The business case for green sports stadiums and arenas is growing

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A general exterior view of Climate Pledge Arena before the game between the Seattle Kraken and the Carolina Hurricanes on October 17, 2022.

Steph Chambers | Getty Images

Professional sports are inherently a copycat industry. From Major League Baseball’s Moneyball revolution to the NBA’s renewed focus on 3-point shooting driven by the Golden State Warriors and Steph Curry, in-season and championship success quickly becomes a blueprint for other teams to follow.

Another recent trend spreading across sports has many hoping it will also follow suit: arenas and stadiums not only adopting sustainable and environmentally friendly practices, but putting those efforts front and center for fans, players, musicians, and anyone else who enters the building.

Much like the broader world of commercial real estate, arenas, and stadiums have been slowly adopting sustainable practices over the last few decades, from recycling programs to energy efficiency efforts. But several major sports facilities across the U.S. have taken this to another level in recent years, and their operators and owners hope that the success they’ve seen across multiple fronts creates real momentum around the idea of environmentally friendly stadiums.

Mercedes Benz Stadium, home of both the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and MLS’s Atlanta United, became the first pro sports venue in the U.S. to achieve LEED Platinum Certification in 2017. Footprint Center, home of the NBA’s Phoenix Suns and WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, works directly with the materials science company that holds its naming rights to eliminate single-use plastic from the arena and on other sustainable practices.

The bar across sports was set even higher in 2021 when Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle opened and not only became the first net zero certified arena in the world but served as a call-to-action for Amazon’s push for companies globally to be net zero carbon by 2040.

“Venue operators are relatively quickly understanding their opportunities and their responsibilities as it related to operating more sustainability,” said Chris Granger, CEO of OVG360, a management company that works with more than 300 venues across the world ranging from arenas and stadiums to amphitheaters and performing arts centers.

“Sports teams and venues have a platform on the topic of social change, and we have the ability to shine a light on issues that matter in a way that many businesses don’t,” he said. “I think our venue operators are saying ‘Okay, we get it. Now what do we do about it?'”

The trend in sports is not dissimilar to what is being seen across other industries: a desire from businesses to be better stewards in their community and connect with the growing number of people putting an increased emphasis on environmentally friendly actions, coupled with the fact that many of these measures also have a solid business case attached to them.

When work to renovate KeyArena in Seattle began, there were many discussions on how to introduce sustainability measures not only for construction goals but also operational goals, said Seattle Kraken and Climate Pledge Arena senior vice president of sustainability and transportation Rob Johnson.

That quickly evolved into making an arena that could be a “beacon of a sustainability district,” Johnson said, which helped attract the attention of Amazon, who in 2019 co-founded the Climate Pledge initiative to have companies, organizations, and partners work together to address the climate crisis and solve the challenges around decarbonizing.

That led to what has become the Climate Pledge Arena. Its efforts include being zero-waste by using compostable containers and reducing single-use plastic use, conserving water by retaining rainwater for reuse, and not using fossil fuels in the arena for daily use – including electric-powered Zambonis for Kraken games.

Setting a zero-waste goal at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium

Mercedes-Benz Stadium has been on its own sustainability path since it opened in 2017, with operator Arthur Blank pushing his AMB Sports and Entertainment Group (AMBSE) executives to set a higher standard for an environmentally friendly stadium.

The stadium opened as the first LEED Platinum stadium in the U.S., but “that was just the start,” said Steve Cannon, vice chairman of AMBSE.

“Anyone can make that incremental investment into your building, but if operationally you don’t perform in a manner that’s consistent with that, you’re leaving something on the table,” Cannon said.

That has led to a focus on getting to zero-waste status, which the stadium first achieved in 2020 for an Atlanta United match, Cannon said. After an investment of about $1 million to retrofit the building and put in other measures to achieve that zero-waste consistently, the stadium has now reached that goal.

In its 2022 fiscal year, there were more than four million pounds of waste at the stadium, and more than 91% of that was diverted away from landfills, according to Andrew Bohenko, Mercedes-Benz Stadium sustainability coordinator.

That required a significant amount of education for employees and fans, and also working with vendors and other departments within the company to ensure that “there was buy-in across all our of two-million-square-foot footprint,” Bohenko said.

Ultimately, the stadium saw more than 95% compliance from fans putting trash in the right receptacles, and it projects a $400,000 yearly return on its initial investment while spending about 13 cents per guest for its overall zero-waste efforts right now. AMBSE has even created a “playbook” for other stadium operators to follow if they also want to get to zero waste.

“Everyone understands that the environment is our number one global challenge. It’s reached a level of critical mass where people have moved past greenwashing, and they’re making substantive changes to their business practices,” Cannon said. “The platform that sports represents has a disproportionate impact on our society at large, so if you think about the aggregated impact of all ballparks and stadiums across America diverting waste from landfills that’s huge, but where it becomes even more important is the power of the platform to influence other businesses – then you start to really make meaningful change.”

Johnson said Seattle’s zero-waste push has led to savings as well, as composting costs less than sending garbage to a landfill.

Reaching fans, sponsors and performers through sustainability

Fenway Farms, a roof top garden in Boston’s Fenway Park, on July 6, 2020.

Boston Globe | Getty Images

Another impactful revenue opportunity related to the arena’s sustainability push, according to Johnson, is reaching new fans.

“Folks under 40, who we are all cultivating as critically important fans to our success in the future, identify the environment as one of their top three global concerns,” he said. “So, we believe it’s not just the right thing for us to do for the planet, but we also think that we’re speaking to a demographic that is key to the future of the success of our industry.”

Kristen Fulmer, senior director of sustainability at OVG360 parent company Oak View Group, said while it’s clear that “sustainability can be a good business,” there still can be confusion about what that really means.

“Sustainability is kind of noisy; ESG is a catchphrase that everyone knows but doesn’t quite know the meaning of, so there are some things that we can demystify about it,” Fulmer said. “We want to help them figure out what are things that are relevant to me, my specific building, my specific market, my community, my employees, so that they can hone in on something that’s really unique.”

Granger pointed to efforts like Sacramento’s Golden One Center where the arena is powered by 100% renewable and solar energy, and Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, where a deep-lake water cooling system utilizing nearby Lake Ontario helps keep the building cool and eliminates the need for air conditioning compressors.

Making sustainability a key part of any construction or building project is also becoming table stakes for bonds, loans, and other financial measurements, both Granger and Fulmer noted, a critical factor for many of the aging arenas and stadiums across the U.S. likely due for upgrades or full replacements in the coming decade.

It also matters more for artists and athletes. Granger said there are musicians asking for vegan or plant-based food options or asking buildings to let fans bring reusable water bottles to reduce the impact of single-use plastics.

Johnson said that when singer Billie Eilish came to Seattle to perform in 2022, her tour rider required the arena to not use single-use plastics for at least the night that she was to preform.

“That was a big inspiration for us; if Billie Eilish can come through your building and you’ll move to no single-use plastics for one night, why couldn’t you do it for the other 364 nights,” he said. Ahead of the tour date, Eilish’s mother and sustainability advocate Maggie Baird asked to tour the arena, telling Johnson and Seattle’s team that they “operationalized” the rider,” Johnson said. Seattle has given tours to numerous artists, teams, athletes and other organizations wanting to see more of the building’s practices in action.

All of these factors are pointing towards a future where sports and sustainability are more intertwined, Fulmer said.

“In the sustainability world we often say that imperfection gets in the way and creates inaction, and I think people are always really scared to not quite be perfect. In the sports world of course we all want to be perfect or always win,” she said. “Here, small wins are really important, and they’re leading to bigger wins.”

Swapping Sustainability Strategies

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