The Greening Of Sports -- And Where We're All Headed Next

Sarah Spain (left), with former Ironman triathlete and ultramarathoner Brendan Brazier, big mountain and powder skier Caroline Gleich and big wave surfer Greg Long. Courtesy of Caroline Gleich

I've always been passionate about the preservation of natural resources and the protection of wildlife, but I'd never connected that personal interest to my professional life as a sports journalist until I got involved with the Green Sports Alliance.

The GSA works to promote environmentally preferable practices (think renewable energy, healthy food, water conservation, safer chemicals, recycling and so forth) to preserve healthy, sustainable communities. Two weeks ago, I moderated a panel at the GSA's fifth annual summit, a three-day event featuring more than 800 athletes, teams, vendors and venue representatives. I was shocked to discover how much the sports world has embraced the green movement and just how much I'd been missing. Here's what I learned.

Everyone's getting on board with green.

Since launching with six teams in North America in 2011, the GSA has grown to include nearly 300 teams, venues and events from 14 different countries. All of the major professional sports leagues have active greening programs: The NBA, NHL and MLB have environmental tracking programs and the NHL released the world's first-ever sports league sustainability report.

During the summit, the GSA released an interesting report done in partnership with the National Resources Defense Council detailing the efforts of major U.S. sports to shift toward more sustainable game-day food. According to the report, organic options are available at 17 major stadiums and 18 venues source food from local gardens. Some venues also boast compostable serviceware, onsite gardens, antibiotic-free meat and composting.

Sustainability is now a best business practice.

One of the panel participants was Jennifer Regan, the principal and chief sustainability officer of her own consulting company, We Bring It On, Inc., and a board member of the GSA. Regan, who spent seven years as the chief sustainability officer for Anschutz Entertainment Group, has worked with more than150 venues and for large events like FIFA tournaments, the Olympics and music festivals.

"I talk about the three returns: Return on investment, return on brand value (like increases in ticket sales and sponsorship), and return on the right thing (like employee morale increase and retention of millennials)," said Regan.

She explained that the two best ways to get hesitant teams, companies or venues to embrace the green movement have been to pinpoint efficiency and health, both of interest even to those who aren't willing to talk about climate change or "going green." Over the last few years she's seen the movement grow exponentially, with early adopters helping spread the message of sustainability to other venues and teams.

"Every venue manager of an arena that has a professional league or stadium that has an MLB or NFL team is talking about recycling, LED and energy efficiency, water conservation, fixtures and sustainability purchasing, at least in terms of green cleaning and paper products," she said. "I will make the bold statement that it's a best business practice at this moment, [at] the minimums I just listed. There's no resistance anymore. The question now is what's next, and who's taking the lead."

We can look to women's movements to continue to grow the green one.

Regan is one of those leaders working with the largest venues in the country to establish new standards and innovations. She said the challenges and goals in the green movement reflect those of female business and industry leaders trying to break barriers.

"First," Regan said, "It's about creating awareness of things that aren't always a part of the everyday dialogue, whether that's climate change or unequal pay."

"Second, creating a safe space for experimenting and trying new things," she continued. "[It was so forward-thinking] to talk about climate at an NFL meeting or a baseball meeting just five, six years ago. Now it's expected. Both movements benefit from a safe space. With the green sports movement early adopters can jump in and have environmental experts and reporters -- people who historically might be seen as risky critics - at the table with them designing new, progressive ideas. And it's also a safe space for people just starting. It's OK that you don't have recycling -- you're still welcome here."

"Finally, anchoring our efforts in a sense of purpose. Connect it to your heart. Women's initiatives are most successful when you find the purpose within the leadership. With the green movement the purpose is clear, we've got the facts around the environment."

Some athletes are also walking the walk.

Athletes are playing a huge role in the greening of sports as well. Panelists at the GSA summit included Edmonton Oilers captain Andrew Ference, pro big wave surfer Greg Long and pro big mountain and powder skier Caroline Gleich.

Athletes who want to speak out on behalf of the conservation movement have to meet the demands of being a professional competitor while also living up to the message of the green movement they preach. That means carefully considering endorsement deals and corporate collaborations, being selective about the equipment they purchase and use, and even risking alienating fans, sponsors or team bigwigs by speaking out against the very energy companies that sponsor their stadiums or competitions.

Gleich said athletes have to be able to "accept discomfort from criticism" and Long said it should be about athletes influencing sponsors and not the other way around, insisting "I won't sacrifice my ethics."

The GSA hopes the work of athletes from individual outdoor sports and the standout work of the NHL and its players will help inspire conservation efforts from players in the "Big Three" of MLB, NFL and NBA. The dream is to get stars such as LeBron James and Tom Brady on board, and harness the power of their vast social media networks, offering a way to educate millions of fans and spread the message of sustainability.

Superheroes of sport literally helping save the earth? Everyone could get on board with that.