The GSB Interview: Justin Zeulner, Previewing the 2018 Green Sports Alliance Summer in Atlanta

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the new home of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United, will be the site for two mega-events over the next year. Next February, the first LEED Platinum NFL stadium will play host to Super Bowl LIII. But well before that — June 26-27 to be exact — Green Sports Alliance Summit VIII takes center stage. Its theme is PLAY GREENER™: Get In The Game. GSB talked with Alliance Executive Director Justin Zeulner to find out about the new initiatives the Alliance has planned for attendees. 

 

GreenSportsBlog: Justin, before we got on the phone to talk Green Sports Alliance Summit in Atlanta, I had two main thoughts going through my head: 1. How can you and the rest of the Alliance braintrust freshen the Summit going into its eighth iteration, and 2. Having it at LEED Platinum Mercedes-Benz Stadium is a great freshener, indeed!

Justin Zeulner: Keeping things fresh — that’s a great question and it’s something we’re very much focused on, especially coming into this Summit. In fact, a couple of years ago, the leadership took a collective deep breath to figure out, strategically, what would be best, not only for our Summits but for the sports greening movement as a whole. We undertook this strategic refresh at a time of strong growth for us. Two or three years ago, we had 300+ members; now we’re nearing 600. When an organization like ours starts to scale like we have, new challenges arise. What can you provide that’s new, innovative and meaningful? How can we best continue to serve and lead our members, helping them grow their sustainability initiatives when there are many more of them.

GSB: A good problem to have…

JZ: We agree…

GSB: So how is the Alliance going about upping its game service-, growth- and leadership-wise?

JZ: Serve — We keep in close touch with our membership, finding out where they want to go and what guidance they need when it comes to environmental issues. We help by convening the Summit, providing resources and programs, largely around energy, water, transportation, food, and waste. Adding the Corporate Members Network was wonderful because that helped add a great many greener products and services to help our teams and venues reach their goals. Grow — the more the Alliance grows, the more people we get involved in the movement and the greater the impact we have as it relates to our mission — “to build healthy, sustainable communities where we live and play.” Lead—means trying new things, taking some risks…

 

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

 

GSB: Justin, that’s a great segue to this year’s Summit in Atlanta. What new things will you try? What risks will you take?

JZ: The title of our Summit is “PLAY GREENER ™: Get In The Game.” The “Get in the Game” piece is illustrative of the changes we’ve made for this year and takes into account comments we received from attendees last year in Sacramento.

GSB: What does that mean exactly?

JZ: One big change is that our sessions will be much more interactive than in past years — more workshops, than panel discussions. We want there to be a robust dialogue that’s as attendee-driven as possible. And we want attendees to leave with a crystal clear road map as to how to implement the greening programs they learn about in Atlanta.

GSB: What kind of programs are you talking about?

JZ: We’re adhering to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs), helping our teams and venues do their part in terms of carbon mitigation to put humanity on a path to a less than 2°C temperature rise, as compared to pre-industrial levels. Food is one key area — we are helping venues with menu design, from more veggie options, to locally sourced food, and more. And venues are responding. Of course they offer burgers —but sometimes those burgers are veggie. In fact, Impossible Burgers

GSB: …The veggie burgers that taste and feel beef-like? They’re GREAT!

JZ: Impossible Burger will be at the Summit! Vegetarian and vegan foods are something athletes are getting more into, so we’ll be talking about that. But we’re getting even deeper with our “Business of Food” workshop. Larry Kopald of Carbon Underground will lead a discussion about regenerative farming, how it can help tackle our carbon problems, and how the sports industry can help support it. A local farmer will share his inspirational story of transforming his family farm from the traditional approach to regenerative farming and what scaling that can mean for sports and the world more broadly. Chefs will also take part, discussing how stadia and arenas can gradually add “plant forward” proteins to their menus.

 

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Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, site of the upcoming 2018 Green Sports Alliance Summit (Photo credit: Mercedes-Benz Stadium)

 

GSB: This sounds like a fantastic workshop. And now I’m hungry!

JZ: Well save that appetite for the Tuesday night of the Summit. That’s when we will have our awards celebration at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Top chefs will be featured at our  “Taste of Atlanta”” event.

GSB: Sounds like it will be a must-attend event. Beyond food, what else will attendees see at Mercedes-Benz Stadium?

JZ: Engagement will be a watchword at this year’s Summit, from athletes, to fans, to youth. Youth will be a particular focus with Diana Dehm leading another Student Summit.

GSB: I imagine attendees from teams and leagues will be very interested in how to engage youth with green sports. My bet is that nothing makes sports executives lose sleep these days more than the issue of to how to ensure millennials, Gen Zers, and the generation after follow sports with something close to the passion of their forebears. I’m not saying a team’s, a sport’s greenness is the determining factor but it can be a factor. Who will be delivering the keynote address at this year’s Summit?

JZ: Arthur M. Blank, the owner of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United, and the driving force behind the building of the LEED Platinum Mercedes-Benz Stadium, will be giving the keynote. His talk will center on how environmental leadership impacts community, social justice and health and wellness. Mr. Blank believes the environmental and the social are linked and it is his mission and that of the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation to positively impact both. Speaking of the social aspects of sustainability, another speaker of note is Samantha “Sam” Gordon. Honored by the NFL with their inaugural Game Changer award, Sam is a young woman from Utah who plays football with the boys and became the one of the best players on the team. That wasn’t enough for Sam — she started a league in her area for female tackle football players. Now Sam is not doing all this just for women to play football. She is doing this work to activate interest among girls in physical activity, exercise, and wellness and ensure underserved populations have a voice.

 

GSA Arthur Blank-headshot

Arthur M. Blank, owner of the Atlanta Falcons and Atlanta United (Photo credit: Arthur M. Blank Sports and Entertainment)

 

GSA Sam Gordon-headshot

Samantha “Sam” Gordon (Photo credit: Samantha Gordon)

 

GSB: For a GenZ girl like Sam, this is how social movements start!

JZ: Exactly. Also ex-major league baseball player and manager Dusty Baker and former NFLer Will Allen, both advocates for renewable energy, will talk about their experiences in the solar field. And we are honored to have David Kenny, CEO of the Weather Channel, as a speaker.

GSB: Well, I have to say, before we spoke, I was a bit skeptical about this Summit differing enough from its predecessors, that its focus would be too Green-Sports 1.0 (i.e. LEED certified stadia, Zero-Waste games) and not enough Green-Sports 2.0 (fan, athlete engagement) for my taste. But, from the speakers, to the topics, to the workshop style, to audience engagement, I see the 2018 Green Sports Alliance Summit at Mercedes-Benz Stadium as an event that will, while still touching on worthwhile Green-Sports 1.0 issues, push the GreenSports clearly into its 2.0 phase. I am looking forward to it.

JZ: See you in Atlanta!

 

Click here for information on how to attend the 2018 Green Sports Alliance Summit at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta June 26-27.
GreenSportsBlog is a media sponsor of the 2018 Green Sports Alliance Summit.

 


 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

Golden 1 Center

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

 

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

JZ: I think Version 5.0 is probably more accurate…

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

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

GSB: How will PLAY GREENER play out in Sacramento?

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

 

Chip In Golf Invitational

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Walton

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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