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.

 

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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.

 

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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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The GSB Interview: Tim Trefzer, on the Greenness of Atlanta’s Super Bowl LIII

Super Bowl LIII Week is in full swing in Atlanta, complete with red carpet galas, fan-fests, and Media Day, all leading up to Sunday night’s battle between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams.

From a sustainability perspective, Atlanta has a leg up on other host cities since the game will be played inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the first LEED Platinum professional sports stadium in North America.

GreenSportsBlog spoke with Tim Trefzer, the Atlanta Super Bowl LIII Host Committee’s Sustainability Chair, to see what is going on green-wise beyond the stadium.

 

GreenSportsBlog: Atlanta has been the center of the Mega-Sports event and Green-Sports worlds over the past 18 months. Mercedes-Benz Stadium hosted the 2018 College Football National Championship last January and the Green Sports Alliance Summit in June. It also was the site of the Major League Soccer All-Star Game in July and MLS Cup in December. And of course this Sunday, Super Bowl LIII comes to town. And Tim Trefzer, you are at the heart of the Green-Sports action as Sustainability Chair of the Atlanta Super Bowl Host Committee. Thanks for talking with us at what must be a crazy busy time.

Tim Trefzer:  My pleasure. And yes, it’s been busy, really going back to the 2018 College Football Playoff National Championship, as I handled a similar sustainability role for that event as well. And we, along with Georgia Tech, will play host to the 2020 NCAA Men’s Final Four so we’ve got more mega-events coming down the pike!

 

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Tim Trefzer, sustainability chair of the Atlanta Super Bowl 53 Host Committee (Photo credit: Tim Trefzer)

 

GSB: That is not a surprise, what with Mercedes-Benz being the state of the art in stadium design across all metrics, including sustainability through its LEED Platinum status. So with that as backdrop, how has the Atlanta Super Bowl LIII Host Committee approached the event through a green lens?

Tim: We are working closely with Jack Groh of the NFL — he’s managed the league’s Super Bowl greening efforts for over two decades — to make the most of the league’s four sustainability pillars. Number one is Material and Resource Recovery. We are working with local Atlanta organizations on food, textile, and other material donations that will come from the game, the many ancillary events, and participating hotels. Our partners include the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Salvation Army, and Habitat for Humanity. We also assisted Verizon, an NFL environmental sponsor, with their annual E-waste recycling event in the run up to the Super Bowl. Ours was at Zoo Atlanta and it was a big success as 42,446 lbs. of electronics were collected, the most ever from this event!

 

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Some of the electronic waste collected as part of Verizon’s e-waste recycling event at Zoo Atlanta on January 19 (Photo credit: Fox 5 Atlanta)

 

GSB: Congratulations! What about pillar number two?

Tim: Urban Forestry. This is more than a tree planting effort. In collaboration with the City of Atlanta’s Office of Resilience and Trees Atlanta, we are supporting 13 projects, including community gardens, a 7.1-acre food forest with fruit trees and vegetable plantings, and even pollinator projects. Pillar number three is Super Kids, Super Sharing…

GSB: That’s been around for some time…

Tim: This is its 20th anniversary — it started in Atlanta, by the way. The program’s essence is a used sports equipment and school supply exchange that keeps footballs, soccer balls and more out of landfills and gives them a second life. Kids from donor schools bring their equipment to a facility where it is sorted; then receiving schools come in. It gets kids thinking about the circular economy at a young age and exposes them to other kids in the Atlanta area from different walks of life. Over 100 schools committed to take part. Last year, the folks at the Minneapolis’ Super Bowl LII Host Committee collected 46,000 items — we’re hoping to beat that when all is said and done.

 

Two minute video showing highlights from Atlanta’s Super Kids Super Sharing event

 

GSB: Good luck. Finally, what’s the fourth pillar?

Tim: Pillar number four is renewable energy. The NFL buys renewable energy credits to offset all of the electricity used at the stadium and everything surrounding it. That includes the host hotels, the Georgia World Congress Center

GSB: …The convention center campus adjacent to Mercedes-Benz Stadium where you are the sustainability director.

Tim: Exactly… Also, it’s not by accident that Centennial Olympic Park, the Georgia World Congress Center, and many hotels are a short walk from Mercedes-Benz Stadium, In fact, of the 15 major NFL events taking place during Super Bowl, 13 are taking place in or adjacent to the Georgia World Congress Center Authority’s downtown Atlanta campus (which includes the stadium, convention center, and Centennial Olympic Park). Of recent Super Bowls, the most taking place in the same vicinity has been seven.

GSB: Those are four strong pillars that the NFL and the Host Committee are building. Going beyond the NFL’s green work, at the Bay Area’s Super Bowl 50 in 2016, the local Host Committee made the environment the prime focus of their work, which is why I call it the Greenest Super Bowl Ever. That was not the case with Super Bowls LI (Houston, which did nothing as far as I could tell on the environment) and LII (Minnesota, which had a 91 percent waste diversion rate at the game among other local efforts, but they were focused mainly on health care, in part due to the sterling reputation of the Mayo Clinic). What is the Host Committee doing, from an environmental perspective, beyond the four pillars?

Tim: Great question, Lew. One main theme of the Atlanta Super Bowl LIII Host Committee’s work is civil rights and social justice, given the movement’s tremendous history in the city, from Martin Luther King Jr. to HBCUs^ like Morehouse College and much, much more. From public forums to public arts projects, Atlanta’s civil rights heritage has been on display in the run-up to Super Bowl LIII. That said, the Committee and our Sustainability Advisory Council — made up of leaders from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, top local corporations like Delta Airlines, nonprofits like Trees Atlanta, Scott Jenkins, GM of Mercedes-Benz Stadium and Board Chairman of Green Sports Alliance, and more — have been working for the better part of the past year on a variety of initiatives, including pushing the sustainability story surrounding Super Bowl LIII and Atlanta.

GSB: Communicating sustainability to fans? Music to my ears!

Tim: A video about recycling at the Airport is being shown around the city. On game day, there will be a full-page, sustainability-themed ad in the game program and we will have ambassadors on the concourses at Mercedes-Benz talking to fans about our sustainability efforts and encouraging recycling. But another reason that these large events keep choosing to come to Atlanta, in addition to the great venues and close proximity, is the fact that they’re LEED certified. In addition to Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Georgia World Congress Center is the largest LEED Gold certified convention center in the world and many of the other event venues are also certified. Arguably, Atlanta is one of the greenest places for conventions, sports, and events anywhere.

GSB: Will there be sustainability-themed scoreboard messaging and/or video shown in-stadium before or during the game? And will CBS Sports and/or CBS Sports Network air that kind of video during the almost endless pregame coverage? That last question is really for the NFL but I thought you might have some inside information.

Tim: Discussions about video board messaging were still ongoing as of a couple of weeks ago. No firm word yet has come across my transom. And you’re right about airing environmental PSAs — that’s the purview of the NFL and CBS. For our part, we will be tracking recycling and waste diversion rates; the Host Committee communications team is working with the NFL and the Georgia World Congress Center Authority to spread the word to the massive amount of media who will be here.

 

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Sustainability-focused messaging on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium video board during an Atlanta United MLS match in June. Will similar messaging greet Super Bowl LIII fans on Sunday? Stay tuned (Photo credit: Lewis Blaustein)

 

GSB: Will the Host Committee track media pick up of Super Bowl LIII sustainability stories or is that the purview of the NFL?

Tim: I’m sure this is something we could do on social media and include in a report following the event.

GSB: We will take you up on that, Tim. In the meantime, enjoy the game.

 

^ HBCUs = Historically Black Colleges and Universities

 

 


 

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