In 2004, Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, then a senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), received a call from the owners of the Philadelphia Eagles. “They asked if I would be willing to help them reduce the carbon emissions at their new stadium, Lincoln Financial Field,” he says. Hershkowitz, who knew nothing about stadium operations, almost let the offer pass; but a few facts in the stadium owners’ presentation caught his attention. Much of his focus as a scientist with the NRDC centered on industrial ecology—the study of consumer products and their environmental impacts as they move from production to consumption. He was a national expert on consumer waste, especially paper products.

“The paper industry is the third largest industrial generator of global warming pollution, and I figured if we’re going to reduce their carbon emissions, we needed to deal with the products they use,” Hershkowitz says. Research revealed that the paper used in the Eagles stadium actually (and quite unbelievably) came from an eagle habitat. “They were using a paper company that was wiping out eagle habitats to supply bathroom tissue,” he says. “We all saw that as a branding liability.”

Hershkowitz spearheaded a successful greening program for the Eagles, thinking it would be a one-off project for him and the NRDC, but looking back a decade later, he sees it as a lesson in “how small things can lead to big changes.” Today, Hershkowitz is the president of the Green Sports Alliance, a global non-profit organization that promotes environmental stewardship through professional sports. Teams from around the world have flocked to join the organization since its founding in 2009 by the NRDC and Vulcan Corp. (it launched publicly with six teams in March 2011). What started with six teams in six leagues has ballooned to 300 teams from 20 leagues in 14 countries.


“The premise of this is simple,” says Hershkowitz, “the single most important thing that we can do to advance environmental stewardship is to change cultural attitudes and expectations about how we relate to the Earth.” The mission of the Green Sports Alliance is to “leverage the cultural and market influence of sports to promote healthy, sustainable communities.” What better platform is there to advance the environmental movement than the enormous, enthusiastic, and apolitical community surrounding the local sports team?

“13% of Americans follow science, 71% follow sports,” says Hershkowitz, “if you want to reach the masses, you have to tap into trusted networks, [like] the family, the church…or, a sporting event where people go, and if they see solar panels or a compost bin, they’re getting an environmental message in a politically safe, non-controversial way.”


While Hershkowitz was lighting the fire on the East Coast, similar events were transpiring out West. Paul G. Allen— the co-founder of Microsoft and owner of the Portland Trail Blazers (NBA), Seattle Seahawks (NFL), and the Seattle Sounders (MLS)—and his philanthropic foundation had been working to green their teams since the early 2000s. “We were looking at [our sports teams] in terms of what could be done about not only their own environmental footprint, but what could be done to inspire the communities where we live, work, and play,” says Justin Zeulner, formerly of Vulcan Philanthropy and the Trail Blazers and now the chief operating officer for the Green Sports Alliance, who spearheaded an energy efficiency retrofit of the Trail Blazers’ arena that reduced their consumption by 35%, the equivalent of 3 million kilowatt hours per year.

In 2009, Allen’s group contacted Hershkowitz about starting a coalition of green sports teams in the Pacific Northwest. He agreed, and the Vancouver Canucks (NHL), Seattle Storm (WNBA), and the Seattle Mariners (MLB) were brought into the fold. The Green Sports Alliance was born, and the idea spread like wildfire throughout the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

This cool, cloud-shrouded part of the country has long been a hotbed for environmental awareness, but in the sports world, few teams have carried the torch like the Mariners. In 2012, gb&d told the story of Safeco Field where the Mariners play—a sports venue that has attacked the goal of zero waste with an unparalleled passion. When they first started keeping track in 2005, their waste diversion rate was about 12%. Between 2009 and 2010, when they affirmed their sustainability commitment by joining the Green Sports Alliance, the rate jumped from 38% to 70%. In the last two years, it has topped 90%, and in the 2015 season it is expected edge incredibly close to the 100% goal.

Two young fans share in the sustainability efforts of the Seattle Mariners by using one the many recycling containers on the stadium’s concourse.

Two young fans share in the sustainability efforts of the Seattle Mariners by using one the many recycling containers on the stadium’s concourse.

“We work very closely with our concessions provider, Centerplate, to increase recycling,” says Rebecca Hale, director of public information for the Mariners, “which also saves us money by reducing the tonnage we send to the landfill.” In 2013 alone, they diverted more than 3 million pounds of waste from the landfill, saving $114,000 in waste disposal costs. Since 2006, the Mariners have reduced their use of natural gas by 40%, electricity by 25%, and water use by 25%, saving an additional $1.75 million. An ongoing fan engagement initiative has resulted in new tactics each year to get the community involved, from a trivia game/scavenger hunt on “Sustainable Saturdays” to a video display in the stadium where fans can track the output of the facility’s photovoltaic array. Two green-themed mascots have also been developed, Captain Plastic and Kid Compost, who pop up on game days to engage children with the waste diversion program.

“We continued to peck away at our use of electricity, water, and other utilities,” Hale says. 50% of energy use at the Mariners’ spring training facility in Peoria, Arizona now comes from solar panels, but during the recent off-season, the team took an additional, some might say daring, step. All of the metal halide field lights back home were removed and replaced with LEDs, making Safeco Field the first MLB venue to illuminate its playing field with energy efficient technology. The switch will net a 60% energy savings, but Hale notes that the new fixtures also have a 30-year lifespan versus only 3 to 5 years for the old halide fixtures.

“We don’t really think about it that much anymore,” says Hale of the Mariners’ focus on sustainability, “it’s become part of our DNA that this is what we do here. We don’t have to stop and think about whether something will keep with [those] goals…that way of thinking overrides most of our decision-making process when it comes to operations.”


Much of the Green Sports Alliance’s work focuses on stadium and arena operations; they are massive consumers, so even incremental improvements in efficiency and recycling have tremendous impacts. But around the world, the newest generation of stadiums and arenas are building these ideas into the fabric of the structures themselves.

Target Field, home of the Minnesota Twins, was one of the first large sports facilities in the country to be LEED certified, initially with a LEED-NC Silver certification after it opened in 2010, followed by a 2011 certification under the LEED Operations and Maintenance category for existing buildings. Since then, they’ve continued to raise the bar with further efficiency retrofits and an aggressive waste reduction campaign. Dave Horsman, senior director of ballpark operations at Target Field, says the waste diversion rate for the stadium is now up to 75.6%, but insists that the Twins aren’t interested in tooting their own horn about sustainability—they’d rather just walk the walk.

Target Field, one of the first large sports facilities in the country to be LEED certified, continues to weave sustainable practices into its operations.

Target Field, one of the first large sports facilities in the country to be LEED certified, continues to weave sustainable practices into its operations.

“For us, it’s more about the meaningful improvements than it is about telling the story,” he says. “We approach our environmental initiatives simply from the standpoint of being effective.” However, the word is certainly getting around. Last summer the Twins hosted the MLB All-Star Game, which by all accounts was the greenest ever. The Twins supplied a “green team” at related events, which took place all over downtown Minneapolis. All events were planned to be within walking distance from one another in an effort to reduce the use of motorized transportation. “We actually drew a green path on the sidewalk between all of the event locations,” says Horsman of their way-finding program. Talk about telling a story without saying anything.

This spring will see the grand opening of the newest environmentally minded sports facility in the country: Avaya Stadium, home of the San Jose Earthquakes (MLS) and a major victory for soccer fans in the Silicon Valley area. Earthquakes president Dave Kaval says the Avaya Stadium is expected to achieve LEED Silver. “We have a building that can really represent the Valley and the values of this area—that’s where sustainability comes in,” he says. Those values are well-embodied by the 325-kilowat photovoltaic array that doubles as a shade structure over a portion of the parking lot, the bio-swales that manage runoff, toilets and irrigation pipes that are plumbed to make use of recycled water, and a waste diversion program that permeates the facility. A bit of the region’s history is literally embodied in the stadium in the form of redwood lumber that was reclaimed from the iconic Moffett airship hangar that was recently renovated in nearby Mountain View.

Various Avaya stadium structures, like this concessions stand, embody the region’s past in the form of reclaimed redwood lumber from the nearby iconic Moffett airship hangar.

Various Avaya stadium structures, like this concessions stand, embody the region’s past in the form of reclaimed redwood lumber from the nearby iconic Moffett airship hangar.

A bit further down the North American stadium and arena pipeline is Rogers Place, the future home of the Edmonton Oilers (NHL). Set to open in time for the 2016 hockey season, Rogers Place is designed to be the first LEED Silver NHL facility in Canada, featuring a state-of-the-art heat recovery ventilation system, water-conserving features that will drive water use down 35% compared to the baseline, and an agreement with the contractor that has diverted 93% of construction waste from the local landfill so far. But one of the biggest areas of emphasis in the design of Rogers Place is how it fits into the city fabric around it— the arena will be the anchor for an emerging 25-acre live/work/ play redevelopment project underway in the heart of the city, which is a big component of the city’s push to improve urban walkability and cut down on traffic congestion and the pollution that stems from it.

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“We’re excited about energy and environmental literacy among our fans,” says Tim Shipton, vice president of communications for the Oilers Entertainment Group. “Northern Alberta is a very beautiful part of Canada, and people here have a strong connection with the land…so we’re sensitive to the fact that we need to be responsible.” As a sport that can only be played on ice, the hockey community has stepped up as a voice against global warming within the sports industry. Star hockey player Andrew Ference, who created an NHL program where players buy carbon offset credits to counteract the negative environmental impacts of professional sports, was signed by the Oilers in 2013 and is now team captain, bringing the sustainability conversation into the Oilers’ locker room, as well.

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Rogers Place, the future home of the Edmonton Oilers (NHL), will feature a state-of-the-art heat recovery ventilation system and water-conserving features that will drive water use down 35% compared to the baseline.


Even as the next generation of arenas starts to showcase the potential for integrated sustainable design, hundreds of other facilities in the Green Sports Alliance network are making small, but impactful changes to improve the environmental performance of existing facilities. The KFC Yum! Center in Louisville, Kentucky—a 22,000 seat multi-use venue that is home to the University of Louisville Cardinals (NCAA) and more than 100 entertainment events each year— has taken a “slow and steady wins the race” approach to integrating sustainability practices.

The KFC Yum! Center was built in 2010, but until a couple of years ago, not much was happening on the sustainability front, even with regards to simple things like recycling. That all changed when Sean Langer came on board as the director of operations. “When I first came here I was asked to look into our sustainability efforts,” he says. “And I was asked to do it without having an impact on the operating budget.”

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So Langer set out to see what operational changes could be made without much up-front capital and that would also save money in the long term in order to eventually invest in other sustainability improvements. He started with waste diversion, reconfiguring the venue to better separate the waste stream, and adding a composting component. eTemp, a low-cost device to cut down on the energy draw of refrigeration equipment, has been installed in the venue’s coolers and freezers. A similar smart device known as BERT is also being installed on electrical outlets throughout the facility—these WiFi-controlled devices turn off the circuit when it is not needed according to a schedule devised by Langer and his team. Langer also changed out all 120 of the men’s urinals in the facility, not with waterless urinals, but with a one-flush-a-day model that has reduced water use for flushing from 1 million gallons per year to just 23,000 gallons per year.

One truly innovative technology employed at the KFC Yum! Center is a system that converts tap water into a green cleaning product simply with the addition of salt and an electrical current. Based on the technology of water softening devices, the proprietary equipment produced by PathoSans represents a revolution in the green cleaning industry—large venues now have the ability to produce their own non-toxic cleaning supplies, meaning the manufacturing and transportation components are erased from the product lifecycle. “My housecleaning manager came to me and said, ‘not only does this stuff work better than any chemicals we’ve ever used, but it’s so easy for everybody’,” Langer says. “As far as cost-effectiveness, the amount of money that I was spending on a monthly basis to buy all the chemicals and the mixing stations was a wash—now the system is almost paid for, so that money I was spending comes back to us.”


Set to open in 2017, the Atlanta Falcons (NFL) new $1.4 billion, 75,000-seat stadium might be the most seismic development to date in the emerging field of green sports facilities. It is designed as an icon, with an eight-paneled retractable roof that will open like an origami flower when the sun shines and close again in just six minutes if inclement weather threatens. The lightweight fabric roof panels will be made with a translucent material to let in ambient light when closed; a similar material is planned for much of the stadium’s exterior, creating a combination of temperature control and natural lighting that is rarely achieved on buildings of this scale. From waste to water to energy, the new stadium will hit high marks on virtually every sustainability checklist and will even have its own community garden on the grounds. As designed, the new Falcons stadium could be the world’s first LEED Platinum sports facility.

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The eight-paneled retractable roof of the new Atlanta stadium, set to open in 2017, will unfold like an origami flower when the sun shines.

The level of impact of the project is in no small part a result of the efforts of its general manager, Scott Jenkins. Jenkins is the current chairman of the Green Sports Alliance, the man who started the sustainability program for the Seattle Mariners in 2006, and the operations manager that welcomed Allen Hershkowitz to Philadelphia in 2004. Hershkowitz recalls their first meeting fondly: “I was afraid to meet him and he was afraid to meet me—I was like, ‘Oh God, how do I talk to a stadium operator’, and he was like, ‘Oh God, how do I talk to an environmental scientist’,” he recalls. “But we became best buddies.” It was in that meeting that the green sports movement truly ignited.

“Every sports team is part of the cultural fabric of its community,” says Jenkins, “so we have a social responsibility that teams activate in a number of ways—it hasn’t traditionally been around climate and the environment, but it has been around education, around health, around the community. It’s hard not to make the connection [with sustainability] once you sit back and think about it. It’s new, but it’s obvious and that was the ‘aha’ that we had — ‘boy, why aren’t we doing this’? We ought to be doing this.”

Three-hundred teams and 20 leagues later, it looks as if the rest of the sports world is also making the connection. Sports teams are a titanic force that bring communities together in an inclusive, celebratory spirit. What a wonderful resource of energy to direct toward caring for the Earth, the one team that every fan can root for.