April 22, 2020 will be a day of big birthdays.
You may know that Earth Day turns 50 that Wednesday.
What you probably are not aware of is that The Sport Ecology Group turns one on the 22nd as well. The innovative nonprofit translates the growing amount of sports-sustainability academic research into digestible, layperson-friendly summaries for use by a wide array of Green-Sports industry professionals.
GreenSportsBlog spoke with Dr. Maddy Orr, The Sport Ecology Group’s founder, about what she learned in Year One, as well as what she and her team have planned for Earth Month and beyond.
GreenSportsBlog: Happy birthday, Sport Ecology Group, Maddy! You have had quite a year. Congratulations! What’s the first year been like?
Dr. Maddy Orr: Thank you! It’s been an incredible and exciting first year, after working for many months getting ready for the launch. We feel like we’ve made a small dent in the research-practice divide and that’s what we set out to accomplish.
Until recently, sport managers got their information as well as data for sustainability and climate-based decisions from anecdotal data, company reports, and case studies on what other franchises and teams have accomplished sustainability-wise. And that was a great start, but it’s limiting because not all businesses publish their best work, and it left a lot of money and a lot of opportunity on the table in terms of implementing green-sports best practices.
We worked hard to build a database of research summaries, and our own robust data, that offers empirical evidence of sustainability tactics and strategies at work…This means that managers now have more to work from than just ‘what other people have done’. More data, fewer anecdotes. It creates space for creativity and reaching beyond the basics of recycling and LED lighting. It’s like a “Moneyball” moment for sport sustainability.
GreenSportsBlog: So, are you and the Sport Ecology Group the Billy Beanes of Sports-Sustainability? Beane, the GM of the Oakland A’s who was played by Brad Pitt in the 2011 film “Moneyball,” pioneered the use of advanced analytics in baseball to keep the low budget A’s competitive.
Maddy: Not quite. I’d say we’re more like the Peter Brands, the nerdy Assistant GM played by Jonah Hill in “Moneyball”. We gather the data, analyze it, and hand the results to leaders of the Green-Sports movement and executives in the sports industry. Then they call the shots and make the big decisions on how to manage their sustainability initiatives.
GreenSportsBlog: Who are some of the Billy Beanes of the Green-Sports movement?
Maddy: Oh, there are many. Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, Environmental Science Advisor for the New York Yankees; Lauren Tracy at the USTA; Jack Groh and Susan Groh at the NFL; Julia Pallè at Formula E; the list goes on and on.
GreenSportsBlog: I can see a bit of Billy Beane in all of them. Now, as you look back on Sport Ecology Group’s first year, could you share three stories or accomplishments with our readers?
Maddy: Honestly, all three have to do with people.
The biggest one for me, simple as it may sound, was just launching.
It was an exhilarating process to go from having this idea in the back of your head, to naming it, building a team, designing a website, putting out press-releases, building the database… it was a fast-paced process, and daunting, but super gratifying. Especially the part when the team came together. Having these more established and discipline-leading academics sign on to the SEG felt like a huge win, and it was, because they’re not just brilliant — they’re also just great to work with and learn from.
The next big accomplishment in my book was getting our grad student mentorship program off the ground. And really, I tip my hat to Sport Ecology Group colleagues Brian McCullough and Tim Kellison who’ve done most of the legwork on that. The idea for the SEG originally came to me when I was writing my doctoral exams and felt like I didn’t have a community of people who understood what I was working on — sport ecology didn’t exist at the time. So, being able to convene a group of early career researchers on this topic feels like the SEG is adding value to these students’ careers, and as educators, that means everything.
And then the third accomplishment, again related to people, was being invited to participate in meetings and conferences like the Commonwealth Secretariat Sport for Development and Peace Working Group Meeting on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Sport Positive Summit, which will be in October, the Green Sports Alliance Summit… being given a seat at those tables is rewarding and inspiring. There are a lot of people doing good work in these spaces, and it’s inspiring to be part of it.
GreenSportsBlog: Let’s dig into SEG’s grad student mentorship program a bit. How many students is your team mentoring and what are they working on?
Maddy: Right now, we’re mentoring 15 grad students, most of whom are pursuing sport management Masters’ degrees or PhDs. Some are in MBA programs. A couple of them are studying various aspects of environment and college athletics, which provides a benefit to athletics departments. Another is interested in sport ecology, law and social justice.
GreenSportsBlog: I love that intersection!
Maddy: I do, too. There’s so much to dig into there. Another student is looking at how the environment fits into executive decision making at sport organizations.
GreenSportsBlog: These are all interesting and important topics. Is there a sport ecology discipline at any university these days? If no, what if anything might Sport Ecology Group to change that?
Maddy: Great question, and this comes up a lot. The short answer is no. There aren’t any sport ecology programs in the U.S., though there have been some graduate certificate programs that have been piloted. There’s definitely room for that to change.
The first challenge is that setting up a new program would require several sport ecologists to be in the same place, so they can cover all the myriad of sport eco courses.
GSB: That seems doable, no?
Maddy: It’s not so easy because we all want to live in different places and we’ve each established ourselves in our current departments. The other challenge is that it can take several years to launch a new program at a university, since these institutions are large bureaucratic machines.
What’s more likely is a slow rollout of new coursework, one class at a time, at existing sport management schools. The SEG is already heavily involved in developing curriculum proposals and syllabus outlines to support those efforts.
If we can get a critical mass of classes happening at various schools, that would be a huge win, because it would mean all sport management students across the country (or at least, a majority of them), will receive training in sustainability and climate issues. It won’t be the focus of their degree, but it’ll be part of it. I think that’s the most realistic and beneficial way to move forward with growing sport ecology right now.
GreenSportsBlog: What have been the biggest challenges to date? What might you do differently?
Maddy: Our biggest challenge so far has been is that we’re outgrowing ourselves. We have more projects than human-power. Which is a good problem to have, but we needed to spend some time locking down our core competencies and setting the foundations for how we’ll operate as an organization. We weren’t expecting to have pressure to grow this early in the game, while we’re still learning the ins and outs of basic operations like website maintenance and fiscal sponsorship.
GreenSportsBlog: Fiscal sponsorship as in where a start-up nonprofit like SEG finds an existing nonprofit as a sponsor so the start-up can accept tax-deductible donations. Until, that is, SEG becomes a 501(c)(3) on its own.
Maddy: Correct. It definitely has been a learning curve.
So, we’ve spent the first year focused on nailing down our core competencies, and now that we’ve established good work patterns and written a long-term strategic plan, we’ll soon be ready to start taking on new members and new projects.
GreenSportsBlog: Talk about one of the projects SEG took on in Year 1…
Maddy: Sure! Claire Poole, founder of Sport Positive Summit and a member of our advisory board, is also an important part of the team that developed and is implementing the UN’s Sport for Climate Action framework. She reached out to us to put to together any empirical data we could find that supports each of the framework’s five principles¹.
GreenSportsBlog: What would an example be of those empirical data?
Maddy: So, for principle two, reduce overall climate impact, we shared data from studies conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia that showed in sport events, roughly three percent of overall carbon footprint comes from waste. The majority comes from transport and energy use. So, transport and energy solutions must become priority areas over all others, including zero-waste.
GreenSportsBlog: Amen! How does SEG fund its operations?
Maddy: Most of our work so far has been unpaid; some has been grant-funded. All of us have day jobs in academia. And we aim to publish the research we conduct. In Year 1 we existed off of grant funding; going forward we will look to ramp up donations, paid research projects, and more grants to support our growth.
GreenSportsBlog: Who is on the SEG team?
Maddy: My Co-Director is Dr. Brian McCullough, currently at Seattle University. He will move to Texas A&M come summer. Brian is an expert in fan engagement and strategic decision-making processes related to sustainability initiatives. He created the country’s first sport sustainability certificate.
Dr. Tim Kellison is the director of Green Sports Alliance-award-winning Center of Sport and Urban Policy Georgia State University. A bona fide genius, Tim’s expertise is in sport policy, new sport infrastructure projects (i.e. stadium construction), and the environmental considerations of these big urban projects.
Dr. Tiffany Richardson is transitioning to Seattle University. Before that, she had been at the University of Minnesota and Cal State Long Beach…
GreenSportsBlog: …Tiffany is a force of nature!
Maddy: Agreed! She is the Godmother of Green Teams, from MLB All-Star Games to X-Games to Final Fours. More than that, she is an extraordinary educator specializing in the circular economy. She regularly brings her classes out into the real world for living labs and live experiments.
Dr. Walker Ross at Florida Southern is my fellow “baby-doc” on the team as he and I are its youngest members. An expert in sport facility sustainability, Walker is our Gen-Z whisperer. He is great at connecting dots for students between sport and climate change.
Jamee Pelcher at University of Tennessee Knoxville is a PhD candidate in sport management, following a 20 year career as a serial entrepreneur and getting her Sport Sustainability Leadership certificate with Brian at Seattle University. She brings a wealth of entrepreneurial experience and strategic guidance to the team.
Dr. Sylvia Trendafilova at UT Knoxville and Dr. Jonathan Casper at NC State round out our team as some of the more experienced scholars on the team. They’re a great grounding presence, have a really good grasp of the field, and have been instrumental in helping us to establish and maintain the highest levels of rigor in our early work.
GreenSportsBlog: I’d say you’ve put together a team of sport sustainability All-Stars. Well done! Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask how coronavirus has affected SEG’s work?
Maddy: The short answer is, it doesn’t, really.
We’ve been a digital consortium from the outset — that is to say, we all work on the SEG remotely. But of course, coronavirus means Brian is working from home with two toddlers running around, and Jamee, Tim, and Sylvia are all home with their kids, so it’s an adjustment period for everyone. But it hasn’t really slowed us down.
GreenSportsBlog: Good to hear. So now it’s Earth Month and SEG’s birth month. What do you have planned?
Maddy: Earth Day 2020, April 22, is our first anniversary, and the 50th anniversary of the day itself, so we’re planning on making a bit of a splash. Since everyone is stuck at home, we’re focused on accessible, free, online events and resources.
We are hosting a series of webinars, in partnership with the GSA. They’re scheduled for Wednesday April 8th, Monday April 13th, Wednesday April 15th, and Monday April 20th, all at 1 PM Eastern, 10 AM Pacific.
And then we’re capping it off with a Digital Resource Fair on Earth Day, where we’ll be sharing the TOP 50 SPORT ECOLOGY RESOURCES, all in digital format, one for each of the 50 years of Earth Day. The resources aren’t all ours — they come from a variety of sources. But we’ve been working hard to collate them and put them all in one place. They’ll be up on our website for one month, so people can celebrate Earth Day, even if they have do so inside, and they can access the resources at any time in late-April and May.
GreenSportsBlog: Where can people sign in to attend the webinars?
Maddy: All the details and registration links are on our website: sportecology.org/earthday
GreenSportsBlog: Finally, what do you have planned for Year 2?
Maddy: Year 2 is about growing internationally. Last year, we were just figuring out what we do, and how best to do it.
Now that we’ve identified our core competencies and interests, we need to think about how we grow, and since we’re all geographically based in North America, we’ll be looking to build our membership with Europeans, Australians, folks from Asia, and so on, and taking on projects in those regions. Already, we’ve got an international advisory board, and we’re hoping to have a membership that reflects that same diversity come April 2021.
¹ The Sport for Climate Action framework’s five principles are:
Undertake systematic efforts to promote greater environmental responsibility;
Reduce overall climate impact;
Educate for climate action;
Promote sustainable and responsible consumption;
Advocate for climate action through communication.