Super Bowl LV in Tampa will be unlike its LIV predecessors, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NFL announced last week that there will only be 22,000 socially distanced fans in attendance at the 68,000-seat Raymond James Stadium when the hometown Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the defending champions, the Kansas City Chiefs. Corporate hospitality, an over-the-top staple of America’s biggest sporting extravaganza, has been scaled way back.
The sustainability efforts surrounding Super Bowl LV have also been impacted.
For a preview, GreenSportsBlog chatted with Laura Stargel, Sustainability Coordinator for the Super Bowl LV Host Committee.
GreenSportsBlog: Laura, you have a challenging job to say the least — manage the sustainability efforts for Super Bowl LV Host Committee during a pandemic. And, let’s face it, even before COVID, greening was not a high priority for most Super Bowl Host Committees, with the Bay Area in 2016 and Miami last year being exceptions. So, there’s a lot to dig into here.
But before we do, how you got to the sustainability coordinator role is a story worth telling, starting with your roots as a sports fan in Florida.
Laura Stargel: Yeah, I’m a diehard Florida State fan — Go, ‘Noles! — and went there to study politics. I got involved with lobbying while there, including with legal issues around illegal recruiting of athletes with the Florida High School Athletic Association.
That was super-interesting to me — I decided I wanted to pursue sports policy, so I went to the German Sport University in Cologne for a masters’ degree in International Sports Development and Politics to understand what sports — and to understand what sport policy was like in Europe.
Laura Stargel (Photo credit: Laura Stargel)
GSB: What did you find out?
Laura: Well, Lew, I found out that I didn’t like the politics of sports as much as I liked the sport for development aspects.
I had also grown increasingly interested on topics of sport and the environment, but they didn’t offer any courses on it. But that didn’t matter — I started making sure all of my papers had a green aspect whether it was in a facilities management or sport inclusion course. “Climate in Sports”, “Climate and Inclusion”. The teachers couldn’t stop me: I always brought the green!
GSB: Love it! What spurred your interest in Green-Sports?
Laura: I had gotten into veganism for health reasons. Big Ag, processed foods, meat — unhealthy to eat and bad for the environment. That’s really what did it. Then one professor at the German Sport University assigned a reading on the U.N.’s Sports for Climate Action framework and I was extremely intrigued.
And then, in April 2019, while still in Cologne, I discovered the Sport Ecology Group…
GSB: …The group of academics who produce peer-reviewed research in the sport-sustainability space, led by Dr. Maddy Orr.
Laura: That’s right! I ended up becoming a graduate student mentee with Sport Ecology Group. I knew this was the path I wanted to pursue in sport for development so I decided to get a second masters in Global Sustainability at University of South Florida in Tampa. I came home just as COVID hit, so I decided to do four semesters in one year!
GSB: …Sure, no problem. Four semesters in one year? That sounds physically impossible!
Laura: I’ve been able to make it work so far.
One paper I worked on centered around what I would do if I was head of sustainability for Super Bowl LV. I was in Germany at the time, but I really thought I could do it.
So, in November 2019 I did a LinkedIn search and wrote to Claire Lessinger, the VP of Events for the Tampa Bay Sports Commission and COO of the Host Committee and she invited me to get coffee next time I would be back in the states. She also looped in Katie Kicklighter, the host committee Manager of Hospitality and Events who had a personal passion for working on sustainability efforts in the past.
And so, that December we got a coffee and she said ‘we’d love to have you’ as the sustainability coordinator for the Host Committee.
GSB: Just like that? A LinkedIn note, a coffee and, voilà, you’re the coordinator? That’s CRAZY! Also, great job as far as just “going for it” is concerned.
So, you’re offered the sustainability coordinator and then COVID hits the Gulf Coast area hard in March-April?
Laura: The coronavirus of course impacted the everything from the game itself to the host committee operations. But that didn’t stop them from implementing Forever 55, a social legacy initiative that will represent the lasting impressions that Super Bowl LV will have on our community. The six pillars of Forever 55 — in no particular order are, 1. Sustainability, 2. Food insecurity, 3. Early childhood education, 4. Families, 5. Health & Wellness, and 6. Systemic Justice. The Host Committee’s Sustainability Program was presented by Tampa Electric.
I was on-boarded in August. Some sustainability initiatives were already in place, building on what the Miami Host Committee and NFL Green did last year, with “100 Yards of Hope” — planting 100 yard patches of coral with our partners Force Blue — a Super Kids Super Sharing sports and school supplies drive, greening projects with Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful, and more.
While we worked with Jack and Susan Groh…
GSB: …Long-time sustainability consultants to the NFL…
Laura: …to put as much in place as we could early on, flexibility was and is paramount, because going back to the summer, we knew that so much of the Super Bowl — what would be in person and what would be virtual — was a moving target. As an example, we had to have several food and material recovery plans over time.
COVID’s impacts, not surprisingly affected everything we did, and sometimes those changes were for the better. An example is our Super Kids/Super Sharing program in which kids donated books, school supplies and sports equipment before the holidays. The public-private partnership with the schools, city, county, and local partners went well with roughly 5,500 donations.
Now, before COVID, the items would be delivered to a warehouse and we would have hundreds of volunteers to sort and then distribute to the recipients. This year, we used a direct-to-from-kid model in schools. Kids would put items in a drop box in their school or organization and then our partners could designate the kids in their network that would receive the donations. Less contact, safe, efficient and successful.
Laura Stargel at St. Petersburg’s Mosaic Park for mangrove and native species planting to combat soil erosion (Photo credit: Tampa Bay Super Bowl LV Host Committee)
GSB: That’s great to hear. What is your day-to-day life like as sustainability coordinator?
Laura: My role was and is to coordinate and pull everything together from a sustainability perspective for the Host Committee with the partners, local nonprofits, NFL Green through Jack and Susan Groh, and the operations folks at that are hosting events around the city and at Raymond James Stadium, including on game day. The largest initiative on the ground is to make sure as much as possible the food and materials for the events can be recovered and donated to local community partners.
GSB: So, now we’re in the home stretch to Super Bowl LV. What do you and the committee have planned?
Laura: One constant has been our focus on the 13 days between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl, with Green Week followed by Super Bowl Week.
GSB: What happened during Green Week? Typically, Super Bowl sustainability efforts center around Green Teams. Is there one this year?
Laura: Well Lew, with limited capacity at the game and in-person green team like in other years seemed unlikely. However, it was important to continue the tradition of a green team to initiate conversations on sustainability in the area around the event.
We decided to build a Forever 55 Virtual Green Team — this really is my baby. Thanks to its virtual nature, we can have members from all over the Tampa Bay region from diverse backgrounds to start conversations on social media about sustainable energy, water, food, and equity in the community.
We recruited people from the sustainability community in and around Tampa with our partners including USF, the Florida Aquarium, Feeding Tampa Bay, local community colleges and more hoping to engage about 50 Virtual Green Team volunteers.
During Green Week, we held a virtual training on Zoom with partners to train team members on core themes of the Green Team, with members sharing what they have learned on their personal social media during Super Bowl week. The Forever 55 Sustainability Committee partners did much of the facilitating on their specific initiatives in the area such as Tampa Electric informing members on the renewable energy options in the area by utilizing their Sun Select program or Feeding Tampa Bay discussing food insecurity in the region and resources needed to tackle it.
GSB: Sounds like you had a productive Green Week. What has been happening, sustainability-wise, during Super Bowl Week?
Laura: Every day of Super Bowl Week, we have virtually featured a different sustainability theme: meatless recipes, single use plastics, renewable energy, equity, composting, and storytelling. Green Team members are posting to their friends, families, and followers showing off their swaps from single-use plastic, how to compost, how they signed up to have their energy come from solar, and more, They will post with the hashtags #GreenTeamLV and #Forever55 so anyone who is interested in learning the different perspectives can track them there.
Trash collected from Tampa Bay by the Dive 55 team (Photo credit: Tampa Bay Super Bowl LV Host Committee)
GSB: Who’s doing the storytelling?
Laura: The Virtual Green Team members. It gives them a chance to share why they’re doing this. From a legacy standpoint, it is so much more impactful to come from the community itself than if it were to come from an organization.
GSB: Will climate change be part of the other themes? I mean, it fits in all of them.
Laura: Of course. From why we need renewable energy to how composting avoids increased methane in the atmosphere to the greenhouse gas footprint of meat-based meals, all are being communicated to the Green Team. The goal is to show them how about how individuals can calculate and ultimately reduce our carbon footprints.
GSB: What will be happening at Raymond James Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday itself?
Laura: I’ll be on site to coordinate material and food recovery at the stadium working closely with Jack and Susan Groh at NFL Green who will be coordinating virtually due to Covid-19. Our local food recovery partner, Feeding Tampa Bay, is doing a terrific job to ensure all of the food is recovered.
Because of the pandemic, we have some very unusual material recovery issues. For example, we will recover and repurpose the cardboard cutouts that have become ubiquitous at sports events since the summer.
Nonetheless, we have spent months building relationships and coordinating with partners to ensure the miscellaneous materials find a home here in Tampa Bay rather than in the waste stream.
With the historic moment of our own Buccaneers playing in the game and the legacy initiatives the host committee has been working on it will be a very special event for the Tampa Bay area. I am thankful for the opportunity to work with the Tampa Bay Super Bowl LV Host Committee.
GSB: I look forward to talking with you after all is said and done to see how you and the Green Team made out.
Now, as far as the game is concerned, the Bucs are playing at home and ageless quarterback Tom Brady is going for his incomprehensible seventh championship. I’m pulling for Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs to win their second consecutive championship and will call it Chiefs 30-Bucs 24. Laura, I’ll give you the last word!
Laura: Even without firing the cannons, Tampa Bay is going to bring the excitement being the first home team at the Super Bowl and it will be Bucs by a million!