Helping Major League Soccer Reach its Greener Goals

Welcome to Day III of GreenSportsBlog’s Earth Week extravaganza!

Click here for Monday’s brainstorm among Green-Sports luminaries to find big, “Moon Shot” ways for sports to impact the climate change fight. And click here for Tuesday’s story about the New York Yankees’ strong climate change statement.

Today we turn to Major League Soccer, which just completed its “Greener Goals Week of Service.” 

MLS’ efforts surrounding sustainability earned it the title of No. 1 most responsible football league in the world according to ResponsiBALL, an annual report ranking the most prominent soccer leagues based on actions related to community and environment.

GSB believes MLS is perfectly positioned to lead on Green-Sports. Its fan base is the youngest of the five North American major professional men’s sports leagues. Young people “get green” at far higher percentages than their older counterparts.

We spoke with JoAnn Neale, MLS President and Chief Administrative Officer, about the league’s sustainability efforts, including what’s new this season. Before that, we delved into how Neale came to her unique role as one of the most senior female executives across all major professional sports leagues.

 

GreenSportsBlog: JoAnn, I have so many things to get to — the history of Major League Soccer and its Greener Goals program, how the league can leverage green more powerfully than it has to this point, where climate change fits into the league’s green messaging. But first, how did you come to run MLS’ greening initiatives?

JoAnn Neale: I grew up on Long Island and started playing soccer when I was five years old. Playing soccer and being an athlete was a big part of my identity. I also always had a dream of being a lawyer and an intention of going into litigation.

GSB: …Saying “I object!” and “May I approach the bench?” always sounded exciting to me! Was it?

JoAnn: While at NYU Law School, I had an internship in a firm’s litigation division and realized it wasn’t for me. The idea of going to court was exciting, but the reality was most cases take years before they get to court and a heavy focus is on research.

 

JoAnn Neale1 - Primary

JoAnn Neale (Photo credit: Major League Soccer)

 

GSB: So what did you do?

JoAnn: After law school, I was fortunate to land a job at Latham & Watkins. I did transactional work and realized my love for negotiating and working with clients in a collaborative way. The concept of getting alignment from both parties and overcoming obstacles to have the same end goal was always intriguing. It was really fulfilling work.

GSB: How and when did soccer come into the picture?

JoAnn: While studying for the bar exam in law school during the summer of 1994, my friends and I would take breaks and watch the World Cup games that took place in the USA that year. It was then that the formation of Major League Soccer was announced. I recall thinking it would be interesting to be part of the creation of the league. Ultimately, two lawyers at Latham & Watkins were involved with the founding of MLS. Fast forward a couple years and a friend of mine had gone to work at the league. Two months later, she said there was an opening in the law department and I joined in 1998.

GSB: What did your friends and family say? Going from a big firm to a new soccer league?

JoAnn: People said, “You’re crazy!” and ‘Why would you want to do THAT?!’ But it felt right and it was.

GSB: It must’ve been very exciting being at what was essentially a startup. What was your role in those early days?

JoAnn: The first four-to-six years I primarily did legal work. After that, I expanded into other areas like Human Resources and projects like spearheading a team responsible for all the logistics of moving MLS to our current headquarters in Manhattan.

In 2006, the executive team discussed the need for creating a social responsibility platform. We believed it was important to give back to the communities in which we live and play our games, as well as to our fans. I raised my hand and said I would like to lead the charge in developing the platform. MLS WORKS launched in 2007.

GSB: Congratulations! What is MLS WORKS’ mission?

JoAnn: MLS is dedicated to using soccer as a vehicle for positive social change. Through MLS WORKS, MLS and its clubs seek to enrich the lives of those in need across the United States and Canada.

From executing national programs and legacy projects, to charitable giving campaigns, MLS creates sustainable communities and promotes inclusion at all levels of the game. MLS WORKS has a strategic four-pillar approach to corporate social responsibility.

  • Soccer For All – This signifies that everyone is welcome to MLS, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status.
  • Youth Enrichment – This includes our work with the U.S. Soccer Foundation to build soccer pitches in inner cities.
  • Kick Childhood Cancer – The league “goes gold” throughout the month as part of the Kick Childhood Cancer campaign to raise awareness and funds for Children’s Oncology Group.
  • Greener Goals – The initiative kicks off this week with the Fourth Annual Greener Goals Week of Service leading into Earth Day weekend.

 

GSB: Not surprisingly, I’d like to hear more about Greener Goals. What kinds of programs are under that heading?

JoAnn: MLS has committed to measure, reduce and offset the league’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and promote healthy, sustainable communities throughout the United States and Canada, and areas in need throughout the rest of the world. Our clubs activate in different ways. Some have been heavily focusing on reducing food waste, others on raising awareness around plastic pollution, others on recycling, etc.

GSB: Can you share some examples?

JoAnn: Of course! On food waste, Sporting Kansas City provides fans with easy-to-implement tips on reducing food waste. Orlando City SC is partnering with the city of Orlando to deliver food waste to an energy/fertilizer plant at Walt Disney World. Seattle Sounders FC use compost from CenturyLink Field to grow vegetables at a nearby farm. On plastic waste, FC Cincinnati

GSB: …The league’s newest expansion team…

JoAnn: That’s right. The club worked with Newport Aquarium to drive awareness, attention and action around Earth Day. Fans bring single-use plastic bags to the team’s matches and the Newport Aquarium where collections will be taken on-site. On Earth Day, a special event was hosted to demonstrate the impact the bag collection will have on local Cincinnati-area waterways and its wildlife, and at a larger scale in oceans. Students at local schools and after-school programs will help repurpose the bags into useful items, including sleeping mats for the area’s homeless community.

 

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FC Cincinnati’s Emmanuel Ledesma (l) and Greg Garza show off their new reusable bags created using recycled plastic bags at the Newport Aquarium (Photo credit: FC Cincinnati)

 

On energy, Real Salt Lake has a 2020-kilowatt (kWh) solar panel system at Rio Tinto Stadium which offsets approximately 73 percent of the organization’s total annual stadium power needs.

GSB: I knew about their solar installation but I didn’t know it offset such a high percentage. That’s great news. The Seattle Sounders recently committed to go carbon neutral. What does that mean exactly?

JoAnn: You’re right. The Sounders are the first professional soccer team in North America to go carbon neutral. The club worked with Seattle-based Sustainable Business Consulting to calculate its greenhouse gas emissions and develop plans to reduce its impacts where possible. For sources unable to be eliminated – such as team travel for matches, scouting and other business – Sounders FC is offsetting the club’s emissions through the Evergreen Carbon Capture (ECC) program of Forterra, a nonprofit that works for regional sustainability. Using the club’s contribution to ECC, Forterra and its partner DIRT Corps are joining with the team and its fans to plant hundreds of trees in a part of the region that needs added tree cover.

GSB: That’s impressive, JoAnn. I know the league is also involved in carbon offsetting as part of Greener Goals. What emissions is MLS offsetting and what kind of offsets did the league purchase?

JoAnn: Well, first I want to thank Allen Hershkowitz

GSB: …Environmental Science Advisor for the New York Yankees…

JoAnn: …and also Doug Behar, VP of Operations with the Yankees. They shared the offset program the Yanks embarked upon and we said, “MLS has to be involved!” So we started by offsetting emissions, including executive travel, surrounding the MLS All-Star Game. It was fitting that the 2018 All-Star Game was played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, a venue that is LEED Platinum. In 2018 MLS compensated 5,400 tons of CO2 equivalent associated with hotel accommodations, ground transportation, staff, player, executive and MLS guest travel, and stadium operations as part of MLS All-Star Week and MLS Cup in Atlanta, in addition to player travel during the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs

To date, MLS’ investment has created tangible, constructive impacts for local communities that were generated by the distribution of 4,407 improved cook stoves in rural communities in Kenya. As of October 2018, the use of these cook stoves are estimated to have positively impacted the lives and wellbeing of 15,000 women and children.

 

GreenDayMariettaSixthGradeAcademy_0031a

Mercedes Benz Stadium, the first LEED Platinum football stadium in the USA, hosted 60 Marietta Middle School students for the stadium’s first sustainability tour in which the students learned about the venue’s greenness. In conjunction with the tour, Atlanta United’s players helped educate students about sustainable food choices, healthy eating and the environmental impact of locally sourced foods, followed by a taste test competition. Here Atlanta United goalkeeper Alec Kann serves up some of the tasty dish he cooked up (Photo credit: Atlanta United)

 

GSB: That’s important work. How did you communicate the Greener Goals expansion to MLS fans? Did you air PSAs in stadium and/or on TV broadcasts?

JoAnn: Social media was big for us — Facebook and Twitter in particular. Our Greener Goals messaging focuses on what MLS and our clubs are doing in or near the stadiums and in the communities that our teams play. Our Greener Goals PSAs focus on what we’re doing in or near the stadiums from an environmental perspective.

GSB: Really? I think the carbon-offsets-cookstoves project would make for a great PSA. Beyond the offsets, how else has MLS expanded Greener Goals?

JoAnn: All 24 MLS clubs wore special adidas-Parley eco-friendly kits over Earth Day weekend. These innovative uniforms are made with Climalite technology and built of technical yarns created with Parley Ocean Plastic™, made from up-cycled marine plastic waste, as a part of the global adidas x Parley initiative. The collaboration with adidas to support Parley for the Oceans also serves to encourage fans to decrease their use of single-use plastics and reinforcing the importance of changing human attitude and behavior towards plastic pollution.

 

Parley Timbers

The Portland Timbers version of the adidas Parley for the Oceans eco-friendly jerseys worn by all MLS players over Earth Day weekend (Photo credit: MLS)

 

GSB: Love that program — but why only use the Parley uniforms during Earth Week? Couldn’t all teams use Parley unis all the time?

JoAnn: Great question, Lew. We’re exploring that option.

GSB: Good to hear. I have one last question: Does MLS include climate change in its Greener Goals messaging?

JoAnn: Not yet. MLS does not want to get into a political debate on climate change. Rather, we want to focus our efforts on improving lives by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing recycling, and more.

GSB: I think MLS is missing an opportunity by not directly talking about climate change with its fans. As discussed earlier, the demographic groups that make up the MLS fan base — Millennials, Gen-Zers, Hispanics — are also demanding real action on climate. My bet is that MLS fans would reward the league for linking its Greener Goals program to the climate change fight.

 


 

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#CoverGreenSports

Yankees Make Strong Statement on Climate Change on Earth Day

Earth Week 2019 continues on GreenSportsBlog!

The New York Yankees, one of the most iconic sports franchises in the world, are on a roll in 2019 from a climate action perspective.

A Green-Sports leader for more than a decade, the club took its climate change fight to a higher gear in January when they hired Dr. Allen Hershkowitz as the first Environmental Science Advisor in team sports history. And earlier this month, they became the first major North American pro sports team to sign on to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework. 

Sunday’s Earth Day-themed pregame ceremony at home plate — which highlighted the Yankees’ climate change work directly to fans — was their biggest Green-Sports step to date. 

 

Surreal

That is the only word to describe the experience.

It was a few minutes before the 1:09 PM first pitch of the Yankees’ Easter Sunday matchup against the Kansas City Royals.

Standing a few paces behind home plate at Yankee Stadium, watching a ceremony I could not have imagined when I started GreenSportsBlog almost six years ago.

 

YANKEES TELL FANS THEY’RE FIGHTING CLIMATE CHANGE

At home plate, Yankees manager Aaron Boone had sauntered over from the dugout to join Doug Behar, the Yankees’ Senior Vice President and Director of Ballpark Operations, Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, the club’s Environmental Science Advisor; and Satya Tripathi, Assistant Secretary General of the United Nations.

The dulcet tones of public address announcer Paul Olden voice wafted through Yankee Stadium, telling the crowd that would grow to more than 40,000 that the Yankees had “become the first professional sports team in North America to sign on to the UN Sports for Climate Action Framework.” And that “the framework’s aim is to bring the sports industry’s greenhouse emissions in line with the Paris Climate Change Agreement.” The giant scoreboards beyond the bleachers augmented Olden’s story; fans clapped in a respectful tone.

 

Yankees Earth Day

Sunday’s Earth Day-themed pregame ceremony commemorated the Yankees commitment to operate by the tenets of the UN’s Sports for Climate Action platform. From left to right, it’s Doug Behar, Yankees Director of Operations; Satya Tripathi, UN Assistant Secretary General; Yankees manager Aaron Boone, and Allen Hershkowitz, Environmental Science Advisor to the Yankees (Photo credit: New York Yankees)

 

But don’t let the fans’ measured reaction fool you. This was a watershed moment for the Green-Sports movement.

According to Hershkowitz, “The Yankees on-field climate event with the UN, announcing the team’s support for the UNFCCC’s Climate Action Principles was one of the most influential and important moments not only in the history of the sports greening movement, but in the history of climate action communication.”

And that is why the ceremony seemed so surreal to me.

After all the New York Yankees spoke to their fans — clearly and without any dodgy language — about climate change!

Are you kidding me?

We’re not talking the Seattle Crunchy Granolas! These are the establishment, conservative New York Yankees! 

 

YANKEES SHOW WILLINGNESS TO HELP LEAD A CULTURAL SHIFT ON CLIMATE

At a Yankee Stadium press conference that preceded the ceremony, UN Assistant Secretary General Tripathi clearly laid out the scope of our climate problems: “The planet is unwell, and humanity has 10 to 12 years to make big changes towards decarbonization so we can turn the corner.”

After concurring with Tripathi, Hershkowitz pivoted, making the point that moving the Yankees’ towards zero carbon emissions over the next few years will not be the club’s biggest contribution to the climate change fight: “The emissions from the Yankees’ operations, which total about 14,000 tonnes of CO₂, equivalent per year, are minuscule compared to the world’s annual total of 37 billion tonnes.”

Rather, it will be the power of the Yankees’ brand to influence the culture of sports and business about the need for urgent action on climate change that moves the needle.

“The biggest thing humans must do if we’re going to take on climate change at the needed scale and speed is to change cultural assumptions how we relate to the planet, to the eco-systems that give us air to breathe and water to drink,” Hershkowitz asserted. “That requires a massive cultural shift. The Yankees brand represents an uncompromising commitment to excellence and performance — the team is universally admired for its determination to succeed. It provides a unique platform to make that cultural shift happen. The potential cultural and market impact of an organization with the stature and brand image of the Yankees leading on climate and carbon emissions is incredible.”

The Yankees hope that, once other teams in baseball and across the sports world see them leading on climate, more of them will step up to the plate on climate action.

The organization has been building its climate change-fighting platform for 20 years, largely under the radar of the general public. That pace has accelerated since the move into the current Yankee Stadium in 2009, as the organization:

  • Installed energy efficient lights that were state-of-the-art in 2009, saving 35 percent on energy usage vs. their predecessors. And then, when the technology had improved again a few years later, ownership approved another switch, this time to LEDs. The result? An additional 70 percent energy usage reduction.

 

Yankee Stadium Lights

The two square light fixtures on the far left are examples of the energy efficient LEDs installed by the Yankees (Photo credit: Lewis Blaustein)

 

  • Now diverts 85 percent of total waste from landfill via recycling and composting. Management is working diligently towards getting to 90 percent diversion and Zero-Waste status
  • Measures and reduces its carbon emissions while offsetting the unavoidable environmental impacts they can’t eliminate through the innovative distribution of efficient cookstoves in some of the world’s poorest regions, saving lives in the process.

The offset program warranted an explanation.

“The number one cause of death in the world is air pollution,” said Hershkowitz. “Consider that three billion people cook over open flames or with simple stoves powered by unhealthy coal, wood or other forms of biomass. According to the World Health Organization, four million people, mostly women and girls die prematurely every year because of inefficient, dirty stoves. The cookstoves the Yankees purchased and had distributed in Sub-Saharan Africa reduce air pollution from cooking by 35 to 50 percent. As a result of their investment in cookstoves, it is estimated the Yankees organization saved more than 7,000 lives in just the last year, primarily women and children.”

 

Cookstoves

Clean burning cookstoves (Photo credit: South Pole Group)

 

That is one “save statistic” that the great Mariano Rivera would be proud to own.

 

JUST THE BEGINNING

Sunday’s press conference was covered by local mainstream media, including WCBS Newsradio 880 and News 12 — the cable news channel for the Bronx. The Yankees’ own media outlet, the YES Network, sent a reporter. Getting the climate change fighting story out to a mass audience via media — and to the fans through the ceremony — is a crucial start to building the climate change “cultural shift platform” that Hershkowitz described above.

Where will the Yankees go from here?

Will Hershkowitz be talking climate change with John Sterling and/or Suzyn Waldman on the Yankees radio network anytime soon?

That conversation — one I’d pay to hear — is not going to happen in the near future, but Michael Margolis, the Yankees’ Director, Baseball Information and Public Communications, did say, “Sustainability has been and will continue to be a point of emphasis for the Yankees. We plan to increase climate messaging to our fans in the future.”

 

GSB’s Take 

Allen Hershkowitz is spot on: Sunday’s home plate ceremony at Yankee Stadium really was “one of the most … important moments not only in the history of the sports greening movement, but in the history of climate action communication.” It also provided a bit of much needed climate hope for those in the Green-Sports world and beyond.

That hope was tempered somewhat by a brief conversation I had with UN Assistant Secretary General Tripathi at the press conference.

I mentioned that humanity has 12 to 15 years to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half. Tripathi quickly corrected me: “Twelve years is the maximum.” 

That’s the same time span as the new mega-contract Mike Trout signed with the Anaheim Angels.

Think about that for a second.

We have the length of one baseball player’s contract to make the sizable and necessary cultural shifts and behavioral changes on climate to which Hershkowitz referred.

The Yankees know this and that’s why Sunday can only be the beginning of their public facing climate efforts. I look forward to see how the next innings of this most important game play out.

 


 

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Leading Lights Offer Sports-Climate Change Moonshot Ideas for Earth Day

Happy Earth Day…Happy Earth Week!

The Green-Sports field is so rich and deep that we are offer a full Earth Week’s worth of columns, starting today.

Of course, the field’s richness and depth is directly related to the existential and immediate nature of our climate change problems. 

Per the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report — as well as other studies — humanity has a dozen years, max, to cut carbon emissions in half in order to avoid the most calamitous effects of climate change. 

And yet to date, sports has largely taken a hands off approach when it comes to climate change, with a handful of exceptions.

People come to games to be entertained and climate change is not an entertaining topic. Teams, leagues and college athletics departments have taken a wide range of substantive green actions but most have been kept in the shadows. Why rock the boat, annoy sponsors and some fans?

It says here, with only a dozen years to dramatically decarbonize, rocking the boat should be the least of sports’ — or any other industry’s — worries.

In fact, many say the world needs to engage in a mobilization on par with World War II or the Apollo “Moon Shots” to attack the climate problems at the required scale and pace.

So now is the time for industry, government, individuals and, yes, sports, to go BIG on climate.

What would going big look like?

In honor of Earth Day, GreenSportsBlog asked luminaries from the Green-Sports world and beyond to offer up their ideas — brainstorm-style — for Sports-Climate Change MOON SHOTS.

The rules were simple: 1) Be brief, 2) There are no bad ideas, 3) Impossible is good, and 4) Go…

BIG!!!

So enjoy, and feel free to share your own MOON SHOT ideas in the comments section below.

 


 

Creating the world’s largest carbon offset project

Neill Duffy Purpose + Sport CEO

Fan travel is the greatest source of emissions in sport.

Imagine if sports fans everywhere could be part of the biggest team in the world fighting climate change, with a mission to create the world’s largest carbon offset project.

 

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Neill Duffy (Photo credit: Neill Duffy)

 

We would achieve this by inspiring sports fans to make a commitment to never travel to a game with less than at least three other fans — in whatever form of transportation — and measure the shared miles traveled. The resulting emissions reductions would be monetized by a corporate sponsor(s). The funds generated would be allocated to climate change-related projects, from renewable energy generation to climate change education to climate refugee resettlement and more.

And the best part, is that the technology exists this now.

 


 

NFL Meatless Monday Night Football

Summer Minchew EcoImpact Consulting Managing Partner

I would love to see an NFL “Meatless Monday Night Football” campaign!

Host teams for all Monday night football games would serve only vegetarian or vegan foods at their concessions and encourage fans watching at home to go veggie during the game as well. ESPN, which broadcasts the games on cable, would only serve vegetarian/vegan food to their cast and crew as well as at their Bristol, Connecticut studios. On-air talent would promote the veggie/vegan options heavily, with a contest among the host cities for the best Monday Night Vegetarian/Vegan Fare.

 

summer minchew melissa key

Summer Minchew (Photo credit: Melissa Key)

 

I’ll probably get booed out of the stadium for this idea¹ but the environmental impacts of meat consumption are a real issue. Meat production generates 18 percent of the world’s man-made greenhouse gases, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. And Americans are consuming way too much meat. To be precise, the average consumer ate 222.2 pounds of red meat and poultry in 2018, surpassing a record set in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I think we could all stand more Meatless Mondays for our health and for the earth’s.

 


 

Requiring Venues To Reach Minimum Levels of Green Performance

Dale Vince Forest Green Rovers, English League Two²the Greenest Team in Sports Chairman; Ecotricity Founder 

We’ve suggested to the UN and to the English Football League³ (EFL) that ground grading regulations — enough food and restroom facilities, disabled access, etc. — should include environmental measures. Simple things like recycling facilities, no single use plastics, charging facilities for EVs, bicycle parking and meat and dairy free food options. Even use of green energy is simple enough.

Clubs should be required to put these greening initiatives into match day programs and on stadium advertising.

 

Dale Vince

Dale Vince (Photo credit: Forest Green Rovers)

 

Governing bodies could insist on minimum standards like these, and perhaps run league tables/standings that would end up highlighting clubs that go over and above the minimum on the environment— giving a different measure of club performance.

 


 

Build venues that feature “Circular Operations”

Aileen McManamon 5T Sports Group Founder and Managing Partner

The next stadiums or arenas to be built will feature Circular Operations. This means that these buildings will be self-sustaining across four key metrics: zero-waste, carbon-neutral, water-neutral and energy positive.

 

McManamon Headshot Tonino Guzzo

Aileen McManamon (Photo credit: Tonino Guzzo)

 

They will be entirely self-contained, with circular usage systems and net-positive designs (for example, stored energy put back into the grid at downtimes and use as an emergency shelter). Venues that operate circularly will shoulder their responsibility by becoming a ‘Beacon-on-the-Hill’ community asset.

 


 

All sports leagues become One Planet Leagues 

Jason Twill Green Sports Alliance Co-founder; Urban Apostles Director

The Idea: All major pro and college sports leagues adopt ecological foot printing as a measurement tool support their efforts to become One Planet Leagues.

The Background:  Ecological foot printing is considered the ’true north’ of environmental performance and is the only metric that measures how much nature we have and how much nature we use annually. An ecological foot print calculator will determine how many acres of biologically productive land are required to support an organization’s — including players, staff, fans — impact measured against the biological capacity of land available within a given country, region, or city.

 

Jason Twill

Jason Twill (Photo credit: Jennifer Twill)

 

Humans are consuming natural resources each year faster than the planet can replenish those same resources. This is called ecological overshoot. 

In 2018, humanity reached Ecological Overshoot Day on August 1, so every day after this date we were consuming another planets worth of resources.  The U.S. reached ecological overshoot day on March 15. In fact, if everyone in the world lived the lifestyle of an average American, we would need over five planets worth of resources. 

In pro football terms, we are way over the salary cap before training camp begins.  

By adopting strategies and tactics to deploy ecological foot printing, sports organizations would become One Planet Leagues and Teams, proving they are playing and operating within the resources of One Planet. The beauty of this tool is its scalability. Imagine if sports took this on and inspired millions of fans across North America to live One Planet lifestyles! 

 


 

Bring sports attendees’ footprints more in line with non-attendees

Claire Poole Clear Bright Consulting Founder

We know the average attendee of a sports event generates a carbon footprint about seven times greater than somebody going about their every day life; with transport being the largest contributing factor, followed by food and then energy. This doesn’t even consider the infrastructure of stadiums and venues, team travel and so many other factors. We never want to get to a stage where going to see our favorite team becomes untenable because of climate change.

 

Claire Poole II

Claire Poole (Photo credit: Claire Poole)

 

Thus my moon shot idea is for all sports organizations around the world to measure, publicly report and significantly reduce carbon emissions through all aspects of their operations, and reward fans for doing the same.

The platform to do this already exists, with the recently launched UNFCCC Sports for Climate Action Framework. The likes of the World Surf League, FIFA, UEFA, the IOC, the New York Yankees and Formula E have already signed up, clearly moving this moon shot idea into the realm of possibility.

 


 

Appeal to younger fans by making mass transit fun 

Monica Rowand University of Louisiana (Lafayette) Sustainability Coordinator

Imagine a campaign in which fans are encouraged and rewarded for using alternative transit methods to get to the stadium or arena. I’d love to see a team-sponsored game-day transportation system imbued with the vibe of a party bus. This will incentivize the use of public transit, especially among the younger fans teams are concerned about reaching.

And no one will argue with the results: Reductions in 1) the negative environmental impacts that go with travel in single-occupancy-vehicles, 2) traffic and the stress that goes with it.

 

RowandM2

Monica Rowand (Photo credit: Monica Rowand)

 


 

Making Auburn Athletics Carbon Negative

Mike Kensler Auburn University Office of Sustainability Director

The most important sports-climate change moon shot idea I can think of is for Auburn Athletics — and all other athletics departments — to achieve carbon negativity. They would do this by eliminating or sequestering more carbon than they produce, creating a net overall carbon reduction.

 

Mike Kensler in canoe on 5milecreek

Mike Kensler  (Photo credit: Beth Maynor Young)

 

That means using 100 percent renewable energy to power all of Auburn Athletics operations including sports events and venues. Athletics would also offset or onset — making investments in local, campus-focused clean energy, energy efficiency, and carbon sequestration projects — the carbon footprint of departmental travel to help achieve carbon negativity.  A carbon-negative Athletics Department would be a powerful force indeed.

 


 

Create awards for eco-athletes

Randy Salim Citizens’ Climate LobbyBusiness Climate Leaders Steering Committee 

Let’s use the NFL as an example. Have each of the 32 teams nominate an Eco-Athlete of the Year and then pick one to be the league’s winner, a green NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award. Bring as many of them as possible to Washington, D.C. to lobby for climate legislation.

 

Randy Salim photo1

Randy Salim (Photo credit: Randy Salim)

 


 

Greenest NFL fan base earns winning team an additional draft pick

Lew Blaustein GreenSportsBlog

The NFL is America’s most popular sport by far. And its brand image is corporate, conservative and establishment. If the NFL goes big on climate, that will have incredible ripple effects to all sports and beyond. So that’s why my first call with a MOON SHOT idea is to commissioner Roger Goodell.

I tell the commish to “imagine that the league administers a contest among its 32 teams that asks attendees to take positive green actions — recycling, composting, using mass transit to games, and purchasing plant-based food at concession stands to name a few.”

 

LewBiz27

Yours truly (Photo credit: Lewis Blaustein)

 

Taking into account stadium capacity and other issues to make sure there’s a level playing field, the league will award the team with the greenest fan base an additional pick in the third round of the next NFL Draft.

The idea is that positive environmental behavior by fans can help their favorite team. I gotta believe that fans — even those who don’t think climate change is real or don’t think about it at all — will “take one for the team” by engaging in positive environmental behaviors!

 


 

And finally, given sports organizations’ maniacal pursuit of Millennial and Gen-Z fans, it’s fitting that we close with not one but EIGHT MOON SHOT IDEAS from a young, future Green-Sports practitioner who will be living with the effects of climate change…

 

What If?

Ivonne Zuniga Jiminez Savannah College of Art and Design Candidate for Masters Degree in Design for Sustainability; Architect Costa Rica

What if a fan could get season tickets after recycling a certain amount of plastic?

What if instead of buying a new jersey, your favorite team would repair your old one?

What if teams allocate space in tailgate areas for local, organic and plant-based food vendors?

 

Ivonne Zuniga Jimenez

Ivonne Zuniga Jimenez (Photo credit: Purvisha Peshwe)

 

What if, by reducing the waste in the stadium, the home team lets fans know they are saving the team money in hauling and landfill costs and that saved money will be invested in (hopefully) better players?

What if being sustainable becomes part of the score of the game? As in when announcing the final score, a broadcaster also mentions how much carbon was saved by the home team’s green actions.

What if, to be drafted or signed by a team, players have to commit to engaging with a climate change-fighting nonprofit?

What if big leagues such as NFL, NBA, UEFA required sustainable certifications (i.e. LEED, BREEAM) for every venue?

What if recruiting fans to embrace sustainable behavior becomes as important as recruiting players?

Or…

What if we keep doing things in the same way?

We sports fans have the power to make a big difference in the climate change fight but we have to act now!

Sports, a powerful universal language which connects billions of people around the world, has been a powerful channel over many decades for the fights against racism, war, terrorism, gender inequality and more. What is stopping us right now from using it to make a positive impact on climate change, at scale?

Either we take action now or we continue to ignore the climate problem until some “then” in the future, but…

What if then is too late?

The world, including the sports world, can’t let that happen!

 

¹ No you won’t!
² League Two = The fourth tier of English football/soccer
³ English Football League is the governing body for the top four tiers of professional soccer/football: 1. Premier League, 2. Championship, 3. League One, 4. League Two
* Citizens’ Climate Lobby works to build the political will necessary for passage of federal revenue neutral carbon pricing legislation that returns the revenue generated to all US households in the form of a monthly dividend.

 


 

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The GSB (Mock) Interview: Tiger Woods, on His Comeback, Kids and Climate Change

Google “Tiger Woods” and “2019 Masters” and you will get millions of links to stories about his jaw dropping, dramatic, instant classic win at Augusta National on Sunday.

Google “Tiger Woods” and “climate change” and you get…nothing meaningful.

So even more remarkable than Woods’ winning his first major championship in 11 years and first Green Jacket since 2005 — at age 43, with a back repaired surgically four times no less — is that he agreed to talk with GreenSportsBlog!

Who knew he cared about the environment and climate change? The fact he’s a golfing buddy of President Trump makes that even harder to fathom. 

OK, OK…

We didn’t really talk to Tiger — his people said he was busy at the driving range getting ready for the next major, the PGA Championship at Long Island’s Bethpage Black next month.

So we’re doing the next best thing: Imagining a conversation with Woods in which he expresses concern about climate change, bubbling up from his kids Sam(antha) and Charlie.

Here then is our GSB (Mock) Interview with Tiger Woods, 2019 Masters Champion.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Tiger Woods, thank you for taking a few minutes to talk to GreenSportsBlog. And let me be the 27,340,945th person to congratulate you on your win at Augusta on Sunday. To borrow from the great CBS Sports announcer Verne Lundquist, never in my LIFE did I think I’d see you wearing a fifth Green Jacket.

Tiger Woods: Thank you, Lew. For much of the last few years, I never thought I’d be wearing a new Green Jacket. I was just concerned about being able to put my old Green Jackets, or any jacket for that matter, on by myself, without pain. I wanted to be able to walk pain free. I knew that if I could get healthy, if I could feel comfortable out on the golf course, well let’s just say I did not doubt I could win a major championship in that case. So I’m blessed that my doctors, surgeons and physios all did their jobs so well so I could do my thing. It is amazing.

 

Tiger Woods Patrick Reed

Tiger Woods dons the Green Jacket for winning his fifth Masters on Sunday. Patrick Reed, the 2018 Masters champion, placed it on his back (Photo credit: Mike Slocum/Associated Press)

 

GSB: Amazing is right. Also amazing is that you’re talking to us — I’ve never heard you speak about the environment or climate change. So where is this coming from?

Tiger: You’re right. I’ve not been interested in or paid much attention to climate change at all. I’m not a politics guy nor am I a scientist…

GSB: Most people engaged on climate are neither, just for the record. It’s not a prerequisite.

Tiger: It just wasn’t my thing. I know it’s real…

GSB: …Unlike your golfing pal who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania.

Tiger: …I’m not going there. I know it’s real and serious but the honest truth is, I just don’t think much about it. Or, I should say, I didn’t think much about it.

GSB: What changed?

Tiger: Two words: Sam and Charlie.

GSB: Your kids…

Tiger: Sam is 11. About two, three years ago, she started asking me things like “Why do you drive such a big gas guzzler?” and “Why don’t you get a Tesla?” My first thought? “Buick Enclave sponsors me, that’s why!” It’s a great car. I also drive a Porsche Carrera GT for fun.

But Sam got me thinking about it, and it just became obvious that burning less fossil fuels is a good thing. So I started to ask my Buick guys questions; they tell me the next generation Enclave, which should be coming to market in the next four-to-five years, will have a plug-in hybrid or even be 100 percent electric.

 

Tiger Woods family

An ecstatic Tiger Woods immediately after winning the 2019 Masters on Sunday. Son Charlie (left) and daughter Sam (2nd from right), who have been instrumental in their dad’s newfound interest in climate change, flanked Tiger, along with his mom Kultida (r) and girlfriend Erica Herman (Photo credit: CBS Sports)

 

GSB: I don’t know if Sam told you this — but according the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC, basically the best climate scientists in the world, humanity has 12-15 years to significantly decarbonize if we are to avoid the most calamitous effects of climate change. So isn’t continuing to drive a fossil fuel Enclave that gets 18 miles per gallon in the city, 26 on the highway, reckless?

Tiger: Oh I get it. Sam lets me know every time we get in the car to go to her soccer games. So we made a deal — I’m going to trade in the Porsche Carrera next year for a Porsche Taycan EV. That will be the car we drive most of the time. And, when I go to tournaments, I’m going to make sure that my team and I get driven in EVs or hybrids when EVs are not available.

 

Porsche Taycan

The 2020 Porsche Taycan EV (Photo credit: Porsche)

 

GSB: That’s a great start! Does Charlie get on you too?

Tiger: No doubt about it. Sometimes they double team me, especially after Sam and Charlie, who’s 10, saw Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Sequel,” in school last year.

GSB: Did it scare them?

Tiger: Yeah, but it also made them angry. They bugged me to see the original, “An Inconvenient Truth.”. I was like, “don’t you want to see the latest ‘Star Wars’ movie, or the highlights of my 1997 Masters win?” You may find it hard to believe from the cute Charlie you saw Sunday on TV but he is one stubborn kid. So it was “An Inconvenient Truth” or bust. So we saw it. I was blown away. Then I saw the sequel. Then I saw “Chasing Ice” and that was more than enough.

GSB: Good going, Charlie! Then what happened?

Tiger: To be honest, not much. I mean our green movie triple feature was last spring and since then, I’ve been working 24-7 getting my back right, getting my game right. Contended at the Open Championship, gave it a good run at the PGA, finally won the Tour Championship. We’ll forget the Ryder Cup disaster, thank you very much. And then it was getting ready for 2019. But there has been some time here and there for them to sell me and they did. Charlie suggested we get solar panels on our house.

GSB: At 9,700 square feet, that’s a lot of house!

Tiger: We use a lot of energy, they let me know about it all the time. We’re looking at the solar options.

GSB: That would be great. Even if you go solar, you’ll still be using a ton of energy generated from fossil fuels to power that house. Would you consider offsetting your energy use — from your home, cars, boats, air travel — by investing in renewable energy projects, energy efficiency and more? It’s easy to find reputable outfits to help you do this.

 

Tiger Woods House

Tiger Woods’ home and golf course backyard in Jupiter Island, Florida (Photo credit: ThoughtCo)

 

Tiger: I never thought about it but I’ll have my people look into it.

GSB: It’s fairly simple. Are there any other guys on the tour who talk climate change and the environment?

Tiger: Michael Campbell from New Zealand, the 2005 US Open winner, comes to mind. He’s been injured a lot lately too, missed the last couple of years. Trying to come back on tour this year. He started an environmental charity back in New Zealand if memory serves.

GSB: Yes! His organization is called Project Litefoot — it helps local sports clubs save money by reducing their carbon footprint. You could do something like that with the Tiger Woods Foundation! Think of the impact!

 

Campbell Project Litefoot

Michael Campbell, 2005 US Open champion, leads Project Litefoot in New Zealand (Photo credit: Project Litefoot)

 

Tiger: We’re already doing it. Two of our current Earl Woods Scholars — named after my dad — and a number of our graduates dating back 2011 are or were environmental science majors.

GSB: I’d say that’s a start but think of the impact if you’d create a Tiger Woods-branded climate change platform for students through the foundation. That would be breakthrough. I know, I know you have to talk to your people. Let us talk to them.

Tiger: You’re just like Sam and Charlie!

GSB: Thanks for the compliment, Tiger. Seriously, we need to think of climate change in terms of a World War II-level crisis. It’ll take a Herculean public mobilization to get us off of our carbon addiction and you could be one of that effort’s biggest, most important voices. Iconic, really. Doing something bigger than yourself. For your kids.

Tiger: I get it but I still have my back to manage, major championships to try to win.

GSB: I get that, Tiger. I am just going to ask you two things: Number one, when you get solar on your roof, tell that story to the press.

Tiger: I could do that — if we get solar.

GSB: When

Tiger: OK, when. Here’s what I will do: Next time an interview gets to the subject of Sam and Charlie, I’ll talk about how climate change is important to them and that it’s rubbing off on their old man.

GSB: That would be FANTASTIC! Now, here’s #2: Become an advocate for carbon pricing, specifically a carbon fee and dividend approach.

Tiger: What is that?

GSB: The gist: We need a price on carbon to accelerate the deployment of renewables, scalable energy efficiency technologies, energy storage and the like — to make all these technologies more competitive vs. fossil fuels and fossil fuel-based products.

The idea of the dividend is crucial. Instead of the revenue raised from the carbon fee going to the federal treasury, it would be distributed to all American households in the form of a monthly dividend. The same amount to every household. So low carbon users — about the lowest two thirds of all American households on the income scale — would make more in dividends than what they would pay in the form of higher prices due to the fee.

Tiger: OK, OK. This is interesting, could make a difference on emissions. But it sounds like I’m going to pay a lot more.

GSB: You will pay more but the more you decarbonize, the less you’ll pay.

Tiger: It also sounds political. I need to talk to my people on this.

GSB: Remember, in this case, your people are Sam and Charlie.

Tiger: Touché, Lew, touché.

 

 


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Sportecology.org: A Platform for Green-Sports Practitioners To Connect with Academic Research

The growing Green-Sports world has spawned a cadre of academics who study the movement’s myriad of topic areas. The result is a blossoming of substantive, peer-reviewed research.

The challenge for academics in this newly busy and somewhat unruly space is how to get the research — and its insights — into the hands of Green-Sports practitioners in ways that can be easily digested and acted upon.

Stepping up to try to solve this problem is Madeleine Orr, a PhD candidate in Sport Management at the University of Minnesota. She and several colleagues from Green-Sports academia are launching Sportecology.org on Earth Day — April 22 — as a platform to connect people working in Green-Sports with research that can help propel their efforts forward.

 

“Academic journal articles are very important but for the most part, nobody reads them except for other academics. The insights in those articles aren’t getting to the people who need them. That is true in the Green-Sports world. We created Sportecology.org to bridge that gap and to become the ‘CliffsNotes’ of sustainable sports.”

So said Madeleine “Maddy” Orr, PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota and faculty member in Sport Administration at Ontario’s Laurentian University, about the new venture she and a group of leading sustainable sports academics are launching on April 22 — Earth Day.

 

MaddyOrr1.2017

Madeleine “Maddy” Orr (Photo credit: Katya Moussatova)

 

Orr envisions Sportecology.org as a platform that will help Green-Sports practitioners — from facilities managers to sustainability coordinators at college athletics departments to organizers of mega-sports events to journalists and more — improve the quality and accelerate the impact of their work.

“Groups like the Green Sports Alliance, Sport Environment Alliance in Australia and BASIS in Great Britain are all doing great work but it is largely anecdotal, based on case studies of one organization’s experience or successful initiative” noted Orr. “Peer reviewed research can give practitioners credibility and offer empirical, scientifically tested evidence to support their ideas and programs. But they can’t get that credibility if they don’t know the research exists.”

Academics will benefit because their audience will be bigger and broader.

“Believe me, no one in academia dreams of having their work gather dust on a shelf,” shared Orr. “I would talk to sport-sustainability colleagues at conferences run by the North American Society for Sport Management (NASSM) and we’d all ask ‘how can we work better with practitioners; how can we get them to access our work.”

The idea of what would become Sportecology.org popped into the Toronto native’s head in 2015, picking up real steam about a year ago.

“I started to build a database of sport-sustainability journal articles to help me study for my PhD exams, writing it out long-hand at first,” recalled Orr. “At some point, I started to think ‘this should be for everybody.’ So I began to build out what would become Sportecology.org, including starting a digital record of all the files on my computer.”

Each two-paragraph book review-like entry includes:

  • Article name and author
  • What question(s) is the author trying to answer
  • The context of the question(s)
  • What the author found

Orr, after compiling the first 100 of the 200 or so existing peer-reviewed Green-Sports-focused journal articles, realized she needed assistance to get the platform up and running. That help started to appear after she presented her idea for Sportecology.org at last year’s NASSM conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“I teased the idea in one of my presentations and the audience seemed to love it,” Orr recalled. “Soon after, I got an email from Brian McCullough at Seattle University saying he was interested in collaborating, which was fantastic in helping to get us started. He’s now our Co-Director.”

Orr secured some initial seed money from the University of Minnesota — where she’s getting her PhD — and Laurentian University to get the website off the ground.

 

Maddy 3MinThesis 2018

Maddy Orr pictured with University of Minnesota Vice-Provost and Dean of the Graduate School, accepting the award for the UMN’s 3 Minute Thesis First Place Winner in December 2017. Maddy was subsequently a finalist in the Midwest Association of Graduate Schools’ 3 Minute Championship Round in 2018 (Photo credit: Silke Moeller)

 

Other members on what is turning out to be a Sportecology.com All-Star team from the Green-Sports-Academia intersection include Walker Ross, who starts at the University of Florida Southern College in August, Tiffany Richardson, a mentor of Orr’s from the University of Minnesota, NC State’s John Casper, Sylvia Trendafilova at UT Knoxville, Tim Kellison at Georgia State, and Jamee Pelcher, who studied under McCullough and will begin her PhD studies at the University of Tennessee this fall.

The initial interest from Green-Sports academics and the energy brought by the burgeoning Sport Ecology Group begat more funding — from “small grants from universities and companies in the green space,” said Orr. This allowed the group to bring student “Green Teams” to the recent NCAA Women’s and Men’s Final Fours and for Orr to produce a Green-Sports podcast series called Climate Champions, on which I was an interviewee. The podcast will launch in June 2019 as a limited series, and will be available on iTunes and Spotify.

 

Maddy Tampa2019

Maddy (far right, kneeling) and some of her students in Tampa where they served as the Green Team at the recent NCAA Women’s Final Four (Photo credit: Mykelti Stephens)

 

After Earth Day, the Sportecology.org team will shift their efforts into a higher gear.

Per Orr, “We will have student interns this summer who will help us get the remaining sport ecology journal articles up on the site by August. Every month, a team member will write a news summary article. And we will highlight the news and activities of the academic side of the sport sustainability arena every quarter. We’re also building a ‘story map’ of all the sport management programs at universities, and organizations that have Green Sports programming or commitments, to accelerate collaboration between the private and university sectors. The goal is to become an easy access portal for Green-Sports practitioners, as well as professors, students and anyone interested in the topic.”

 

GSB’s Take: If one wanted evidence of the maturing of the Green-Sports world, the launch of Sportecology.org is a good data point. It says here that the site will quickly become a valuable resource for practitioners of all stripes, including GreenSportsBloggers. I for one look forward to digging into Sportecology.org come Earth Day.

 


 

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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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The GSB Interview: Lauren Tracy, Leading the USTA Efforts to Green the US Open

The US Open, New York City’s two-week late summer tennis fest that draws over 800,000 people, has been at the forefront of sustainable mega-sports events for over a decade. Lauren Tracy, the US Tennis Association’s (USTA’s) Director of Strategic Initiatives, has been involved with their greening efforts since its early years. GreenSportsBlog chatted with Tracy about the USTA’s sustainability history, how the US Open made out from a green perspective in 2018, and what to watch for going forward.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Lauren, as a mediocre but avid tennis player, I have a particular fondness for the USTA’s greening efforts, especially at the US Open. So I’m excited to talk with you about all of this. How did you get involved?

Lauren Tracy: I’m not a tennis junkie. From New York City’s northern suburbs, Dutchess County to be exact, and an MBA from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, I was excited to get a job at the USTA as a paralegal in nearby White Plains working on the pro tennis side. Back in 2010, the USTA executive director asked me to transition into the Executive Office in a project management role. It included overseeing some of the USTA’s organizational priorities, including our US Open environmental program, as well as to help develop what is now our “SafePlay” athlete safety program.

 

2019 USTA Leadership

Lauren Tracy, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the US Tennis Association (Photo credit: USTA)

 

GSB: These are very important and high profile…

Lauren: Yes! I was in the right place at the right time for sure.

GSB: When did the environmental programs come into the mix?

Lauren: It really started in 2007. When we dedicated the National Tennis Center to Billie Jean King she wanted to know what we were doing to lessen the US Open’s environmental footprint. The venue was named for her.

GSB: Billie Jean King: Women’s rights and gay rights pioneer — that we knew — but eco-warrior?

Lauren: That’s right! Our board was asking the same thing. We had only taken baby steps, green-wise, before then. We engaged industry experts to help us develop a comprehensive environmental program for the US Open. Those experts included Bina Indelicato, founder and CEO of eco evolutions, who now serves as a sustainability consultant for the USTA, as well as Allen Hershkowitz, who really pioneered the green sports movement.

GSB: What were some of the first sustainability initiatives under the Tracy Administration?

Lauren: It was an exciting time because the USTA gave us the direction to try new things. So that’s what we did. We would identify an opportunity to improve the environmental efficiency of an element of our operations at our site and start by conducting a pilot during that year’s US Open.

After the conclusion of that year’s tournament, we’d evaluate to see what worked well and what did not. If it worked, we’d roll it out the next year across the entire USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.

A good example of that was composting. We piloted it in 2011 in the back-of-house operations with our concessionaire, Levy Restaurants. That was the easy part, as their chefs bought in from the beginning. We went big the first year, starting with the kitchens at Arthur Ashe Stadium, the largest venue on our campus…

GSB: …And, at 23,700+, the largest seating capacity of any tennis stadium in the world…

Lauren: Yes. Over the years, composting was eventually rolled out to the other kitchens on the site. We partnered with Levy, as well as the waste hauler and did a lot of training with kitchen staff. Understandably, there were some growing pains but now we have a program with a lot of buy-in and had a very successful New York City Department of Sanitation inspection. In fact, so much so that, by 2017, our overall waste diversion rate was greater than 90 percent!

GSB: WOW! That’s a quick turnaround the way I look at it. And it qualifies the US Open as a zero-waste event but you knew that already…

Lauren: You bet! We did even better last year, getting to 97 percent diversion. What got us closer to 100 percent, in addition to recycling and composting, was bringing much of our un-recycled, un-compostable material to Covanta’s waste-to-energy site out on Long Island.

GSB: How does it work?

Lauren: First of all, the facility is the cleanest place I’ve ever seen — and it’s a place where garbage is hauled! It is then burned in a safe way, with the resulting heat being used to cleanly power swaths of Long Island. Amazing.

GSB: I’ll have to check out that facility someday. Congratulations on 97 percent diversion. That’s terrific. Now I know that the USTA undertook a major construction initiative at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center a few years ago. Where did sustainability fit in?

Lauren: Well, in 2013, we started a five-year plan to strategically transform the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Those renovations and new builds would be done in an environmentally-friendly and -forward way. The first structure to earn LEED certification was our Transportation Building — which serves as the headquarters for our transportation operation, as well as the credential office during the three weeks of the qualifying tournament and the main draw. Then, in 2016 our new Grandstand stadium opened…

GSB: …I love the Grandstand. The third-largest playing venue on campus, with a capacity of 8,000, is stunning, architecturally speaking.

Lauren: I agree. It became our first LEED certified playing venue. And, as anyone who has been to the Open the last couple years knows, we tore down our second largest playing venue, Louis Armstrong Stadium, and built the new, 14,000 seat Louis Armstrong, opening it last year.

 

Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong Stadium, the new, LEED Silver certified 14,000-seat venue that opened in 2018. It is the second largest venue at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center (Photo credit: Lewis Blaustein)

 

GSB: …Another winner. It is a beautiful place to watch tennis. Did new Louis Armstrong become LEED certified?

Lauren: It did, earning LEED Silver status — the highest certification level on campus. Its natural ventilation system is a significant advance in terms of green outdoor venue construction is concerned. Overall, we’re very proud of the new Louis Armstrong Stadium, including from a sustainability perspective, as it represented the completion of the five-year strategic transformation of our campus that I mentioned earlier. And that we were able to finish on time in 2018, on the 50th anniversary of the US Open, made it extra special.

GSB: Great timing indeed. With the major construction complete in Flushing Meadow, what other environmental advances are you and the team working on? Is on-site solar going to be part of the mix?

Lauren: On-site solar is a question we get a lot. It’s tricky for us. While the facility is open all year, our attendance and electricity usage spikes for the three weeks of the tournament in late August-early September. And while we own the venues, the City of New York owns the land and so the solar conversation involves several parties. This doesn’t mean solar won’t happen, it just means it will take awhile. As for what else is next, I wanted to mention that our location is a plus, sustainability-wise. The New York City subway and Long Island Railroad have a station just outside the tennis center, which allows over 50 percent of all attendees to take mass transit, which a great number.

GSB: That sounds about right…

Lauren: Also, in addition to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, we also built our USTA National Campus in Orlando. The Welcome Center, which includes our staff offices, is LEED certified. Back to the Open, we’ve got some cool initiatives around recycling. In 2018, we started working with Ronald McDonald House up in the Hudson Valley of New York State. We sent them 9,000 metal tabs from tennis ball can tops. The metal tops are pure aluminum and they are able to earn some money from recycling it.

 

USTA National Campus

The LEED certified Welcome Center at the USTA’s National Campus in Orlando (Photo credit: USTA)

 

GSB: What a great idea? Can the USTA broaden that out beyond the Open to other tournaments and to the thousands of recreational tennis centers around the country with which you have relationships?

Lauren: This is something we’re exploring, Lew. Our sections across the country know about it; we hope they are able to bring it to their regions as well. As far as the used tennis ball cans from the Open are concerned, we send them to TerraCycle in Trenton, New Jersey…

GSB: …TerraCycle is an incredible company that specializes in a “zero-waste economy,” with state-of-the-art recycling and upcycling.

Lauren: That’s right. We send them our tennis ball cans and they break them down and recycle them. I also want to mention Imperfectly Delicious Produce. I love this program! We take imperfect-looking fruit and vegetables and use them in sauces and dips to eliminate unnecessary food waste. Finally, in 2018, we eliminated plastic straws, replacing them with paper straws.

GSB: Very cool. Now this would not be a GSB Interview if I didn’t ask about how the USTA goes about communicating its green initiatives to fans…So how do you do that?

Lauren: We do some marketing of our greening efforts, from content in our program magazine to our website. But we need to do more from a fan engagement perspective and are committed to doing that this year and in 2020.

GSB: I plan to be out at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center this summer and look forward to seeing what you and the team have done, fan engagement-wise.

 

 


 

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