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The Green Sports Alliance Summit

By Zach Bigalke

I returned from Portland last night after three days spent at the inaugural Green Sports Alliance Summit, and the confluence of so many influential people and teams and businesses and the steps they’ve taken toward sustainable sport have my head swimming with a wealth of inspiring things to write about. I need to sort out everything and get my initial thoughts down before going any further into any specific story of the weekend.

So in this week’s edition of A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America, we’re going to break down my initial thoughts on the Green Sports Alliance Summit and the knowledge that was shared across teams and leagues while there. The work being done at stadiums around the country and the world, in professional leagues and at showcase events, is something that has been slowly awakening the consciousness of sports fans to the very real need to think proactively in dealing with all sorts of the problems facing our world today. Let’s dive right in with a little reflection on the main themes of the conference.

First and foremost, you are probably asking yourself, “What is the Green Sports Alliance?”

Founded by six teams across six sports leagues, five venues and ten supporting partners just six months ago, the Green Sports Alliance is an entirely new way of dealing with the environmental impact of sports. It is a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering franchises, leagues and the fans that love and support them in the quest toward making sports a sustainable entity that can serve as a catalyst for a greater understanding of the challenges facing not just athletes and the games they play but our greater society worldwide.

One of the most exciting parts of the summit was seeing just how quickly the organization has ballooned. As executive director Martin Tull said in his opening remarks on Monday night, the Alliance has grown in just those six short months to encompass 45 teams. The National Lacrosse League and the first PGA tournament (the Boeing Classic at TPC Snoqualmie Ridge in Washington) had also joined the effort within days of the summit’s opening night.

Over 90 organizations in total, between teams and leagues and other consultants and associated businesses, were represented among the attendees. For the first time in history a truly collaborative effort had been made across the sports spectrum as everyone came together to share experiential evidence that making sports more green is smart practice both environmentally and economically.

Why is this important… and why should the sports fan care?

The importance of such collaboration is that, as each new team joins in the mission, it becomes easier and easier to translate successful efforts and replicate them. As more of the entities that comprise the tapestry that control the operation of our favorite sports learn the value of making decisions that have positive impacts environmentally, they reap benefits ranging from greater operational efficiency to savings on their expenses to a positive public-relations story that only serves to stimulate further action among more teams.

And why should the sports fan care about such action? Think about it… if a team is able to save hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of dollars a year in operational costs just by making sounder environmental decisions that reduce its footprint on the earth, it could be the difference between red and black on the balance sheet. In a year where two of the largest sports leagues claimed the need for a greater portion of their respective revenue pies and locked out the players because of it, it seems foolish to pass up the opportunity to save money that could help teams in markets both large and small stay solvent and healthy…

Therein lies the rub. The assembled gathering went through two days of panel discussions that dealt with a variety of topics ranging from the way stadiums receive their energy to the approach teams take to waste management and their concessionaires.

Justin Zeulner, the director of sustainability and planning for the Portland Trail Blazers and the Rose Quarter where their arena is located, broke down the costs that went into getting the Rose Garden certified as the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold-awarded sports arena in the world… and illuminated the savings that such improvements bring over a year of an arena’s operation. (Teaser for a future article: it saved the team almost three-quarters of a million dollars in energy, water and waste removal expenses annually.)

Darryl Benge, the assistant general manager of CenturyLink Field (formerly Qwest Field) facility management company First and Goal Inc., outlined the work that has been done to install a solar array atop the stadium’s adjacent events center. Illustrating the viability of solar-energy collection even in a seemingly cloudy locale like Seattle, Benge told not only of the ultimate success but also about the roadblocks that are inevitable along the way toward realizing such an ambitious project.

Ann Duffy, the sustainability officer for the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics, helped showcase the unique challenges inherent in creating a program that allowed Canada to host the first sustainable Olympiad. As both a panel member and a moderator Duffy showed how an international event can lay out a framework for environmentally-sustainable convergences of large populaces on an area as well as how that event can be structured to provide a positive and lasting legacy for the community which hosts it.

There were former athletes who have expanded out to take an active role at the front lines of the fight. There was Jill Savery, a member of the 1996 Olympic synchronized swimming gold medalists, in her new role as a sustainable sport consultant currently working with the London 2012 games in collaboration with Duffy’s group. Mike Richter, the winning goalie of the 1994 Stanley Cup with the New York Rangers, was in attendance as a board member for several environmental NGOs and a consultant for the Natural Resources Defense Councils. Former Phoenix Sun and current mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson, was there to give one of the opening remarks of the summit.

What the conference proved, more than anything, is that there is indeed a desire and a willingness among those involved with sport to improve their impact on the greater society and environment.

Alan Hershkowitz, senior scientist at the NRDC and one of the godfathers of the green movement, might have provided the surest evidence we need that sports can and indeed do need to serve as the leader in educating and providing the roadmap to a more sustainable society as he moderated the keynote panel on opening night. In his introduction, he cited a study that showed that only 18% of Americans regularly follow news of scientific advancements… while fully 56% of us follow sports in one form or another religiously.

Charles Barkley once famously said that he isn’t a role model and received a lot of negative publicity for what was a genuine statement. This was articulated by Richter on the final day, who with his unique take on celebrity in a pressure-cooker atmosphere was articulate as he noted how there are pitfalls and potential hypocrisy awaiting the athlete who isn’t judicious in carrying his message forward. Using as an example the backlash that would come if Tiger Woods were to speak out against fuel inefficiency while simultaneously shilling for Buick, he demonstrated clearly and simply how an athlete can alienate both his endorsements and his fanbase with a message that is something less than sincere.

But what the conference proved was that sports fans don’t need to look toward the athletes themselves as role models. The people who actually play the games come and go, but the franchise remains a bedrock of the community long after a favorite player retires. And as more of these franchises and leagues and the stadiums that house their games awaken to the fiscal and environmental rewards of implementing sustainability initiatives as a core of their mission as businesses, they will serve as the true role models for both the individuals that root for them rabidly as well as the businesses in the surrounding community…

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