Let’s say you’re a fan of professional hockey. And your favorite team is the Chicago Blackhawks. Or the Detroit Red Wings. Or the St. Louis Blues, or Columbus Blue Jackets.

Or maybe you prefer professional baseball. And your favorites come down to the Boston Red Sox and the Cincinnati Reds. Or to the Chicago White Sox. Or the Toronto Blue Jays.

Maybe pro basketball is your thing. Sorry, no current NBA teams have a color as part of their name.

But if pro football floats your boat, there’s the Cleveland Browns. And, not without ample attendant controversy over their name, the Washington Redskins.

But not a one at the pro level has the word “green” in its name, notwithstanding some having it among their team colors. So how do you know if they’re “green” — in the environmental context, of course?

You don’t. Or at least you don’t know for sure, notwithstanding the Philadelphia Eagles’ always hyping green as their team color.

5 NFL Teams Seen as Early ‘Pioneers’

Or do you? An organization known as the Green Sports Alliance is doing its darnedest to help all the major professional sports leagues and teams go green, including on issues related to climate change. And an independent report on the National Football League’s environmental and climate policies names several teams as early “pioneers,” that is the cream of the crop: The New York Giants and New York Jets, the Seattle Seahawks, the Philadelphia Eagles, and the New England Patriots.

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Credit: Green Sports Alliance

Researcher Danyel Reiche of the American University of Beirut, spending the fall of 2014 on sabbatical at Harvard University, says those five teams were active in at least five of seven categories of activities analyzed. He pointed to “a unanimous agreement” among the many people he interviewed that “It all started with the Eagles.” As with the Seahawks and Patriots, “an internal top-down process occurred,” Reiche wrote. The innovations benefited from major collaboration with the Natural Resources Defense Council, NRDC, from which the Green Sports Alliance has recently been spawned.

Reiche’s report assesses the NFL teams’ various “green programs”; their motives for getting involved with combating climate change and addressing other environmental issues; and whether they are engaged because of what he calls “a real environmental concern, or is it a greenwashed billion-dollar business?” He assesses the roles of various public or private “actors” influencing and encouraging the teams and whether the NFL itself has relevant policies or, alternatively, the teams’ climate change actions are done “without such incentives.” (His answer is the latter, and he said in a recent phone interview that the NFL as a whole does little to provide top-down organizational drive to the greening effort.)

Factors Giving Impetus to ‘Green Sports’

Among factors driving the teams’ environmental and climate change efforts, according to Reiche, are:

  • Ecological motives — Wanting to be responsible corporate citizens and wanting to improve the quality of life in their home communities, where support from their fan base is critical. He says the 80 20-foot spiral shaped wind turbines on the Eagles’ stadium roof are meant to be seen by “every car that drives by…on the main highway of the United States’ East Coast, Interstate 95.”
  • Economic motives — Renewable energy installations and energy efficiency policies are seen as “effective cost-saving measures,” particularly given the frequent ups and downs of energy prices. He points to several teams’ claiming cost savings as a result of their initial expenditures in clean energy sources, and points also to sponsorship of clubs’ clean energy programs as another “possibly more important” driver.
  • Political incentives — Grants from the Obama administration’s economic recovery program, the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also proved a key factor. After having considered solar energy for its stadium for many years and concluding that it “was simply not economical,” a Seattle Seahawks representative said “our view changed” with the availability of that federal assistance: “We could not have built our solar plant” without that funding, the official said.
  • Local environment — “Professional sports clubs have to respond to their local environment,” Reiche wrote, noting that stadiums generally are full with fans from the home team local communities. “If a club is based in an area with green consumers, it will likely adopt a green program to satisfy the local environment.” He singled out San Francisco — “home of the green consumer movement” as a case in point — with its solar panels and green roof. In addition to providing a lot of local momentum, that loyal fan base, Reiche notes, buys a lot of T-shirts, caps, and other rah-rah paraphernalia. Another factor: new stadiums often involve approval by public referendums, with overall costs frequently at the heart of how much public money will be allotted. “Promises of an environmentally friendly sports venue can present convincing arguments,” says Reiche.
  • Public relations — Of course. “Good for their public image,” many of Reiche’s interviews told him, leading to public recognition and various awards in several cases and “a positive image” for teams and owners.

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The San Francisco 49ers’ ‘living roof’ at its new Levi Field. Credit: 49ers.com

But it’s not just P.R. and “greenwashing,” Green Sports Alliance President Allen Herschkowitz, formerly with NRDC, says. “We’re NRDC. We don’t do greenwashing,” and few serious NRDC watchers challenge that assertion. And there’s little question that Herschkowitz, installed this past October as GSA president, and NRDC have been instrumental and deeply involved in the greening effort of pro sports teams from the start. (The early effort also got a boost from actor and long-time environmentalist Robert Redford, an NRDC board of trustees member.)

While characterizing as “impressive” the actions taken by those leading NFL “pioneer” teams, Reiche says more still could be done, both by those teams and by others in the league. “Most NFL clubs do not even explain on their websites how to get to the stadium by public transit,” and while some have introduced charging stations for electric cars, they may not be questioning individual car use in the first place or promoting public transit or carpooling. Pro soccer teams in Germany, for instance, do far more in that respect, Reiche says.

In a May 18, 2014, report — “Some NFL Teams are Going Green” (subscription or log-in required) — The Wall Street Journal’s Jim Carlton characterized the San Francisco 49ers’ new $1.2 billion Levi Field as the first in the league to have a “‘living roof,’ a canopy of green and flowering plants nestled across the top of an eight-story tower of luxury suites to reduce the building’s energy use and offer other environmental benefits by providing natural insulation.” Carlton characterized it as “one of a number of green features” for a club “at the vanguard of a growing trend”…NFL teams “trying to show a gentler side through green programs.”

He credits NRDC and Microsoft co-founder and Seattle Seahawks owner Paul Allen and his Vulcan, Inc., for launching the Green Sports Alliance initiative, but adds: “According to many critics, the NFL’s efforts are long overdue…it’s seen by some as a laggard in green measures compared with other global sporting leagues.”

NHL’s ‘Sustainability Report’ Breaks New Ground

Among the U.S.-based professional sports leagues, the National Hockey League broke new ground (new ice?) in the summer of 2014 with its release of a “2014 NHL Sustainability Report,” which it characterized as “the first document of its kind produced by a major sports league in North America.” Herschkowitz, at that point still with NRDC, labeled the document “arguably the most important statement about the environment ever issued by a professional sports league.”

Editor’s Note: This initial report focuses primarily on professional football, in part because researcher Danyel Reiche’s report did so and no similar independent analysis of other professional leagues’ efforts is known to exist. Additional coverage of the 2014 NHL report and of “green” efforts of other leading U.S.-based professional leagues and individual teams will be posted here over coming weeks and months, as will continuing efforts to have collegiate sports teams commit to more “green” activities.

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