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The quest for 'green' sporting events

Ashutosh PandeyDecember 1, 2015

From roof gardens and wind turbines to drought-tolerant grass and organic food, sports industry, often accused of huge carbon footprints, is increasingly trying to leverage its strong influence to promote green habits.

USA bewerben sich mit Boston um Sommerspiele 2024 Stadion in Santa Clara
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/C. Kaster

The San Francisco 49ers' home field has strong environmental credentials. The Levi's Stadium (pictured above) is designed to generate all of the energy needed to host the 49ers' NFL home games.

It has a roof garden, more than 1,000 solar panels, and playing field made of drought-tolerant grass, so that it doesn't have to be watered as much as a normal lawn to stay into good shape. The parking lots are outfitted with charging stations to encourage the use of electric cars. Such features have earned the Levi's Stadium the prestigious gold standard awarded by the US Green Building Council.

The stadium is at the vanguard of a green revolution that is sweeping the professional sports industry across the globe. More and more sports bodies are going green in an effort to use their sway to promote sustainable practices.

The 'go green' movement comes at a time when the sports industry is coming under growing scrutiny for generating huge carbon footprints. Sports teams and players are often panned for not playing a more active role in combating climate change and have been criticized in particular for their use of short-haul flights to travel to away games.

Augsburg's Green Stadium

"Governments don't change people's minds. Religions are often dividing people. Entertainment, movies can be helpful but nothing is as influential as sports in changing people's mindset. It reaches billions of people. It's non-political," Allen Hershkowitz, president of Green Sports Alliance told Deutsche Welle.

The Alliance, a group that claims to harness the cultural and market influence of sports to promote healthy, sustainable communities, represents more than 300 professional and collegiate teams and venues from 20 different sports leagues and 14 countries. They include the United States Tennis Association (USTA), the National Basketball Association, the New York Yankees and the Levi's Stadium.

The Alliance members are all going green, but are doing so in different ways. The NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, among the first to jump onto the green bandwagon, saved about 6,000 trees as a result of their paper saving and recycled paper purchasing efforts. Their home stadium, Lincoln Financial Field, has 11,000 solar panels and 14 wind turbines.

Technology services company IBM, which powers USOpen.org, managed to significantly cut its energy consumption and cooling demand during the US Open by switching to using only six computer servers in 2010, down from 60 in 2008.

Motorsports venue Sonoma Raceway in California has an onsite organic garden spread across two acres. The garden, irrigated with recycled and recaptured water, produces organic tomatoes, peppers, lettuces and spinach for catering and concession meals.

Following Germany's ‘green' footsteps

Through their green initiatives, Germany's professional football clubs have been saving significant amounts of electricity and thereby contributing to a large reduction in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The clubs saw annual savings of at least 5.3 million kilowatt/hours of electricity, according to a 2013 Bundesliga environmental report. The electricity saved is enough to power 1,500 German households for a year.

Dreisamstadion vom Fußball-Bundesligisten SC Freiburg
Solar-panel equipped German stadiums such as the Schwarzwald-Stadion in Freiburg are helping cut CO2 emissions.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Germany, a leader in harnessing renewable energy, earned a lot of accolades for organizing what many termed the 'greenest' World Cup of all time. The 2006 event saw many games being played under flood lights powered by solar energy, two of three spectators leaving their cars at home and beverages being sold in reusable cups.

The trend has since caught on. According to figures published on the website of football's world governing body, FIFA, the local organizers of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil offset all of the 250,000 tones of CO2 for which they were directly responsible through selected carbon-reduction projects in the country. FIFA's goal of environmental impact reduction has also been institutionalized in contracts for the showpiece event in 2018 and 2022.

Advocates of green initiatives argue that they also make compelling business sense. Not only do they result in utility-related cost savings, they also attract sponsors and significantly enhance the brand image of the tournament, venue or team in question. London's branding of 2012 Olympics as the 'green Games' is understood to have been a factor in the British capital winning the bid to host the sporting gala.

In baseball, the American League's Seattle Mariners saved about $1.5 million (946,000 euros) in energy, water and sewer services costs between 2006 and 2011 by cutting down natural gas, electricity and water use.

'Greening' the fans

A major component of the worldwide greening movement in sports is aimed at convincing the fans to adopt green practices. According to some estimates fans traveling to the stadiums account for more than half of the carbon emissions generated during sporting events.

“A few years ago most of the green initiatives within sport were focused 'on the ball' that is managing the club estate and to some extent its supply chains," said Ian Curtis from the Oxford University Centre for the Environment told DW. "There was less emphasis on how fans could be inspired to do stuff 'off the ball' - that is back at home in their day-to-day lives (not just on match days). The situation is getting better and there is a lot more going on," he said.

FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 - Deutschland Fans
Educating fans is crucial to the success of the sports' 'go-green' movement.Image: picture-alliance/dpa/C. Jaspersen

It's a huge captive market for the sports industry. According to the New York-based Natural Resources Defense Council, while only 13 percent of Americans say they are interested in science, 61 percent identify themselves as sports fans.

But what impact do the green initiatives of major sports teams have on their fans?

"It's hard to measure that. But last year $20 billion was spent on advertising at sports venues," Hershkowitz said. "If people can advertise Mercedes and Coke with the hope of increasing sales, then why is it unreasonable to assume that showing green messages would have an impact as well."

James Atkins, the chairman of Vertis, a Europe-based company that specializes in emissions trading and energy efficiency, told DW that the biggest influences on fans' behavior are players rather than leagues or teams. He said that the biggest possible positive impact would come if a number of sporting superstars made a point of setting a "green" example.

"If Ronaldo has a collection of supercars, then the people will also aspire to having a fancy car. If Messi goes on holiday to the Caribbean, then that is what the masses will do," Atkins said. "I think that the example of the 'elite' is very powerful in shaping society and determining what others do and how they live."