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The sports industry and sustainability part two: How the green leaders are creating change

Matthew Campelli of the Sustainability Report looks at how rights holders across sport are working within broader frameworks to tackle environmental issues.

by Matthew Campelli
The sports industry and sustainability part two: How the green leaders are creating change

Organisations across sport are positioning themselves as champions of environmental sustainability. Matthew Campelli of the Sustainability Report looks at how major rights holders around the world are rising to the climate change challenge.

America's leagues of green

Climate change, as a topic, can still be comfortably filed under the category ‘political hot potato’ in the US. So it was significant when, shortly after his appointment as executive director of the Green Sports Alliance (GSA) just over a year ago, former Yum! Brands chief sustainability officer Roger McClendon made it one of the organisation’s top priorities.

High-profile sports entities, such as the New York Yankees, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) and the Philadelphia Eagles, are among the members that have been supported by the GSA to make their gameday and stadium operations more sustainable, and to use environmental stewardship as a means to connect with fans and partners.

But McClendon wants US sport to move into what he calls the ‘Sustainability 3.0’ phase, which is focused on climate action and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. It’s about sport being at the heart of smart city infrastructure, adopting clean energy and making an impact in long-term social projects.

One of his first calls-to-action was for members – and the wider US sporting community – to adopt the UNFCCC’s Sports for Climate Action Framework, a set of five principles designed to move sports organisations closer to climate neutrality. A number have answered the call, including the National Basketball Association (NBA), the Yankees, the USTA, the Golden State Warriors, LA Galaxy, the LA Kings, Minnesota Wild, the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, the University of Colorado Athletics Department, and the Portland Timbers and Thorns.

But sustainability leadership can be found all over the country, in every sport. The National Hockey League (NHL) has been on a mission to transition hockey rinks across North America away from ozone-depleting refrigerants to a more sustainable product. The Seattle Sounders offset their unavoidable carbon emissions by asking players and fans to plant 370 trees in the local area, helping the club achieve climate neutrality in the process. And the Yankees hired sport’s first environmental science advisor in the shape of former National Resources Defense Council senior scientist, Allen Hershkowitz.

Just over 100 miles south of Yankee Stadium, the National Football League's (NFL) Eagles have positioned themselves as one of the leaders in sports sustainability. Renewable energy and a slick waste management programme have made the team’s Lincoln Financial Field operationally sustainable, but it’s the Eagles’ innovative fan engagement projects that set them apart.

After winning the Super Bowl in 2018, the Eagles and their partner Braskem, the giant plastics manufacturer, collected and recycled all the plastic bottle caps discarded by fans throughout the season and turned the material into a giant Lombardi Trophy. The structure can be found in the lobby of the stadium, often surrounded by fans posing for photographs.

Over in the Pacific Northwest, where the roots of the GSA can be traced, the Portland Trail Blazers NBA team have also put fan engagement at the heart of their sustainability efforts by encouraging positive behaviour change through competitions and prizes.

Last year, the franchise built an online platform that gave fans the opportunity to make commitments related to waste, food, water, energy and transport. Users had the chance to win jerseys, balls and cards. More than 1,000 fans took part, with 6,389 positive actions taken.

But no talk of US sport would be complete without mentioning the biggest event of the calendar. This year’s Super Bowl boasted a diverse set of sustainability projects, with the majority addressing environmental challenges facing Miami, the host city.

One such project focused on the Florida Keys’ stretch of coral reef, a reef that is being damaged by climate change and ocean acidification. The reef brings in US$10 billion of annual income to the area every year, meaning that its health is just as important for the local economy as it is for the ecosystem. To replenish the damaged area and raise awareness of the issue, the local organising committee – with the help of retired navy seals – planted 100 pieces of climate resistant coral.

Grand Slam action

Attempting to tackle climate change may be like “being asked to compete against Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and the Williams sisters all at once”, but its “clear and present danger” – particularly to the sports industry – means that strong and collective action is necessary.

That was the message delivered by James Grabert, a representative from the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change, during a press conference at Roland Garros last year, where all four grand slams - the French, Australian and US Opens, and Wimbledon - all made commitments to take systematic climate action.

This year’s Australian Open took place against a backdrop of climate disaster as bushfires tore through the country, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. The tournament was badly affected, with air pollution generated by the fires impacting player performance, and even forcing one competitor, Slovenia’s Dalila Jakupovic, to retire.

But this wasn’t the first time that players have complained about conditions during the Melbourne event. Rising temperatures in the city mean that 35°c-plus heat is commonplace in January, making play extremely challenging for most athletes, impossible for some. In 2018, French player Alize Cornet required medical assistance after experiencing heat-related illness, while four years earlier Canadian Frank Dancevic started to hallucinate during a match.

Smoke haze from bushfires hover over the Rod Laver Arena ahead of the 2020 Australian Open

Working to make the Australian Open climate neutral, as per the Sports for Climate Action Framework all four organisations signed, won’t alleviate the significant environmental issues facing Australia. But, as one of the nation’s highest profile sporting events, adopting a position of leadership is the right move.

Wimbledon, the best-known tennis tournament in the world, recently built on its own pledge made last June by revealing a comprehensive set of sustainability measures to usher in the appointment of its new chief executive, Sally Bolton, who will officially take up her position in the summer.

At the heart of its plan is to start generating its own renewable energy and to fully electrify its vehicle fleet. Reducing its carbon emissions and energy consumption is an important operational objective, but the All England Lawn Tennis Club’s (AELTC) strategy to reinvigorate local biodiversity, through ‘living’ walls and roofs, is one of its more eye-catching goals.

Both the US Open and Roland Garros have mature sustainability operations. The former has had its ‘Green Initiatives’ in place since 2008. In the 12 years since, the tournament’s greenhouse gas emissions have been reduced by 100,000 metric tonnes, while 4,500 tonnes of waste have been diverted from landfill, with 700 tonnes of food waste converted to compost and 100 tonnes of untouched food donated to local communities.

The US Open’s flagship sustainability project in 2019 was its investment in cookstoves for people in Malawi, which makes cooking safe while reducing carbon emissions and biodiversity loss. Through the initiative, three tonnes of firewood were saved and six tonnes of carbon emissions were avoided.


Over in Paris, Roland Garros has been abiding by 15 environmental commitments outlined by the French Sports Ministry and WWF France for all major events since 2018. These commitments include using a minimum of 50 per cent sustainable food, making sure a minimum of 80 per cent of the journeys made to the event are via active mobility, public transport or car sharing, and purchasing a minimum of 80 per cent of products using CSR criteria.

Roland Garros has made good progress with the latter, working with suppliers and partners to find sustainable solutions. After partnering with the GoodPlanet Foundation to develop a sustainable food plan, Roland Garros worked with Lavazza to make sure all of the coffee offered on site is Rainforest Alliance Certified. Engie, Roland Garros’ utilities provider, is also powering the event with 100 per cent renewable energy and has inserted solar panels on all of the venue’s food outlets.

Bundesliga: Leading from the front

With the highest average spectator attendance of any soccer league in the world, the German Bundesliga and its clubs are well placed to leverage their emotional connection to fans in order to drive awareness of environmental issues and encourage behaviour change.

TSG Hoffenheim’s rise up through the divisions, from the fifth tier in 2000 to the top flight in 2008, and subsequent qualification for the Uefa Champions League in 2018, is one of the footballing stories of the 21st Century. The team’s recent success has resulted in a thriving fanbase - TSG’s average attendance for the 2018/19 season was 28,456 - which the club are trying to engage in their sustainability projects off the pitch.

One such initiative is the ‘Climate Ticket’, established for the 2019/20 season, that gives fans the opportunity to pay €1 on top of the original match ticket price with the proceeds going towards the planting of new forests in Uganda.

Sustainable development in Africa is one of the key objectives of TSG Hoffenheim’s wider strategic plan, titled ‘Movement’, which is their blueprint to become a “modern and socially engaged club.” To demonstrate this, the club have created a sustainable textiles brand in Uganda that uses a proportion of its profits to finance environmental education programmes in the East African nation. As part of their partnership with the German Ministry of Finance (BMZ), ‘Die Kraichgauer’ have also established a project in Namibia to educate young people about environmental protection through soccer.

According to managing director Peter Görlich, the club’s goals for economic success “are in harmony with our sense of social and environmental responsibility.” Indeed, their stadium naming rights partnership with PreZero reflects a commercial strategy that has sustainability as a key plank.

But it’s fair to say that while TSG Hoffenheim’s approach to sustainability is particularly advanced for a professional soccer club, their philosophy is not the exception to the rule as many Bundesliga rivals are incorporating elements of environmental sustainability within their stadium operations.

FC Augsburg have claimed their WWK Arena (right) as the first climate-neutral soccer stadium in the world, with two large heat pumps forming the core of its energy system – a system that saves more than 750 tonnes of carbon emissions per year.

As early as 2010, FC Mainz declared themselves the first carbon-neutral soccer club in the Bundesliga after transitioning to 100 per cent renewable energy through their partnership with energy provider Entega. In addition, the club have worked with their local authority to combine match tickets with public transport passes to encourage fans to leave the car at home.

FC Mainz are also one of a growing number of Bundesliga clubs to install solar panels on their stadium roof. The home venues of Borussia Dortmund, Freiburg and Werder Bremen all boast photovoltaic systems. The former have shaped their solar panel arrangement into the image of their famous BVB logo, while the latter – the 2004 Bundesliga champions – have incorporated one of the largest solar panel integrations in Europe on top of the Weser Stadion, which generates 800,000 KWH of electricity every year (enough to power 300 households).

Such is Werder’s strength of feeling around the climate crisis, the club encouraged all employees to take part in a nationwide climate strike last September, which got more than one million people onto the streets of Germany to demand climate action from the government and industry.

VfL Wolfsburg, the club owned by car giant Volkswagen, are among the leading advocates of sustainability within professional soccer. Named as the top club in the German Bundesliga Sustainability Index in 2016, the 2009 Bundesliga champions have published comprehensive sustainability reports and objectives every four years, with a status update at the halfway point of each cycle.

Within their latest report in 2018, Wolfsburg gave a detailed breakdown of where their negative carbon impact came from, and articulated how those impacts are being addressed. The majority of the club’s carbon footprint is, unsurprisingly, derived from fan mobility. Even though those emissions are classed as indirect, Wolfsburg have tried to find solutions such as adding free public transport travel to tickets for women’s and under-23 matches.

Among their sustainability objectives for the coming years, Wolfsburg have highlighted three main priorities: promoting sustainable mobility among the workforce (which chimes with their parent company’s move to electric car manufacturing), saving natural resources, and considering the latest energy efficiency standards and biodiversity in new buildings. All pitch lighting within the Volkswagen Arena has also been converted to LED to reduce energy consumption, while a returnable cup system has been implemented to reduce its reliance on single-use plastics for fan beverage consumption.

Towards the end of 2019, ‘Die Wölfe’ became the first major European soccer club to adopt the UNFCCC’s Sports for Climate Action Framework, which puts sports organisations on the path to net zero carbon emissions in line with the Paris 2015 Climate Agreement. Upon becoming signatories to the framework, Wolfsburg managing director Michael Meeske said that fighting climate change was as important as “picking up points” for the Lower Saxony club.


This feature - first published in Issue 109 of SportsPro magazine - is the second part of a two-part series on sport’s growing sustainability movement. Read the first part here.