Earth Day special: How sustainable is the NFL?

Happy Earth Day 2021, everyone. Today is the day set aside in the calendar for political and environmental leaders to come together and discuss – through a variety of physical and virtual summits, workshops and meetings – ways to protect and preserve our planet.

“But what’s environmental sustainability got to do with the NFL?”, I hear you ask… and it’s a fair question.

Well, the fact that professional sports is mega-business is not news to anyone. Many of the world’s biggest franchises, from Manchester to New York, are global brands worth billions of dollars, with millions upon millions of fans worldwide. But they aren’t just merchandise-selling, money-making machines. Many are also trying to do right by doing good – operating more sustainably by reducing carbon emissions, combatting food waste, improving recycling, saving energy, reusing rainwater and much, much more.

Can a Super Bowl be a ‘green’ event?

In short: yes, it can…

The National Football League was one of the first major sports leagues to adopt a green initiative in the 1990s. NFL Green works to mitigate the environmental impact of its major events and create a legacy in each community that holds a Super Bowl, Pro Bowl or NFL Draft. Working in partnership with sponsors, local host committees, government agencies and non-profit organisations, as well as volunteers and local residents, the initiatives focus on:

  • recycling and keeping waste out of landfill
  • distributing leftover food to soup kitchens, shelters and food banks
  • donating building materials, fabrics, office supplies and other reusable items to local non-profit organisations
  • collecting donated sports equipment and books for local schools and youth groups
  • planting trees and landscaping.
Verizon

NFL Green projects make a difference in each location long after the big game is over. The NFL’s first environmental initiative at a major event took place at Super Bowl XXVIII in 1994 in Atlanta, with a small pilot recycling programme. Since then, the league has recovered surplus food and event materials, used renewable energy and held public e-waste recycling events through electronics partner Verizon. The Super Bowl is now widely regarded as one of the greenest professional sports events in the United States.

In recent years, the NFL has championed renewable energy, teaming up with the Environmental Protection Agency, Natural Resources Defense Council and other organisations to monitor its initiatives, and joined the Green Sports Alliance. In 2018, the league launched the Rush2Recycle project at Super Bowl LII in Minnesota, successfully meeting its target to recover 90% of the waste created at the event by reusing, composting or recycling 63 tons of trash. And most recently, for Super Bowl LV in Tampa Bay, the host committee’s sustainability programme included a partnership with Force Blue to restore coal reefs off the Florida coast.

Force Blue

How green is your team?

On the face of it, NFL arenas don’t sound that sustainable. On a game day, teams and fans use vast amounts of energy, consume tons of food and beverages, and rely on a mountain of plastic and paper products that use up natural resources and create waste. There are restaurants, stores, big screens and sound systems that require a lot of electricity, while all those kitchens, taps and toilets must rack up a hefty water bill. But all that can be reduced, recycled or avoided with a bit of effort, creativity and some initial capital outlay.

For a long time now, the Philadelphia Eagles have been regarded as the greenest NFL team, and not just because of the colour of their jerseys. In 2003, owner Jeffrey Lurie instigated a Go Green sustainability programme, setting the lead for other franchises to follow. At the time, the SportsBusiness Journal called it “the most comprehensive greening effort of any major sports team”.

Since launching the initiative, the organisation has recycled thousands of tons of waste and created Eagles Forest in a nearby state park, funding the planting of thousands of trees and shrubs. The cups, straws and plates in the stadium are made from biodegradable corn-based materials, and all toilet paper, tissues and hand towels are 100% recycled. The team has also composted more than 44 tons of organic waste and an impressive 99% of its waste ends up in landfill.

“We’ve read a lot that excellent environmental practices are too expensive or not wise for a company. We challenged that.”
Jeffrey Lurie, owner, Philadelphia Eagles

National Geographic

But the big move came in November 2010, when the Eagles announced a plan to power Lincoln Financial Field on renewable energy alone. Thanks to solar panels in the car park, some funky vertical wind turbines on the stands and a generator that runs on natural gas and biodiesel (some of which is made from reprocessed oils from its kitchens), the LEED-certified stadium (the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is the world’s leading rating system for green buildings) generates six times the power it needs for its home games each year. This sector-leading project not only the use of eliminated fossil fuels but is expected to save the franchise $60 million over the first 20 years. Going green is good for the environment and good for the bottom line too.

“We think it’s smart business and the right thing to do.”
Roger Goodell, Commissioner, NFL

Gang Green also live up to their name in more ways than one. The New York Jets (and the Giants, their fellow tenants at MetLife Stadium) agreed a unique partnership with the Environmental Protection Agency when it opened a decade ago, to combat air pollution, conserve energy and water, and improve waste management during construction as well as use.

The arena contains 40,000 tons of recycled steel, the seating was constructed from recycled plastic and scrap metal, and 83% of the construction waste was recycled. In addition, 92% of the materials from the demolished Giants Stadium were reused in the build. Low-flow toilets, showers and taps, as well as synthetic turf on the field (no need for irrigation), are all part of the comprehensive water-saving strategy. Despite being twice as large as the venue it replaced in 2010, MetLife uses 25% less water and 30% less energy, thanks to LED lighting powered by a ring of 1,350 solar panels.

While the Eagles have set the pace, the Atlanta Falcons‘ Mercedes-Benz Stadium is definitely one of the NFL’s most impressive facilities these days. In 2017, the venue for Super Bowl LIII became the first pro-sports stadium in the United States to reach LEED Platinum, the highest level achievable. Its retractable roof, use of natural light, LED lighting, and efficient heating and cooling systems mean the stadium consumes almost 30% less power than the average arena, while 4,000 solar panels can generate enough power for all its NFL games each year.

Rich Graessle – Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But its most innovative feature is its rainwater collection system. Atlanta’s notoriously high rainfall prompted the designers to build leading-edge water management into their concept. It can collect more than 2 million gallons of rainwater each year, which not only helps to address a major flooding issue in the neighbourhood, but also provides the water needed for the stadium’s cooling system and for irrigating the playing field.

Situated in Inglewood, California, an area of water scarcity, it’s no surprise that SoFi Stadium, the new home of the LA Rams and LA Chargers, also has water stewardship at the heart of its sustainability efforts. A partnership with the local municipal water authority will bring in 26 million gallons of recycled water every year for maintaining Lake Park, which surrounds the stadium, as well as other irrigation, rather than using drinkable freshwater. SoFi is also one of several venues partnering with metal packaging company Ball to replace single-use plastic cups with infinitely recyclable aluminium alternatives. Tested at Super Bowl LIV in Miami, the cups have also been introduced at the Las Vegas Raiders’ new Allegiant Stadium.

Meanwhile, upstate in Santa Clara, the San Francisco 49ers‘ Levi’s Stadium has a solar terrace that also features a ‘living roof’, covered with 16 species of plants native to the area. As well as providing a more natural aesthetic, the green roof provides additional insulation and helps to limit water run-off. Other teams pursuing similarly eco-friendly strategies with a twist include the Detroit Lions, whose Ford Field playing surface has been made using approximately 25,000 recycled tyres, and the Washington Football Team, whose renewable energy system at FedEx Field features a 30-foot quarterback-shaped solar panel dubbed the ‘Solar Man’.

Architizer

Before I move on, it would be remiss of me not to mention Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, which hosted its first International Series game in 2019. Voted the Premier League’s greenest club in 2020, the venue ticks all the boxes with regards to energy and water use, resource efficiency, food waste and recycling.

Can fan engagement drive behaviour change?  

Such efforts will undoubtedly bring operational efficiencies and financial benefits to the organisations themselves, but can the NFL’s 32 teams have a broader impact on society? Each one has a sizeable cultural influence on its fanbase, and there’s ample opportunity to convey environmentally responsible messages to supporters on site or watching on TV.

Admittedly, fans don’t want to be lectured about environmental stewardship; they’re watching the game for enjoyment after all, so striking the right balance is key. Nonetheless, with an estimated global fan base of 400 million, the potential to drive positive behaviour change on an international scale is huge. The sheer number of people who could be exposed to a ‘green’ message via a team or an event is staggering (February’s Super Bowl in Tampa was watched by more than 96 million people). Obviously, being exposed to the message is one thing and taking the necessary action is quite another but still, teams have to start by getting the word out there in the first place.

The Philadelphia Eagles are a good illustration of trying to engage their fans on such issues without any holier-than-thou pontificating. After winning the Super Bowl in 2018, Philly teamed up with plastics manufacturer Braskem to recycle all the plastic bottle caps discarded by fans during the season and turn them into a giant replace of the Lombardi Trophy. The structure, prominently situated in the stadium’s lobby, is often surrounded by fans posing for photographs, engaging in an important environment message while celebrating their biggest on-field achievement. Nicely done.

AdWeek

How important is player power?

So what about the players themselves? Could their individual actions amplify the environmental sustainability messages of the NFL and its franchises?

Sponsors have long used individuals to sell just about any product or service you can think of (I’m looking at you, Baker Mayfield) but can they sell sustainability? Would you follow suit if your favourite team promoted composting or a star player endorsed a zero-emissions car? I’d wager that football fans might be more likely to respond favourably to a ‘green’ message from Drew Brees or Dan Marino (both of whom have indeed extolled the virtues of electric vehicles for many years) than a political leader or an environmental pressure group.

Charitable work is another way to promote the right message and there have been a few notable examples in recent years. Tampa Bay’s newest acquisition, running back Giovani Bernard, supports a school in Haiti through SonLight Power, an organisation that designs and installs solar power solutions for community venues in remote locations while Chris Long, defensive end for the Eagles (yep, them again!) founded the Waterboys charity with the goal of providing clean, accessible drinking water to rural communities in East Africa. 

University of Virginia

Other players have promoted environmental organisations through the annual ‘My Cause, My Cleats’ campaign, such as the support for Ocean Conservancy shown by, among others, Cleveland Browns running back D’Ernest Johnson and Cincinnati Bengals DE Khalid Kareem (see featured image).

Russell Wilson is another high-profile player who has used his celebrity status to make a positive difference. The Seahawks quarterback was the (originally secret) face of the ‘Strawless in Seattle’ programme, helping the Lonely Whale Foundation to promote the fight against single-use plastics. In the first of 10 US cities where the charity aims to replace plastic straws with marine-degradable alternatives, the “thief” of 2 million straws in just one month was revealed in a video on social media: it was only Mr Wilson himself!


So, as today’s Earth Day proceedings testify, the focus on reducing our personal and combined impact on the world around us has not diminshed. And fair play to them, the NFL, its teams and its players are all taking steps to reduce their environmental footprint as well as educating supporters about the benefits of a more eco-friendly lifestyle.

“It’s just like a game of football. Incrementally, you move the ball down the field.”
Leonard Bonacci, Vice President of Event Operations and Event Services, Philadelphia Eagles

Bit by bit, the league is increasingly enjoying the economic and operational advantages that environmental sustainability brings. And while it’s a no-brainer financially, a bit of corporate responsibility doesn’t do the ol’ brand image any harm either.

Washington Wombles, anyone?

Featured image: Ocean Conservancy

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