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The sustainable sports agenda: Opportunities to #BuildBackBetter

Stadium with tree

GreenBiz photocollage, via Shutterstock

Since the mid-2000s, the sport sector has made fast and widespread improvements in environmentally sustainable practices. They include the adoption of LED lighting and energy-efficiency systems, installation of solar panels, implementation of zero-waste plans, installation of low-flow water system upgrades and local food sourcing, to name a few. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has temporarily halted live events and may stymie progress toward sustainability goals.

It is clear that the health risks of the coronavirus must be immediately addressed to avoid exposing fans to unnecessary or additional risks or compromising on safety standards. At the same time, facility managers have a rare opportunity to align pandemic response efforts with sustainability strategies to proactively address climate-related threats, recommitting to the triple bottom line.

In other words, efforts to make the stadium cleaner and safer for fans can be achieved through the use and implementation of sustainable products and practices. The result would be a greener, safer, more sustainable and healthier environment for fans when they return to live events, while generating revenue that otherwise would be foregone in stadium shutdown.

In the rush to return to live in-person events, the urgency of addressing health and well-being may cause sport organizations to backslide where sustainability is concerned.

Across all sectors, the call is resounding to #BuildBackBetter. In the rush to return to live events with in-person spectators, the urgency of addressing health and well-being may cause sport organizations to backslide where sustainability is concerned.

For instance, single-use plastic disposables may be adopted in lieu of current durable food serviceware or environmentally harmful chemical products may be used for cleaning, as these sometimes are perceived as more effective at removing bacteria from surfaces.

A recommitment to the triple bottom line is necessary: Fans expect organizations to take care of people (fans, athletes, staffand community); planet (through sustainability efforts); and profits.

Indeed, in many ways the triple bottom line objectives are synergistic: Environmentally sustainable solutions are also typically healthier for humans (less-toxic cleaning materials, less traffic pollution, etc.) and produce long-term cost savings. A recent Shelton Group survey confirms the need to adopt a triple-bottom-line approach after finding that 86 percent of Americans expect companies to exist for more than just profit objectives.

All moments of challenge present opportunities for growth and evolution, and though the scale of tragedy of COVID-19 has been catastrophic, this moment is no different.

The Sustainable Sports Agenda: Opportunities for the Sports Industry to #BuildBackBetter (PDF), from the Sustainable Sport Research Collective (SSRC), is a collection of opportunities to integrate environmental sustainability into the reopening of sports venues, including in public transportation, entry and security, concessions, custodial services, communications and brand partnerships.

SSRC is a collaboration among four established sustainability professionals exclusively focused on the sports industry. With strong knowledge of venue operations, environmental sustainability, social responsibility and fan experience and engagement, the group recognized the need for insights into fans’ primary concerns — and latent trepidation — in returning to large public gathering spaces. As advisors and practitioners working regularly with sports league and team executives, we’ve established a robust survey method, including a novel virtual focus group, representative of the broad demographics of sports fans.

Rallying and inspiring

For corporations, especially consumer brands committed to accelerating and advocating for the green economy, this is an outstanding time to focus on the most visible and loudest messaging platforms in their marketing arsenal: their sports presence.

In times of crisis, sports continue to become a touchstone that rallies and inspires communities towards positive change. As companies, together with public-sector stakeholders and NGOs, work to #BuildBackBetter, novel solutions and community-centric business models can leverage the prominent stage and high profile of the sports industry, itself a credible messenger in advancing climate action.

Historically, teams have a decades-long history of responsible resource management and other sustainable operations strategies. Today, facilities compete to best LEED Platinum Mercedes Benz Stadium as the most sustainable venue and the recent richest-value naming rights deal done for "Climate Pledge Arena" in Seattle.

The opportunities explained in the report include:

Transportation/urban mobility: Transportation accounts for the largest portion of the sports industry’s footprint. Great strides were being made prior to the pandemic with teams addressing both fan and team travel, directly and via offsets. While public transportations systems are taking tough hits around the globe, for the moment, fans aren’t going anywhere. There are some novel and real revenue-generating opportunities to be deployed, including bike valets, embedded transit tickets, offsets for team travel and EV options for player transit.

Stadium logistics: With the trend toward building out entertainment districts around arenas and increased sponsored activities outside the gates, game day can extend forward several hours ahead of kick-off or opening pitch. Even so, the crush at the gates begins 15 to 20 minutes prior to game time, making ingress a perpetual challenge for stadium operators and a scrum for spectators. While there are many pressing issues, new protocols to be addressed and modifications to be made inside the venue, this is a critical occasion to fully explore a healthy, safe and hassle-free arrival at the front gate. Early considerations include providing reusable PPE, accessible waste-free sanitation and no-touch health check points.

Concessions: Stadium operators will be required to use enhanced hygiene protocols to instill confidence among fans. Food and beverage operators must balance the challenges of reducing wait times to prevent crowded concession areas, avoiding an increase in waste and protecting venue staff. Opportunities to consider may include hands-free cutlery and condiment dispensers, expanded in-seat service and healthier, more sustainable menu choices

Waste management: In sports and live events, waste diversion is one of the more visible elements of sustainability practices. Although many collection points are fan-facing, waste handling behind the scenes is a critical point for progress in landfill diversion and a topic of conversation post-COVID-19. Recommendations for venues to reduce their waste to landfill include leveraging the hiatus to upgrade fan-facing disposal points and retraining staff on protocols to safely reduce and site-separate waste.

Brand partnerships: Every opportunity described above has an associated opportunity for purpose-driven companies to align values, achieve real sustainability outcomes and promote themselves as a brand committed to a better normal.

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