4 sports teams hitting a home run for sustainability

ShutterstockEugene Onischenko

A powerhouse of American collegiate sports from the country’s heartland. The team trying to bring the America’s Cup home to Britain for the first time. One of the most anonymous teams in the NBA. And a fifth division English football team. What could these four seemingly unrelated sports organizations have in common? The Ohio State University Buckeyes, Land Rover BAR, the Sacramento Kings and Forest Green Rovers are four of the greenest teams on the planet.

Ohio State University Buckeyes

Ohio State is one of the gold standard programs in college football, winning its eighth national championship in 2015. The 65,000-plus student, Columbus-based school also owns 29 other NCAA championships, including a title in men’s basketball and multiple banners in swimming (11) as well as women’s rowing (three). There’s no other way to say it: Ohio State is a college sports powerhouse.

And, while Ohio’s pro loyalties are largely split between Cleveland in the north and Cincinnati in the south, Ohio State, in the centrally located capital city of Columbus, is the closest thing to a unifying force in sports in the state. With more than 106,000 fans filling Ohio Stadium (aka the Horseshoe) at every home football game and with millions following the Buckeyes on TV, radio and online, the impact of Ohio State football is massive.

Given the huge fan base and audience, the potential impacts of Ohio State’s Zero Waste home football games — the school just complete its fourth straight Zero Waste football season — are also staggering. Zero Waste events are defined as diverting at least 90 percent of waste from the landfill via recycling, composting or repurposing. The Buckeyes diverted an insanely great 96.35 percent of in-stadium waste in 2015, winning the Big Ten Conference diversion rate championship for the fourth consecutive year. Results for 2016 are not complete but it looks as though OSU football’s diversion rates will be similar to the prior year’s.

Ohio Stadium is thought to be the biggest Zero Waste stadium in the world. And the Schottenstein Center, aka Value City Arena, the 18,000-plus seat home of Buckeyes basketball and hockey, which opened in 2000, is getting into the Zero Waste action. They expect to get there sometime in 2017.

Indications are Ohio State’s greening efforts are breaking through with fans:

  • Out of 175 people surveyed in 2014, all but three thought that Ohio State athletics has some level of responsibility (slight, some and strong) to add environmental efforts into their athletics operations. Yes, it’s a small sample size, but directionally it’s telling.
  • The rest of the campus is taking the green lead from Ohio State football: Diversion rates across the entire university have almost doubled since the pre-Zero Waste football days, rising from 16.1 percent in FY 2004 to 30.4 percent in FY 2015.
  • Food waste, with the help of OSU Zero Waste volunteers, is transported to Price Farms Organic, a composting facility in Delaware, Ohio. The waste is eventually turned into a mulch called Stadium Scarlet (the school’s colors are scarlet and gray), which Buckeyes fans, most of whom are landscapers or homeowners, purchase for $40 per cubic yard.
  • A 101 kW237-panelel solar array was installed in 2014 on the Recreational and Physical Activities Center roof, adjacent to the Horseshoe in the Buckeyes’ iconic Block O configuration. It makes for a great aerial scene-setter shot and a terrific talking point.

Fans of the University of Colorado-Boulder, with its absolutely sterling record of sports-sustainability leadership (Zero Waste, on site solar, state-of-the-art water conservation and restoration programs), might say, "Ohio State is great, but what about us?" And they have a point.

Highlighting OSU is not a knock on Colorado — far from it. Our feeling was that Ohio State deserves particular kudos because it is in the green conversation with a school such as Colorado (in eco-haven Boulder) despite being in the center of a state that voted for Donald Trump for president. That is a big deal.

Land Rover Bar

Sir Ben Ainslie is the most successful sailor in Olympic history, winning medals at five consecutive Olympics (1996 to 2012), including gold at the last four; he also played a key part in Oracle Team USA’s stirring comeback to capture the 2013 America’s Cup.

While his past is certainly legendary, two aspects of the future animate Ainslie’s life these days. No 1 is his role as skipper of Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR), Britain’s entry in the 35th America’s Cup, to be contested in Bermuda starting in May. The challenge isn’t that big — no, it’s only about bringing the Cup to the U.K. for the first time. Britain has been trying to win the darn thing since 1851.

That there’s room for anything else on Ainslie’s plate these days is astounding, but his will to win is matched with the need to do so with purpose — and his purpose is to use his platform at the top of the sailing world to advocate for clean oceans, the climate change fight and to bring sustainability to the rest of the sailing world. 

Ainslie’s path to Green-Sports leader was kickstarted after the 2013 America’s Cup when he met Wendy Schmidt of the 11th Hour Project, parent of 11th Hour Racing, an organization dedicated to promoting healthy oceans through world-class sailing teams. According to Ainslie, "Wendy instilled in me the responsibility someone like myself in sport has to [build a team] with sustainability as a core principle, a core belief."

11th Hour Racing soon became Land Rover BAR’s exclusive sustainability partner and, from that point on, the team’s environmental efforts have been full speed ahead. A partial list of Land Rover BAR’s sustainability initiatives includes building its home base in Portsmouth to BREEAM Excellent (the British equivalent of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED) standards.

Per Ainslie, "Probably the neatest thing about the base is the wrap — it makes it look pretty cool and it also helps the building retain heat in the winter and keep cooler in summer. And the sustainability of the base helps show our supporters, our partners, our competitors and also the media — who’ve been quite impressed — that we’re in this for the long haul." It also includes:

  • Using 100 percent renewable electricity at the base.
  • Employing Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to make its operations as environmentally friendly and smart as possible. It does so by determining how best to use, reuse and dispose of materials from design to end-of-life.
  • Meatless Mondays for the team and staff.
  • Drafted a sustainability charter for the other America’s Cup contestants to adopt.

Moving half the team to Bermuda means Land Rover BAR has brought its sustainability commitment to the island in the Atlantic:

  • 11th Hour Racing is funding an educational center open to the public, close to the America’s Cup Race Village where event organizers expect an average of 10,000 visitors/day during the competition. The 11th Hour Racing Exploration Zone features interactive exhibits on topics such as innovation and technology, ocean health, invasive species, the New Plastics Economy and renewable energy, as well as a STEM classroom.
  • Along with Bermuda’s leading environmental organizations, the team and 11th Hour Racing are developing a legacy project around the lionfish, an invasive species creating havoc in the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean. The goal is to raise awareness, promote lionfish as a sustainable and delectable choice of seafood and support an innovative solution to mitigate the invasion. 

Sacramento Kings

It’s been a long decade for Sacramento Kings fans. On the court, the club hasn’t made the playoffs since 2004. And the team was under constant threat of relocation from 2006 to 2013.

That threat ended with the 2013 sale of the Kings to local businessman Vivek Ranadivé. And, despite another poor start this season, Sacramento fans and the community at large can be proud of the leadership the team is displaying in the NBA in the climate change fight through the construction and October opening of Golden 1 Credit Union Center, the first LEED Platinum arena in the world. Platinum is the highest level of certification awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council, representing the top 3 percent of buildings certified.

At the top of the Kings’ green list is the club’s commitment to generate 100 percent of the building’s electricity from solar power.

And get this — going 100 percent solar was in response to the fans. In a powerful March 2016 Huffington Post Op-Ed, Randivé recalled that in "survey[s] of over 20,000 Sacramentans and countless focus groups, one of the top answers to the question of 'What do you want Golden 1 Center to be?' was always the same: To become a model of sustainability. Our fans wanted a state-of-the-art arena that would deliver an unparalleled experience for both fans and the environment."

Randivé and company are giving the fans what they asked for. Golden 1 Center will be the first indoor arena in the world to derive 100 percent of its electricity from solar energy sourced within 50 miles of the arena. The Kings will buy 85 percent of its electric load from Sacramento Municipal Utility District’s (SMUD) new 10.9-megawatt solar farm; the other 15 percent will come from solar panels atop the building’s rooftop.

Want more green firsts? Golden 1 Center is the first arena in the world to be both indoor and outdoor. How can that be possible? By featuring five massive hangar doors above the grand entrance that open and allow the arena to use a natural cooling phenomenon in Sacramento — the Delta breeze to control the building's climate efficiently, that’s how.

There’s more: The Kings' architectural choices are estimated to keep nearly 2,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually out of the atmosphere equivalent to emissions from about 4 million vehicle miles.

Perhaps even more extraordinary than Golden 1 Center’s green features is Ranadivé’s exemplary forward-looking vision:

Our hope in creating Golden 1 Center was to help drive meaningful change in our community — which includes working to curb climate change and promote renewable energy. Businesses, including large sports franchises, have a core responsibility to help facilitate the world’s clean energy transition so that we can better protect the health and environment of future generations. The 1.2 million people who will pass through our doors each year will see first hand how adopting the best sustainability practices can improve the fan experience.

Forest Green Rovers

From a distance, Forest Green Rovers F.C. (FGR), dating back to 1889, is like most every other club at the Conference/5th tier level. They play in a quaint, 5,000-ish seat stadium (the New Lawn). They have a small group of hyper-local followers. And they’re pushing for promotion to the league above them (as of this writing, a little more than halfway through the season, FGR stands in second place, good for a spot in the promotion playoffs if the season ended today.)

But when you look closer, you’ll see a club that, on the pitch and especially off, should be a model for all professional sports teams on either side of the pond.

It starts with ownership. Dale Vince, OBE, became the club’s major shareholder and chairman in 2010. He also is the founder and owner of Ecotricity, based in nearby Stroud, which is taking on the challenge of reducing up to 80 percent of Great Britain’s carbon footprint. Since 1995, Ecotricity has become a green "triple threat," dealing with electricity (through wind and solar project development), transportation (EV battery chargers at highway rest stops) and food (in the concept stage on wind-powered tractors and other clean farm energy projects). The company is privately held, pays no dividends and so profits are plowed back into the building of more clean energy. Thus, Ecotricity’s motto: "Turn (electric) Bills Into (wind) Mills." Al Gore is a fan. It is the largest private sector employer in the area. Ecotricity has serious green cred.

That green cred extends to FGR, which is pioneering the Greening of Football. Along with putting a quality squad on the pitch, the essence of FGR is deep green.

The most revolutionary move was to go meat-free at the club training table and then at the concessions stands at the New Lawn. You read that right: Veggie burgers only. In an interview with the Independent in 2014, Vince conceded that, at first, there was "a fan revolt." But then things turned. Vince said, "I didn’t give in. [And] now no fan says the veggie burger is worse than a meat burger. They even come up to me and thank me, and say I’ve changed their lives."

While energy efficient LEDs are increasingly the rage at sporting venues vs. the traditional, energy-sucking Metal Halide lights, Vince said LEDs are not energy efficient enough — so they’re looking into lower energy lighting. Does anyone doubt they’ll figure this one out? There are solar panels on the roof and also ground-mounted solar powered car ports at the New Lawn. The latter are visible to all fans entering and leaving the stadium, further cementing the greenness of the club among the fan base.

To Vince, sustainability is integral to the club’s DNA and its long-term viability: "We’re building a football club that’s both environmentally and financially sustainable. We got involved for two reasons social and environmental. The club is a big part of the local community, with a rich tradition, and it needed rescuing. For us, it was an investment in the local community. Secondly, the club offered an opportunity to take our sustainable message to a new audience  a large and passionate new audience largely unaccustomed to dealing with sustainability issues."

I’m ready for a veggie burger.

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