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Volume 23 No. 13

Opinion

Ten years ago, the first professional sports league greening collaboration was launched, a partnership between Major League Baseball and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Today, the sports greening movement is a global phenomenon. The sports greening movement is changing the way venues are designed and operated, and it is changing the culture of sports leagues and teams.

The sports greening movement is arguably the most diverse, visible and fastest-growing initiative in the environmental movement. Ecologically enhancing the way sports venues are operated, and using sports media platforms to promote environmental messages to sports fans, holds the potential to influence the behavior of billions of people and a global supply chain that touches every industry.

Sports’ greening is bringing together nontraditional allies to tackle intractable ecological issues. And it offers teams, leagues and venues opportunities to save money, develop new sponsorships, and enhance their brand with fans, most of whom express a concern about environmental issues. According to a poll produced for the Green Sports Alliance, 80 percent of sports fans express concern for the environment, and 58 percent expect teams and leagues to be environmentally responsible.

Recently, at a Green Sports Alliance event at Yankee Stadium, which honored the Bronx Bombers for their environmental work, three professional sports league leaders made a rare joint appearance: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, MLS Commissioner Don Garber and former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig. They showed up to express their respective league’s commitment to environmental stewardship. And there is good reason for them to do so: The ecological problems we face are more urgent and frightening than ever. Decades of frustrating efforts urging the world’s major greenhouse gas polluters to significantly cut their emissions is failing, suggesting that our traditional approach to controlling climate-changing emissions may be fundamentally flawed. Indeed, scientists tell us that if we continue our current policies as they are, there is a high probability that global temperatures will eventually rise by at least six degrees, which would end human life on planet Earth.

Hershkowitz, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and former MLB Commissioner Bud Selig honor the Yankees, represented by team President Randy Levine, for their environmental work.
Photo by: MATT COHEN
Fortunately, the sports greening movement has grown beyond greening venue operations. Now it is influencing the global supply chain and educating millions of fans through game-day program eco-tips, public service announcements, TV commercials and digital and social media.

There is no law in North America requiring sports leagues, teams or venues carry out the good environmental work they are doing. And because there is no law, too many companies and most governments have not taken the significant steps needed to slow global warming. This is why the sports industry’s work to protect the environment is so important. And what the sports industry does is noticed, and it is noticed globally.

The growth of the Green Sports Alliance, a not-for-profit organization mobilizing the sports industry around the issue of environmental protection, reflects the growth of the sports greening movement its founders helped to cultivate and lead: In less than five years the GSA has emerged as the most influential environmental organization in the sports industry. GSA membership includes many hundreds of professional and collegiate teams and venues from 20 sports leagues across 14 countries. GSA members span the sports industry, from the Yankees to the Red Sox, from the Staples Center to the Barclays Center, from AEG to IMG, from the Super Bowl to the French Open, from the Winter Classic to the World Series, from the Euro Cup to NBA Green Week, surfers and sailors, snow sports athletes and Formula E owners, GSA members everywhere are incorporating ecologically intelligent practices into their operations.

North American league members of the Green Sports Alliance include MLB, MLS, Major League Lacrosse, NASCAR, the NHL, NBA, U.S. Tennis Association, Pac-12 Conference and NCAA. GSA affiliates have been established in Europe and Australia, working with UEFA, European Professional Club Rugby, the French Ministry of Sports, International Academy of Sport Science and Technology, Lord’s Cricket Ground and other sports federations. Plans are underway to create affiliates in the U.K., Brazil and elsewhere. GSA corporate members are similarly influential and diverse and include ESPN, AEG, UPS, IMG, BASF, Wells Fargo, Kimberly-Clark, Skanska, HOK, Aramark, NatureWorks, Legends, Delos, and many other companies prominent throughout the sports supply chain. As a result of the GSA’s collaboration with so many sports industry leaders, the Green Sports Alliance now advises more leagues, teams and venues than any organization in the world about the benefits of environmental stewardship, while reaching millions of fans about environmentally smarter behavior.

Each year the Green Sports Alliance convenes the GSA Summit, the world’s largest and most influential gathering for the sports community to unite around sustainability. This year the GSA Summit will take place this week in Chicago, including a reception at Soldier Field. Growing from its humble beginning less than five years ago, the GSA Summit will bring together almost 800 sports industry stakeholders to share information about ecologically better practices.

What kind of planet will we leave to our children and the thousands of generations to come after them? Fossil fuel use, industrial agriculture, deforestation, water scarcity, exponential population growth, ocean acidification, billions of tons of wastes produced every year — these are big issues. Are they resolvable? I don’t know. But I do know that we have to try to do something about them.

Few sectors can be as influential as the sports industry in leading the way towards ecological sustainability. Sports is arguably the most culturally unifying and visible sector in the world, with billions of fans and a market exceeding $1.3 trillion annually.

There is hope. The good news is that leaders throughout the sports industry, from commissioners on down, have reduced millions of pounds of carbon emissions, expanded food donations and composting, are incorporating ecologically healthy food menus, developed recycling programs, installed energy efficient technologies and use safer chemicals.

Can the sports industry save the planet on its own? No, it cannot. But the sports industry can move the market and shift cultural attitudes toward the more sustainable practices we urgently need to adopt if life on Earth is to continue. And the good news is that it is doing so.

Allen Hershkowitz, Ph.D. (allen@greensportsalliance.org), is president of the Green Sports Alliance.

As the Golden State Warriors lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy earlier this month, I remembered remarks made last year by the team’s president, Rick Welts. It was May 2014, when the Warriors had won the award for SportsBusiness Journal/Daily’s Sports Team of the Year — a full year before taking home the NBA’s hardware.

“There’s only one thing that I know for sure after 45 years in this business,” Welts told the crowd of more than 800 that night. “It’s only three things that give a franchise a chance to be successful. Ownership, ownership, and ownership! And the Warriors hit the Powerball of ownership with the group that we have.”

Welts was referring to his bosses, Joe Lacob and Peter Guber, who purchased the Warriors in 2010 for what was then a record NBA price of $450 million. That comment hit me when I thought how much the Warriors and NHL Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks are similar in their organizational mission and structure and how they represent the model for today’s successful sports franchise.

Winning ways: Warriors owners Lacob and Guber with Welts (top); Blackhawks President/CEO McDonough
Photos by: GETTY IMAGES
Both ownership groups have been willing to take bold chances and rely on experienced and successful leaders in Welts and John McDonough, two of the top executives in sports, to develop a vision and implement a strategy. The vision is for a collaborative operation that aligns values and promotes respect for both the business and personnel side — a rarity in team sports. The strategy is for the organization to work together — from ticketing and sponsorship, to player personnel and coaching. The teams have a clear reporting structure and there are no silos
or agendas; all units are expected to work together and understand each other. Many organizations claim to be collaborative; very few truly are — we’ve all heard the stories of dysfunction. But the success of these two organizations offer a blueprint for future franchises.

Here’s what stands out to me with the Warriors and the Blackhawks.

Neither organization has been afraid to change direction or take risks. Remember, it hasn’t always been golden for the Warriors ownership. Lacob was booed off the home court after trading Monta Ellis, and the Warriors faced a PR mess after they surprisingly fired successful coach Mark Jackson and were hammered by Bay Area and basketball media.

But that hasn’t lowered their risk tolerance. Look at the hiring of rookie head coach Steve Kerr after Jackson didn’t “fit” into the organizational structure after his three years. Even before taking a gamble on Kerr, ownership was unafraid in 2011 to take a chance on a rookie personnel executive, bringing in Bob Myers, at that time a 36-year-old agent at Wasserman Media Group, to lead their basketball operation. They think big as it relates to major decisions, which are rooted in fostering an open, collaborative culture across departments. I asked Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins what stood out to him after the Warriors’ success this season, and he specifically noted Lacob, Guber, Welts and Kerr. “All of these men are great communicators. They understand and execute upon the concepts of teamwork, selflessness, and excellence,” he said.

When I looked at the Warriors during the playoffs, I saw Welts’ handiwork, especially in how Kerr, who worked with Welts in Phoenix, fits with his collaborative style. The son of an academic, Kerr is known for his intellect. When you add that intellect to his diverse background — player with five rings, television broadcaster, general manager, and now coach — you see he understands the art to and benefit of communication. Don’t think a coach fitting in with the rest of the organization is vitally important to success? Well, just look at the scorched earth in the wake of Tom Thibodeau’s ugly departure from the Chicago Bulls to understand how that relationship can set the tone for an entire organization and make or break success.

For the Blackhawks, the timing of Rocky Wirtz taking over ownership in 2007 was perfect. He showed an instant willingness to think big in shifting dramatically from the short-sighted vision of his father’s tenure while hiring McDonough from the Cubs and insisting on a culture change.

McDonough told me recently that when Rocky and he met in 2007 to talk about the team’s structure, “there was a common thread that there had to be collaboration, there could only be one language spoken and there couldn’t be an artificial hierarchy. The business side had to be on equal footage.”

McDonough needed his personnel side to respect, understand and work with the business side.

“From a revenue standpoint, they bring so much to the game, they have to be on an equal playing field,” McDonough said. “Your general manager and VP of business operations or your director of ticket operations and your assistant general manager all have to be in the same meetings. I need our general manager or our assistant general manager or hockey operations people to understand what a television rating point is, or understand why ticket prices are being raised, or why we have a 12-month marketing cycle. We have to build a culture of trust so our hockey operations can impart to our business people about trades that are about to be made or players we are going to be drafting — and trust that the information is not going out anywhere else.”

Culture change isn’t easy, but McDonough understands it’s about the right people, and he was helped by his longtime colleague, Jay Blunk, one of the most respected team executives in sports, who helped implement the vision.

“People always talk about changing the culture. It’s a business buzzword that sounds good: ‘We’re going to change the culture.’ But in order to change the culture you need to do some seismic things. You need to really, really understand what that means: Everybody’s on the same page, everybody’s going in the same direction. And if they’re not, you have some difficult decisions that you have to make. There has to be mutual respect.”

Success has enabled Welts and McDonough to implement their vision across departments, as staff has clearly bought in. “Rick and John really care about their people, and it shows. Their staffs always go that extra mile,” longtime sports executive Bernie Mullin told me last week.

Mullin, no stranger to challenging team operations, marveled at the way the two organizations have broken down long-standing, traditional walls, where the two sides rarely interact or there’s downright animosity.

“Ownership has given these teams the resources to succeed and ensure that they ‘win as one’ with the team side and the business side working together to maximize synergy,” he said. “That is clearly not the case at many clubs, where the team side gives the business side the Heisman [stiff-arm].”

“It has to come through ownership,” McDonough said. “A lot of teams say, ‘Our baseball people or football people would never ever interact.’ Well, our culture is the opposite.”

Winning cures all. I get it.

But it’s more than the wins. The Blackhawks and Warriors are routinely cited to me as progressive leaders driving best practices across sports in areas such as ticketing, sponsorships, and social and digital content.

In a day where leaders spend so much time on culture, accountability, transparency and collaboration, it’s good to see examples of where it leads to an organization’s success — and championship rings.

Their system works. The question remains whether more organizations have the ownership support and internal fortitude to follow the script.

Abraham D. Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.