The 2021 Green Sports Alliance Summit will be held virtually for the second — and hopefully last — time on June 22-23. It will take place as COVID restrictions are starting to ease and fans are beginning to come back to stadiums and arenas.
How will the Summit deal with COVID issues facing sports while making sure that environmental and climate leadership remain core to the event’s — and the GSA’s — DNA?
This was the backdrop to the resumption, after a COVID-induced one year hiatus, of GreenSportsBlog’s annual pre-Summit interview with GSA executive director Roger McClendon.
GreenSportsBlog: Roger, before we get into the nuts and bolts of the upcoming Green Sports Alliance Summit, how have you been during the epochal last 15 months and how do you see the sports world, green and otherwise, as we — fingers crossed — come out of COVID?
Roger McClendon: Thanks Lew for asking. Thankfully, I’m doing well, and we are excited for our 11th annual Green Sports Alliance Summit in about two weeks on June 22 and 23.
To your question, I believe there is a real sense of optimism around the sports business about opening stadiums and arenas safely to fans. Really, the sports industry has led in a number of ways, from supporting the Black Lives Matter social justice movement to providing access to voting in addition to turning venues and arenas into vaccination centers and supporting food donations.
The Green Sports Alliance has led on developing and sharing these stories and best practices on how to open safely and to accelerate the industry towards getting sports back to full capacity.
GSB: How has COVID changed GSA’s priorities?
Roger: Well, we definitely have a broader scope than before. It goes back to our discussion at the 2019 summit in Philadelphia about Green-Sports 2.0…
GSB: …Which means engaging fans on environmental issues. Green-Sports 1.0, for those keeping score at home, referred to the greening of sports venues…
Roger: …Right. And we still work on greening venue operations, from water conservation strategies to alternative and clean energy offsets to reuse, recycling, and composting best practices. But now our remit is much broader and, if we do our jobs right, much more impactful as we expand our influence beyond the ballparks and the games themselves.
We are delving much more deeply into social justice issues like racial justice, economic justice, gender equity, and more. We are fortunate to have Kunal Merchant, a serious expert on environmental justice issues, on our board. And he’s brought together people like Mustafa Santiago Ali, who has been working on this issue for a long time, and former NFL offensive lineman Garry Gilliam, whom you know from EcoAthletes, who’s looking to make systemic change, to our world. We still have a lot to do, we’re just at the beginning. And we know sports has can help support environmental justice. Examples like the Flint water quality and safety crisis and the issue of basic utility service for community residents in Texas to have basic access to water and heat. So, there’s a lot to do. But I like the team we have focused on preventing these issues and working to ensure environmental justice for all.
And now, due to COVID, health and wellness takes a much more prominent place in our work.
Roger: When COVID called a timeout for the industry, we knew we had to innovate to support our members during the crisis. This led us to a sports-specific partnership with the Arc Re-Entry initiative, which we called, “Ready to Play.” Ready to Play provided our members with a free tool to track proxies for disease transmission, published a best practice playbook, and launched a webinar series to provide education rooted in the scientific literature.
We were crossing our fingers that Ready to Play would fizzle out quickly as we overcame the pandemic. But during the campaign, we realized the potential for an exceptional partnership with Arc that could bring the same mindset to sustainability performance once we reached re-entry, and this is where Play to Zero was born.
Play to Zero, or “PLAY,” is a collaboration between the Green Sports Alliance, Arc, and hundreds of our members to create true market transformation. Our goal is to set all Green Sports Alliance members—not just venues but also teams and leagues—on a journey to net zero energy, net zero water, and zero waste while creating business value along the way. As we gear up for launch later in 2021, we will be excited to release additional metrics which expand out from facilities and into club-related impacts.
We will accomplish this with a strategic approach: (a) benchmark member performance using a custom sports-specific user interface rooted in Arc tools; (b) use baseline data to establish a trajectory to “net zero” targets; (c) publicly recognize leadership for reaching milestones and achieving “net zero”; and (d) engaging fans and corporate partners along the way.
GSB: We will certainly keep tabs on Play To Zero. Now, let’s pivot to the Summit. Virtual for a second year in a row, although now back in your traditional June slot after meeting in October in 2020. What will be unique for attendees who have been to a number of summits?
Roger: Well, Lew, attendees should be inspired. Resiliency, reopening from COVID both safely and with sustainability top of mind, will be a major theme in a panel led by GSA Board Chair Scott Jenkins. Play to Zero will be highlighted as will other specific approaches to make venues fan-safe.
We’re also going to have a session focused on increasing gender and racial diversity across all levels of sports with Brett Peterson, the NHL’s first black GM, Brandon Thompson, NASCAR’s new VP of Diversity & Inclusion, Marisa Grimes, the new Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer at the USTA and Sam Thomas, a 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament runner up with the University of Arizona, working with the Pac-12 on the Climate Starts With Us campaign.
We’re also taking new angles on the environment, which necessarily took a back seat to COVID over the last year. So, we’ll highlight clean energy technology with Volta Charging and their innovative EV charging stations in addition to Enel X’s exclusive energy partnership with Gillette Stadium. We’ll also highlight GSA’s new partnership with the Game Changers around the climate and athletic performance benefits of eating a more plant-forward diet alongside Aramark and the Food for Climate League.
GSB: What is that?
Roger: Food for Climate League focuses on connecting climate smart eating with basic human safety, community, and purpose. They believe that will drive widespread demand for foods that are biodiverse, generate less waste, and are grown in healthy soils.
Also unique for a GSA Summit will be the diversity of perspectives within panels on a given topic…
GSB: …What do you mean by that?
Roger: Instead of having an athletes’ panel or a stadium operations panel, we’ll have a panel with an athlete, a facilities person from a venue, a corporate sponsor and a front office executive. This should make for vibrant discussions, hopefully with real solutions coming out of it.
We’ll also be featuring prominent international voices including the Head of Sustainability for the IOC and the Director of Environmental Excellence at Paris 2024.
GSB: As an occasional panel moderator, I like the ‘diversity of perspectives’ approach. How will climate change fit into the Summit?
Roger: Climate will be featured throughout the Summit with some sessions focused specifically on climate issues and others tying together the connection between environmental and social impacts on our communities.
I mentioned the clean energy panel with Volta, Enel X, as well as World Wildlife Fund and San Jose State University in addition to our plant-forward food session. We will also have a panel on “Innovative Offsetting Strategies Across the Industry” with MLS, the Portland Trail Blazers and South Pole.
And we’re really excited about our Dream Big: Striving Towards Zero — Industry Leading Climate Action panel, which will bring leaders from Aramark, Climate Pledge Arena, Paris 2024, and John Marler from AEG together to look to how sports can continue raising the bar in terms of climate action ambition.
GSB: That’s a panel I will definitely attend! OK, one last question and it’s really process-y. I know virtual conferences are difficult and I thought you guys did a great job in tough circumstances last year. The ‘but’ is that all the panels last year were pre-recorded so there was no opportunity for Q&A. Will some of the panels be live this time around?
Roger: Great point, Lew. This year we’ve made the sessions shorter than in the fall as Zoom fatigue is a real thing. While the main stage sessions will be pre-recorded, almost all the breakout sessions will be live which means there will be Q&A in some panels. And then we will have ample opportunities for networking. So, we are looking forward to the Summit and to the ideas that will come out of it.
Click here to register for the 2021 Green Sports Alliance Summit.