The Sustainable MBA

Lew Blaustein: Bringing the passion of sports fans to sustainability

Seattle's Safeco Field
DVD R W / Wikipedia
As a major sponsor of Seattle's Safeco Field, BASF has been supporting the greening of operations there since 2012.

This Q&A is an edited excerpt from a Oct. 31 Sustainable Business Fridays conversation held by the Bard MBA in Sustainability program, based in New York City. This twice-monthly dial-in conversation features sustainability leaders from across the globe. The previously published interview was with Dale Sands, who spoke about his work with the U.N.’s Private Sector Advisory Group for the International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Lew Blaustein writes at the intersection of sustainability and sports at the GreenSportsBlog. He is president of Lewis Brand Solutions, focusing on green sponsorship and media, matching greening brands with green properties. All programs that LBS works on must provide tangible environmental benefit as a core element. Blaustein also hosts "Green Gotham" on New York cable television.

Bard MBA: So, green and sports — how did you find yourself working in this unique nexus?

Lew Blaustein: When I tell people I work at the intersection of green and sports, they are like, what? But it makes sense when you think about it. On the one hand, you have sports — there probably are not too many things that are as universally followed as sports; 70 percent of humans are sports fans, at least casually so. Yet sports, the who-wins-who-loses part is trivial. And that’s coming from a sports nut. Even I have to admit, it’s the fun-and-games part of life.

On the other hand, sustainability is very important. We’re talking about the survival of life as we know it, for goodness sakes. I am talking about trying to reverse the climate change and carbon train wreck so that humanity and other life can survive. But the truth is that not too many people, relatively speaking, care about it even though it’s so important.

My interest, as someone who has been in the sports world and then the sustainability world, is how to bring those two together. The passion that sports fans bring to the world while saving humanity — that’s what I’m interested in.

Bard MBA: Who is the target audience of your GreenSportsBlog?

Blaustein: I’d say the audience includes practitioners, professionals, team owners and players — all of the above.

Lew Blaustein

Lew Blaustein

But let me take a step back about this intersection of green and sports. There’s something called the Green Sports Alliance, which is a trade group of venue operators — stadiums and arenas. This includes team executives, leagues and sponsors who all come together over the greening of sports. I believe they have had four annual summits so far, the last of which was in July in Santa Clara, Calif., (and) drew 700 people.

The Green Sports Alliance audience, I believe, is my audience. This includes C-level executives and directors of stadium operations, both domestically and people who write in from Ireland, Australia, etc. who are interested in putting on green events. We also get some eco-athletes or former athletes who are interested in this topic. We get folks who are trying to sell greener products and services to these teams, we get sports fans that are looking for something different who are interested in the environment as well. So the audience is definitely a mix.

Bard MBA: Do you see the industry as a whole moving more toward sustainability, and is this due to direct financial returns or more related to image?

Blaustein: I would say that I do see the industry moving in that direction, absolutely. For example, the National Hockey League has a sustainability director, and that didn’t exist five years ago. The NBA doesn’t have a sustainability director per se, but they have one person at the league office that, I’d say, half of his responsibility is sustainability. You see the same thing with major league baseball.

But what is the motivation? By what I’ve observed, the first reason they’re doing it is because of financial reasons. While sports leagues, especially the major league level, are awash in cash, most of that cash goes to pay labor — players. So in terms of the margins, if they can improve their profitability by being more energy-efficient, they are going to do it. This is particularly true for minor league teams or a smaller college sports team that has a smaller fan base. Even if you save $25,000 in a season or $50,000, that is a huge deal.

Now, getting greener to have a better relationship with their fans — that is the most powerful possibility of the green sports movement, and is also the slowest to come online. Getting fans engaged is more complex. In some way, it’s seen as more political, and most people think all fans really care about is winning and losing — to an extent that’s true, but that’s not the only answer. You can see that in über-green places such as Portland and Seattle, which is where the Green Sports Alliance formed because their population base cares so much about sustainability.

Bard MBA: What about areas where green is not as popular? Is anything happening there in terms of sports and sustainability?

Blaustein: Yes, so an interesting case study has to do with the Seattle Mariners baseball team and its home stadium, Safeco Field. BASF is a big chemical company from Germany who, over the last 10 years, has made a major shift to making their products more organic, biodegradable and sustainable. BASF had never sponsored sports but approached the Mariners about being a sponsor and the Mariners agreed. However, BASF said, "We don’t just want to be a traditional sponsor. We want to be the zero-waste sponsor of Safeco Field." Zero waste meaning that stadiums and arenas are diverting at least 90 percent of waste from landfill. BASF did very traditional sponsorship things such as signage at the stadium, but they also sponsored the stadium to be zero-waste, and created something called Sustainable Saturday where you can bring stuff for recycling and repurposing. There was also a sustainability-related trivia contest on the scoreboard, sustainability-themed sweepstakes and other things that are by nature associated with traditional sports, and it’s been a big success.

So, BASF has gone beyond Seattle and to the University of Colorado — in very green Boulder, Colo. — to the University of Michigan and the University of Texas, where they may not be pursuing zero waste but are making major steps in greening their athletic departments.

BASF is reaching areas where sustainability is lesser known, but it’s still successful. They’ve gone from not being involved in sports at all to having five or six engagements similar to what they did at Safeco Field. This kind of movement, I think, will only increase.

The full recording of this conversation is available. The Bard MBA's Sustainable Business Fridays conversation resumes Jan. 9 with Paula Luff, VP of CSR at Hess, about her perspective as a CSR practitioner at a global integrated energy company. 

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