SBJ/Aug. 19-25, 2013/Opinion

Greening of college sports has potential for community change

Environmentalism has a front-row seat in collegiate sports. From zero-waste programs for college football home games to larger university greening efforts, “the greening of collegiate sports is growing rapidly,” said Alice Henly, coordinator of the Collegiate Sports Greening Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York City.

While quick change in large, complex university environments may seem counterintuitive, student passion, teamed with the focus of athletic and recreation departments on providing an environment for healthy, high-performance athletes, is spurring action in sustainability across campus sports operations.

Zero waste: The catalyst

Last October, during Ohio State’s home football game against Purdue, the sustainability, athletics and facilities departments joined together to roll out a zero-waste initiative and achieved a 94.4 percent diversion rate. Zero waste refers to diverting 90 percent or more of materials from the landfill by recycling and composting. At Ohio State’s highest diversion rate last year, it reduced waste sent to the landfill from 15,000 pounds after an average home game to 447 pounds.

Similarly, the University of Colorado has implemented a zero-waste program across its varsity and club sports programs and has branded its zero-waste student force as Ralphie’s Green Stampede (drawing from the name of CU’s buffalo mascot). “Athletics gave us a highly visible platform to prove what’s possible in terms of reaching net zero on campus,” said Dave Newport, director of the CU Environmental Center.

Martin Tull, executive director of the Green Sports Alliance, said waste-based projects have found the quickest adoption on campuses because they tend to require a lower upfront investment and encourage the most fan participation as compared to other sustainability strategies like alternative energy projects. Additionally, because stadiums offer a controlled environment to execute waste-based projects, a single-game pilot is immediately measurable in terms of waste reduction and economic impact and qualitatively measurable in terms of fan feedback. This has allowed sustainability programs on campus to test and prove out the business case for broader environmental initiatives that do require permanent changes to infrastructure and operations.

Infrastructural investments: The long-term vision

Photovoltaic panels atop Arizona State’s Wells Fargo Arena
Photo by: ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY
While waste reduction is one of the most prominent movements in the greening of collegiate sports, such initiatives have paved the way for larger university greening investments that require broad-reaching infrastructural and operational changes. For example, Arizona State University has set aggressive goals to achieve zero waste by 2015, followed by climate neutrality in building energy by 2025. To achieve these goals, ASU has invested in infrastructural changes to Wells Fargo Arena, including the 500-kilowatt installation of photovoltaic panels throughout the venue.

But even with big environmental commitments and heavy investment across many campuses, awareness of the rapid changes occurring at the collegiate level remains low.

The release of last year’s Game Changer report, authored by NRDC and the Green Sports Alliance, on the greening of professional sports proved to be a watershed moment, revealing the depth of green investments among pro teams. Tull believes the collegiate version, which is due to be issued at the Green Sports Alliance’s annual summit, Aug. 26-28 in New York City, is going to reveal a similar trend for universities.

One of the most compelling findings to come out of the report is the economic value green initiatives have for athletic departments. Unlike fans of professional sports teams, collegiate sports’ core fan bases have direct access to their athletic departments and their programs. Campus athletic directors at universities like Colorado and Arizona State understand that student funding is central to the long-term success of a program.

“We don’t sell football games here,” CU’s Newport said. “What we sell on a Saturday afternoon is community. Our athletic director recognized immediately that sustainability programs like zero waste enhance this community experience.”

Building momentum through community engagement

NRDC and the Green Sports Alliance agree that the immediate opportunity athletic departments have in increasing the potential of their funding is by fostering student engagement and participation. The more opportunities students and alumni have to affect the game-day experience, the more pride and loyalty universities can build among their alumni and donors. The hope is that this will lead eventually to increases on game day in ticket, concession and merchandise sales.

Still, if athletic programs are selling community every Saturday, the question remains, Does the greening of college sports have the power to affect a whole community in leading a greener lifestyle?

“When your local team says they cut their energy by 60 percent and so can you, that’s a very powerful message,” Tull said. “Environmental work has been done for 60 years but it has only initiated change among a small population. With pro and collegiate sports getting engaged, our hope is that we reach the other 80 to 90 percent of the population by connecting with them emotionally.”

And is it working?

“It’s a work in progress,” Tull said. “Greening programs on campus offer tremendous opportunities for students to gain professional experience and demonstrate real results with their work. These opportunities translate to future leaders that see the value in change and community impact.”

The next steps

The forthcoming Game Changer report will reinforce that in order to increase the social and economic benefits that come with athletics-based sustainability programs, information sharing between universities and state-based organizations is key.

Collegiate sports departments have the opportunity to use case studies such as Colorado’s and Ohio State’s to effect change on their own campuses, starting small through a zero-waste pilot program and using the results to prove out the return on investment sustainability programs can have.

Universities on the front line have set goals and built programs to ensure that they meet these goals, and many of
these same universities began small, through zero-waste pilots executed in a controlled environment by leveraging their stadiums.

Christine Costa (christinec@imre.com) is IMRE Sports’ sustainability practice leader and works with teams and brands to market and promote their sustainability programs and efforts.

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