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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Sports and Climate Change Summit: Yankees, Mets, MLS, NASCAR and USTA Saving Lives in Africa Via Innovative Carbon Offsets Program

Five high-profile North American sports teams and leagues are helping to save lives in Africa while reducing carbon emissions at the same time.

That powerful message was delivered during an All-Star panel discussion at Friday’s first Sports and Climate Change Summit in New York City, hosted by Sport and Sustainability International (SandSI) and the Global Crisis Information Network (GCINET). Guided by SandSI co-founder Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, senior officials from the New York Yankees, the New York Mets, Major League Soccer, NASCAR, and the US Tennis Association, shared how and why they are making life-saving investments in Africa.

 

The panel that kicked off Friday’s first Sports and Climate Change Summit at New York’s Scandinavia House had a title that many in the audience could not have imagined even two years ago: “North American Sport Invests in Climate Mitigation and Promoting the Sustainable Development Goals in Africa”.

Yet, per moderator Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, co-founder of SandSI, those investments — by the Yankees, Mets, Major League Soccer (MLS), NASCAR, and the USTA — are indeed being made. And they are not only helping to take on climate change, air pollution and several other of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals^, they are saving lives. Thousands of lives. In some of the most needy regions on Earth.

 

Allen Hershkowitz J. Henry Fair

Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, co-founder of SandSI (photo credit: J. Henry Fair)

 

You may be asking yourself these three questions right about now:

  1. What problems are these North American sports teams and leagues trying to help solve with these investments in Africa?
  2. What types of investments are they making to solve those problems and save lives?
  3. Why are they making these investments?

 

COOKING WITH INEFFICIENT STOVES IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA ADDS TO AIR POLLUTION, DEFORESTATION AND CARBON EMISSIONS

In his presentation preceding the panel discussion, Hershkowitz cited chilling statistic after chilling statistic that laid bare the severity of health problems, borne largely by women and children in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, caused by cooking with inefficient, dirty, primitive stoves:

“The number one cause of death in the world is air pollution.”

“Close to half the deaths from pneumonia of children under age five are caused by household air pollution.”

“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, three to four million people, mostly women and girls die prematurely because of inefficient, dirty stoves.”

Add to these grim metrics the fact that significant deforestation results from scavenging for the wood that is used in the inefficient, old stoves, and you have a recipe for a public health and environmental disaster.

 

NORTH AMERICAN TEAMS AND LEAGUES QUICKLY RAMP UP TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA BY FUNDING CLEAN, EFFICIENT COOKSTOVES AND AVOIDED DEFORESTATION

How did Major League Soccer, NASCAR, the Mets and Yanks and the USTA decide to get involved in helping to reduce the Sub-Saharan African air pollution problem?

Hershkowitz showed each of them that, by funding efficient cookstoves that emit 30 to 50 percent fewer emissions, they would be creating healthier cooking environments for women and children, extending and saving lives in the process. And, since the cookstoves require far less fuelwood, the teams and leagues are also playing an important role in avoided deforestation.

The clean cookstove initiative is supported by the United Nations. Consequently, these cookstove purchases — which reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, other air pollutants and deforestation — qualify as third party, independently certified carbon offset programs, burnishing the teams’ and leagues’ sustainability credentials.

Hershkowitz began connecting the teams and leagues with private sector firms like The South Pole Group, Eco-Act and Allcot. They do the important grunt work of designing, developing and implementing environmental and climate change mitigation projects on the ground.

 

Cookstoves

Clean burning cookstoves (Photo credit: South Pole Group)

 

Although the initiative is in its early days — cookstove purchases only began late last year — the results are impressive. Collectively, the benefits of the offsets purchased by the Yankees, Mets, MLS, NASCAR and the USTA include:

  • Distribution of 7,250 cookstoves for use in cabins and huts
  • Positive impacts on the lives of 13,000+ women and girls
  • Avoidance of 39.4 metric tonnes of carbon emissions
  • Keeping 22.4 metric tonnes of wood from being cut down
  • The manufacture and maintenance of cookstoves being handled by locals, bringing much-needed economic activity to the region

 

TEAMS, LEAGUES SEE COOKSTOVES, AVOIDED DEFORESTATION AS “NO-BRAINERS”

When asked why the Yankees are investing in Africa, Doug Behar, the team’s senior VP of operations, said it was a logical next step in the team’s long-standing commitment to sustainability: “We’ve evolved on sustainability over time, seeing that it made sense from a business perspective to measure and reduce our energy usage, and that it made sense to recycle and compost. So we were ready when the cookstove investment opportunity was brought to us. Really, it was a no-brainer as the impact on human life was too big to ignore.”

 

Doug Behar Profile

Doug Behar of the Yankees (Photo credit: New York Yankees)

 

NASCAR focused their investments on avoided mangrove deforestation projects on the shores of Lake Kariba in Northern Zimbabwe. Catherine Kummer, senior director of NASCAR Green, echoed Behar’s “no-brainer” sentiments. “When something makes sense to management and fans alike, you know you’ve got something,” shared Kummer. “Management got it right away. And the avoided deforestation aspects of our investments matches our fan base’s commitment to the outdoors.”

The Mets’ senior director of ballpark operations, Mike Dohnert, shared a different motivation when Hershkowitz brought the African investment opportunity his way. “I know it sounds cliche, but it was incredibly powerful to be able to explain to my six year-old son how important it is do the right thing,” Dohnert recalled. “I am very lucky that Mets management allows me the freedom to pursue these types of initiatives.”

Switching to tennis, why would its governing body in the United States make investments in Africa? “That’s an easy one — the US Open is an event that draws 800,000 fans from all over the world and tennis is truly a global sport,” offered Lauren Tracy, the USTA’s director of strategic initiatives. The organization funded the sending of 300+ cookstoves to women in Malawi. That purchase helped offset the carbon embedded in the millions of player travel miles to the recently completed US Open.

Major League Soccer, which joined with SandSI and The South Pole Group to advance a big sustainability push at this summer’s All-Star Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the LEED Platinum home of Atlanta United, also found the global nature of the cookstove program compelling. “Since the All-Star Game pitted MLS’ best vs. Juventus, the perennial champion of Italy’s Serie A and one of the most popular teams in the world, we decided to go ‘glocal’ with our sustainability initiatives,” said JoAnn Neale, the league’s chief administrative and social responsibility officer. “Locally, we undertook a tree planting program in Atlanta. And our investments in 1,450 cookstoves in Kenya represented the global side of the equation.”

 

M-B Stadium 2a

Mercedes-Benz Stadium, LEED Platinum home of Atlanta United (Photo credit: Lewis Blaustein)

 

 

GSB’s Takes:

  • If five teams and leagues can get the kinds of life-saving and carbon emissions-reduction results detailed above in less than a year, imagine if all of the major pro and college sports leagues in North America rallied around cookstoves, avoided deforestation and other climate change and environmental programs in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere in the developing world. This is a huge opportunity for SandSI and the entire Green-Sports movement. Perhaps a team or two could pry their PhD analytics gurus away from their advanced metrics spreadsheets for a minute to calculate the macro public health and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions benefits of a massive Pan-North American sports cookstove/avoided deforestation/clean water initiative.
  • There was a kind of Bizarro World, up-is-down aspect to the Summit when it came to fan engagement on climate change and the environment:
    • NASCAR — whose brand image to this observer is decidedly “Red State”/skeptical on climate change — is in fact aggressively connecting with fans on environmental and climate change issues. Why? Because NASCAR fans have indicated that they care about the environment, to hell with the GSB’s stereotypes. “Ten years ago, 50 percent of our fans said they cared about the environment,” Catherine Kummer reported. “Fast forward to our April 2018 survey, and 87 percent of NASCAR fans now believe Earth is going through a period of climate change and 77 percent feel they have a personal responsibility to do something about it. So now we run environmentally-themed TV spots on NASCAR broadcasts.” I do have questions about how to square these results with polling before the 2016 Presidential election that showed NASCAR fans preferred Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. But that’s a subject for another day. For today, the fact that NASCAR runs green TV spots is a very cool thing.

 

 

The 30 second NASCAR Green TV spot

 

  • On the other hand, while the Mets and Yankees have done exemplary greening work at Citi Field and Yankee Stadium, including eliminating trash bins and replacing them with recycling and compost bins, they have chosen to communicate their sustainability bona fides to fans in a much quieter fashion* than NASCAR. The clubs have not yet aired green-themed public service announcements on TV or radio. I mean, they play in climate change-is-real, humans-are-the-cause, “Blue State” New York. One would think their fan bases would react positively to such TV ads. What gives? Mike Dohnert acknowledged that, for Mets management, climate change “politics is an issue. They’re still trying to figure this out.” The Mets and Yanks might want to talk to NASCAR.
  • Kudos to SandSI and GCINET for hosting the first Sports and Climate Change Summit! This needs to be an annual event. 

 

 

 

^ The 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are: 1. No Poverty, 2. Zero Hunger, 3. Good Health and Well-Being, 4. Quality Education, 5. Gender Equity, 6. Clean Water and Sanitation, 7. Affordable and Clean Energy, 8. Decent Work and Economic Growth, 9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure, 10. Reduced Inequalities, 11. Sustainable Cities and Communities, 12. Responsible Consumption and Production, 13. Climate Action, 14. Life Below Water, 15. Life on Land, 16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, 17. Partnerships for the Goals
* The Mets and Yankees communicate their greening initiatives to fans by posting sustainability information on their websites, leading sustainability-themed tours of the ballparks for high school students and more.
 

 

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