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The world is on fire – and the NBA wants to be part of the solution
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The world is on fire – and the NBA wants to be part of the solution

From a climate perspective, the world is in peril. It’s undeniable at this point. Today, though, there are organizations working to find solutions. But when it comes to the universe of pro sports, which has long been a source of pollution like other big businesses, where can answers be found? That’s the question those within leagues like the National Basketball Association are debating now. While the NBA has its own challenges when it comes to air travel and its carbon footprint, the league is also progressing forward with substantive changes, small and large, to assuage the climate crisis. And it’s in a unique position to do just that.

Unlike anonymous research departments or lesser-known scientific organizations, the NBA is one of the most popular outfits in the world. It’s on the minds and lips of millions of people on a daily basis. This gives it the chance to manufacture change. A point not lost on many around the league.

When considering the precarious state of the climate, human beings did not get here without fault or by accident. It’s industry that has created a plethora of greenhouse gases, plastic waste and poor farming practices. But maybe it’s industry that can help to remedy the mistakes we’ve made. That’s the bet some around the NBA are making. Today, the league’s environmental branch, known as NBA Green, which has been active since 2008, initiated by former commissioner David Stern, has taken on a greater focus internally as of 2019. And it has many problems to solve. According to Le Monde, as of the 2018-19 season, the NBA is the biggest polluter when it comes to its travel schedule, though the NFL averages the biggest carbon footprint a game and lowest environmental disclosure rate. (MLB, which plays many of its games in the open air, ranks best in both.)

As a league, the NBA boasts 30 teams and each plays 41 games on the road; that’s a lot of airline miles. But it’s not just about team travel. In fact, that’s a drop in the bucket, says Justin Zeulner, founder and president of The Wave Foundation, who’s worked with the NBA for decades on environmental matters. He says that the largest factor when it comes to carbon emissions is caused by fans. “The biggest ecological impact of running events,” Zeulner tells the Guardian, “is actually the fan travel. That can be anywhere between 65% and 80% of a carbon footprint of the event industry.” While team travel, Zeulner says, clocks in at less than 5%.

The Portland-based Zeulner started his NBA-related environmental work with the late-Portland Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen several decades ago. The Blazers, Zeulner says, was the first team in professional sports in North America to take a hard look at its climate record – something Allen particularly pushed for. Zeulner and his staff created the blueprint for how to tackle certain climate-related goals that has since been adopted by the NBA. The effort had been a Pacific Northwest-based initiative but it has since been accepted on a bigger scale and is now known as Green Sports Alliance, an organization that works with multiple pro sports leagues. “Twelve years later,” Zeulner says, “things have progressed at a very high level.”

In past years, the NBA has looked at problems from air travel to fan transportation to food waste and plastic usage, all with at least some positive results, he says. But now the main goal is food sourcing, explains Zeulner. This is where the NBA is starting to make major strides. “The biggest opportunity is to leverage that cultural infrastructure and passion that sports fans have for the brand,” Zeulner says. “That’s where things get really exciting.” And this is where positive news comes into play.

“What we’ve learned is that this is a competitive industry,” Zeulner says. “Once something has been done and accomplished, duplication happens, like, immediately. Now, it’s just, what is the next phase of this? A lot of effort has been put into plastics and cups, reusables, compostables. And that still needs work and it’s moving in the right direction. But we’ve got to now move on to the next phases. We’re pretty [bullish] in believing that food systems is the key to unlock this.”

With the NBA and its partner arenas, there is a big opportunity when it comes to food and food budgets, Zeulner explains. “It’s just part of their business,” he says, adding that if leagues and arenas begin to invest in new food sourcing, that could restore farms and soil quality, which in turn could affect the level of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s not about going vegan or some other extreme dietary measure. It’s about how food is sourced. “We can make beef hamburgers in a way that’s regenerative,” he says. “Every burger you’re eating can be healthier for you, taste better and be healthier for the planet. That’s the future.”

There’s another benefit, Zeulner says. Many of the farms that are doing this the right way are smaller. “Most of these farmers and ranchers are Black and Latino, are tribal, are women-owned, rural, small, community-based and they haven’t been given the same opportunity to participate,” he says. They aren’t giant factory farms that rely on short-term practices. Instead, they’re farms focusing on traditional methods run often by marginalized folks.

“It’s how we originally started farming and ranching. Way before the introduction of petroleum-based fertilizers that depleted soils and created droughts,” Zeulner says.

The NBA has altered its schedule to reduce air travel.View image in fullscreen

In other words, in order to go forward, we must first go backwards, to our roots. “What we need is people like the NBA and leagues and their food and beverage partners to commission buying regenerative-grown products.” Best of all, this can be done quickly, effectively – in a matter of years, not decades. And NBA teams are working on it with Zeulner’s help, which includes a new endeavor funded by the USDA in which The Wave Foundation is partnering with public venues and pro teams in Portland to connect forward-thinking food producers, vendors and food service organizations.

Beyond changes in farming and food sourcing, there is even more that can be done, big and small. In recent years, for example, to help mitigate team air travel, the NBA has instituted “baseball” series, in which teams play each other back-to-back instead of traditional one-offs. And in cities where there are two teams (Los Angeles and New York), visitors often stay to play both rather than scheduling multiple trips back and forth. These smaller moves were spurred on after the 2020 “bubble”, when teams were in one place and less travel proved beneficial. Though the NBA is still scheduling games abroad in cities like Abu Dhabi and Europe (markets that recently experienced an all-time high in NBA viewership), this remains a positive step.

“As far as what the NBA is doing, I think it’s a good start,” says Deepa Sivarajan, a policy manager at Seattle’s Climate Solutions. “I do like how they’re approaching this from not just buying carbon offset credits. They do want to see deep reductions in their own emissions.” She says, though, that she thinks the league could do more, given its carbon footprint. Sivarajan suggests perhaps even reducing the number of games a year and creating a tournament where teams play in one place for a portion of the season. “The leagues and individual players have a really powerful platform to talk about climate change,” she says. “What I’m curious about is what are the creative strategies they’re going to take.”

To that point, says Annie Horn, a former colleague of Zeulner’s and leader of NBA Green, the NBA has a goal of reducing its carbon footprint by 50% by 2030. It’s also creating sustainability mandates for its 29 arenas (along with its soon to be 30th, the Intuit Dome in Los Angeles) and 18 league offices. Franchises are required to have a sustainability point of contact and comply with the NBA’s sustainability action plan. One-third of the teams so far employ sustainability leads. NBA Deputy Commissioner and COO, Mark Tatum acknowledges the importance of these moves, saying in October ahead of the 2023-24 season, “We’re very conscious of the world that we live in,” adding, “We actually are very, very focused on [the] NBA Green initiative.”

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The 2024 NBA All-Star weekend was powered fully by renewable energy.View image in fullscreen

One of the NBA’s recent success stories comes from this year’s All-Star Game in Indianapolis. The entire weekend was fully powered by renewable energy, and the NBA provided free public transit in the city for fans to mitigate pollution. In addition, there are arenas making strides, like the Sacramento Kings’ Golden 1 Credit Union Center, which runs on solar power. In Seattle, the NBA-ready Climate Pledge Arena, which is home to the NHL’s Kraken and WNBA’s Storm and may soon be home to the SuperSonics, is “functionally a zero-waste facility”. It’s also powered by renewable energy, boasts a net zero carbon footprint, sources more than half its food ingredients from within 300 miles, subsidizes public transit, uses rainwater for its ice rink for the local NHL franchise and hopes to promote reusable energy for the tour buses of musical performers that play its stages.

“Every time an event happens at the arena, we’re tracking the emissions associated with fans coming to the event,” Rob Jonson, Climate Pledge’s SVP of sustainability, says. “Every emission associated with the building’s operations, we audit those figures and offset [them].” He adds, “We believe so significantly that sports has the ability to bring people together to tackle societal challenges unlike any other venue.”

Also in the Northwest, the Trail Blazers participate in the “Threes for Trees” program, which has fostered the planting of thousands of trees so far, one for every three-point shot made by the Blazers over the past several years. That program has focused on Oregon’s Sandy River Delta Park, a 1,500-acre natural near the Columbia River Gorge, says Troy Fuhrer of Daimler Truck North America. The team has also launched the Rip City Reuse program, a first-of-its-kind initiative that’s helped to replace plastic and compostable cups from alcohol purchase with reusable ones. To date, says Walt Scher, director of corporate communications for Portland, the Blazers have eliminated 295,810 single-use cups that would have ended up in landfill or compost sites. Another NBA-wide effort comes from the NBA outfitting its players with jerseys made from recycled material.

In the end, it isn’t just the NBA that needs to focus on big environmentally-sound practices. “I think it is slowly moving towards [the reality that] this is something that everyone has to own,” Horn says. “We definitely can’t do it alone and we shouldn’t.”

But these efforts can now be framed in ways outside the traditional environmentalist vernacular. It’s clear that going green and promoting eco-friendly options are good for businesses on the whole. They can cut costs, create jobs, drive innovation and offer chances for new partnerships. But where the NBA is uniquely positioned is with the number of eyeballs it garners daily. For as NBA consultant and environmental scientist, Allen Hershkowitz, said in a recent NBA.com article, “Less than 20% [of adults in the US] follow science, and over 80% follow sports.”

Ultimately, this gives Horn hope. And she’s not alone. The upcoming 2024 Paris Olympics, for example, have big climate goals, which could also help shape how sports fans and the world at large view these crucial issues. Perhaps this is truly the beginning of a new wave of positive movement. The moment where the globe’s climate trajectory is changed for good, through sports.

Maybe, maybe not. Though remaining positive, Horn knows there’s a long road ahead. “It’s hard a lot of days,” she says. “[But] like the player who has gotten injured or faced a setback, we can focus on the doomsday message. But how about the comeback? I do feel really hopeful and optimistic, but there’s still a long way to go.”

Source: theguardian.com