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baseball field with reddish hazy sky caused by wildfire smoke.
Several sports events have been disrupted by extreme weather events, such as wildfires in 2020. AP Photo/Tony Avelar

Do sports teams’ sustainability efforts matter to fans?

While the sport sector’s environmental impact is not fully understood, it has a social platform and reach to influence a significant number of people worldwide to choose more sustainable behaviors. Brian McCullough, associate professor of sport management at Texas A&M University, says that sport organizations should be proactive in becoming more sustainable to increase business performance, deepen connections with fans and attract new ones.

Do fans care about sports teams’ sustainability efforts?

How are sports being affected by climate change? And how might they be affected in the future?

To use a sports analogy, there will be winners and losers as a result of climate change. Certain sports, like outdoor winter sports and even surfing, are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. For example, decreased winter months will make it more challenging to host the Winter Olympics due to fewer eligible cities; changes in ocean tides, and thus waves, could impact surfing competitions and force them to relocate.

Increased rainfall and subsequent flooding has already impacted cricket in England and India. Meanwhile, the intense wildfires and subsequent air quality impacted the Australian Open in January 2020 and resulted in the cancellation of baseball games in Seattle. The examples extend to the increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes in the Gulf and Eastern Seaboard. This trend of event disruption is expected to continue.

Kyle Lewis prepares to throw the ball back to the infield after making a catch as the air is filled with wildfire smoke during the first baseball game of a doubleheader against the Oakland Athletics, Monday, Sept. 14, 2020, in Seattle.
The Seattle Mariners played against the Oakland Athletics in a wildfire smoke-filled stadium in Seattle on Sept. 14, 2020. Ted S. Warren / AP Photo

Granted, sports being canceled during these natural disasters is a small consequence to ensure the safety of human life, but it does impact the business of sport and has tremendous financial consequences. After Hurricane Harvey, the Houston sports market was displaced, and teams had to play extended road games because it was not feasible to host games or have fans safely travel to the stadiums.

Lastly, sport stadiums in some coastal cities, such as Miami or New York, are threatened by rising ocean sea levels. Thus, urban planners and sport teams need to seriously consider the likelihood of their sport facilities flooding.

These examples, among many others, show that the business of sport is threatened. They also demonstrate how weather events can impact the ways in which we participate in sports and recreation. Extreme heat will require sport participants to be cognizant of when and to what extent they exercise outdoors. Anglers and hunters will have to adapt to changes in migration or populations of their desired game. All this is to say that sport, whether as spectators or participants, may be vulnerable to the effects of climate change and should be ready to respond and adapt to these changes.

What have you found in your research around sports and the environment?

What I have found in my research is that sport organizations often miss certain aspects in their environmental impact assessments. These organizations typically have a narrow view focused on the facility or event itself. This limited focus overlooks externalities which have a sizable environmental impact such as the carbon-producing transportation of teams and fans, food consumption and waste production.

My research colleagues and I have also found that sport practitioners can be constrained within their organizations to engage in environmental initiatives. This can be because of a lack of support from upper management and ownership and uncertainty on how their fans will respond, among other perceived constraints.

We found that fans are receptive to these initiatives and will even partake in the efforts to reduce the events’ and their individual environmental footprints when attending sporting events. We designed campaigns with sporting events and evaluated the successes of these campaigns. We found that targeted environmental sustainability campaigns can educate sport spectators and participants to increase the use of mass transit, increase waste recovery and purchase carbon offsets to mitigate personal impacts when attending a sporting event.

Pre- and post-event surveys helped design and assess the social and financial returns on investment of the campaigns. Not only are there behavioral changes at the event; I found that sport fans change their everyday behaviors and even advocate for sustainable policy changes in their local communities to mimic what they experienced at certain sporting events.

Teams can benefit financially from these types of investments, I found. Sport events that feature environmental initiatives will deepen their connections among certain segments of fans. This is true for both politically conservative and liberal fans and old or young fans. This speaks to the universality of sport through the collective identity of being a sport fan of a specific team. This social identity can be leveraged by teams to promote social norms and influence fans to change their behaviors, whether that be in Washington or Louisiana. Additionally, corporate sponsors that support these initiatives also see increased brand perceptions and intentions to purchase their products or services.

What can be done by sporting bodies and teams to make their operations more sustainable?

Sport governing bodies and teams should first assess their environmental impacts and then take small steps to realize the financial and social returns on their efforts.

The Seattle Mariners conducted energy audits and facility upgrades and realized substantial energy and cost savings. The Ohio State University Athletics Department implemented comprehensive waste management that not only works closely in the stadium but in the surrounding community to achieve zero waste in Ohio Stadium. Other organizations like the Philadelphia Eagles and Seattle Sounders offset their teams’ carbon emission through carbon offsetting programs including facility operations, team travel and fan travel.

Sport organizations and facilities are using renewable energy by featuring solar panels like at Levi Stadium, home of the San Francisco 49ers. The Johan Cruijff Arena, home to the AFC Ajax, in Amsterdam features battery arrays that can store enough energy to meet the demands of the entire event.

Other notable organizations are the Seattle Kraken, the new NHL expansion team, and the Forrest Green Rovers, a soccer club in England. The Seattle Kraken organization has leveraged its arena naming rights with Amazon to focus on environmental sustainability by naming the facility Climate Pledge Arena.

A 3d render of the proposed new stadium of Forrest Green Rovers FC
A 3D render of the proposed new stadium of Forrest Green Rovers FC made entirely out of fire-retardant wood. Zaha Hadid Architects

The Forrest Green Rovers have designed and will build a stadium completely made out of sustainably sourced wood. Currently, the team’s facilities are powered completely by renewable energy, and their concessionaires feature only plant-based food items, dramatically decreasing the environmental impact of the organization. Environmental sustainability should be viewed as innovation. This is an innovative journey and not simply a destination.

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