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‘Forever Journey’: The race for sustainability in sports venues

By Joe Lemire

Closing a retractable roof takes much more than the push of a button. For the comfort of the fans in the seats and the competitive integrity for the athletes, the temperature and humidity inside the closed-roof venue needs to match the outside environment, an onerous undertaking for an HVAC system.  

That process is complicated enough — especially when needing to avoid unexpected consequences such as condensation dripping from the roof onto the playing surface — but the overall expenditure can rise dramatically in a venue’s given jurisdiction. 

“The real kicker,” said Brett Unzicker, Tomorrow.io global vice president of sports and entertainment, “is that energy that’s being used, if it goes above the government-regulated amount that they’re allowed to use, the government can fine them up to a million dollars for having closed that roof.” 

Monitoring weather, mitigating climate and implementing sustainability technology is not just an altruistic endeavor, experts at SportTechie’s recent State of the Industry conference argued, but also a business imperative. 

Omar Mitchell, the NHL’s vice president of sustainable infrastructure and growth initiatives, pointed to the league’s food recovery initiative, the LED lights installed in a majority of arenas and the recent opening of the certified zero-carbon Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle as steps in the right direction. 

“Sustainability equals innovation,” he said. “This is about continuous process improvement. This is about business optimization.” 

Mitchell added that scaling the same smart home technology to optimize HVAC, refrigeration and dehumidification systems for hockey rinks could lead to major reductions in energy consumption. “That’s the holy grail of how we think about these types of platforms,” he said. “Technology is going to be an enabler of that sustainable innovation in the future.” 

State Farm Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks, could soon become the first zero-waste venue in the NBA.getty images

The NBA’s Atlanta Hawks are awaiting final certification that would make State Farm Arena the league’s first zero-waste venue. In 2019, only a little more than 10% of its waste was being diverted from landfills; just two years later, more than 90% was diverted for compost, reuse or recycling bins, crossing the threshold for the zero-waste designation. Helping lead this effort was Sofi Armenakian, the Hawks’ director of operations and sustainability — the first NBA team executive to have such a title.  

“And if it’s possible in the South,” she said, “it’s really doable anywhere else.” 

Measuring everything was paramount, Armenakian added, as were sponsors who helped highlight the need for recycling. Clearly marked bins were a simple, yet effective tool, as were volunteers who helped fans dispose of items properly. The Hawks prioritized alternatives to single-use plastics, such as aluminum cups or compostable packaging. Zero waste is a “forever journey,” she said, with an eye toward further efficiency gains.   

State Farm Arena may be a “green bubble,” Armenakian said, but bringing fans along for the sustainability journey — and not imposing standards — is critical. “We operate at a certain standard, regardless of what the event is, but the real change is going to happen when we are able to influence change in the way we practice in what we do and fans taking that back into their communities, back into their schools and into their workplaces.” 

That’s the platform sports provide. Mitchell said attaining such lofty goals is only possible with strong executive leadership, praising NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman for his advocacy. Keynote speaker Allen Hershkowitz — who is a sustainability adviser to the NBA and New York Yankees and co-founder of the Green Sports Alliance, among other credentials — echoed that sentiment and called for accountability through a sports franchise and league. “Science is not just another opinion,” he said. “And science can help alleviate suffering in the world.” 

From vaccines to climate change mitigation, science is critical to human benefit. 

“If somebody makes a racist statement in your organization, they’re gone,” Hershkowitz added. “If someone makes a homophobic statement at your organization, they’re gone. If someone is denying climate change — if they are a climate denier, or they are knowingly providing disinformation through greenwashing about environmental attribute — they should not be working at your organization. There’s no place in sports for liars.” 

Sports teams and leagues can leverage their stature to seek changes in the supply chain, such as asking waste haulers to collect data on their practices in order to be contracted by the team. That, in turn, creates the infrastructure for other enterprise clients — hospitals, universities, corporations — to seek the same. 

“Sports has the ability to be that multiplier effect in our local communities to change the way that business is done,” Mitchell said. “We can start to really embed sustainability through that network effect.”

Hershkowitz shared that 95% of a product’s environmental impact has already taken place before a consumer opens its package, with 99% of plastics made from fossil fuels, which also still account for 80% of energy. “We are wedded overwhelmingly to ecologically ignorant technology,” he said, advocating for everyone to take ownership. “Ultimately, everything is a micro-emission. There’s nothing too small to matter.” 

The upkeep of playing surfaces takes an environmental toll and is thus an area where Tomorrow.io provides consultancy. Its biggest plan is to launch 32 satellites in order to privatize meteorology and offer better weather data. That can help clients — not just those with retractable roofs, of course, but anyone with greenery. One European sports organization, Unzicker said, has installed an array of field-level sensors to measure water runoff, as well as saturation and fertilization rates, in order to deploy resources more efficiently. 

Climate change affects everything. Most obviously, the playing conditions of outdoor sports will be affected, but indoor sports are not immune. Mitchell noted that the league was working with technology partner SAP to modernize its sustainability data collection. 

“This is embedded in our DNA,” Mitchell said. “And the reason why we do it is because our sport was born on frozen ponds, and people get it. We need cold weather, we need fresh water, and we play in a giant refrigerator.” 

For more in-depth reporting and cutting-edge analysis on the world of sports technology, go to sporttechie.com.

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