Sport and the Environment: What is the Connection?

Sport occupies a special place in modern life, with millions of people around the world watching or participating in their favorite games. But despite its ability to entertain and promote health, sport can also degrade the environment. To remedy this, professional teams and colleges across the country are turning sport into a positive force for environmental change by adopting sustainable practices. 

“If you put a stadium in the middle of a city and you have 80,000 people converge on the space for a day, the impacts on the environment are going to be very negative,” said Kyle Bunds, an associate professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at NC State’s College of Natural Resources. “There’s not much of an argument to be made that there isn’t an issue with waste, water and air pollution. The task is mitigating those negative impacts.”

One significant impact of football games is air pollution, mostly from transportation and tailgating. Two years ago, Bunds and Jonathan Casper, an associate professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management, conducted a study on air pollution  at NC State’s Carter-Finley Stadium. The study concluded with some interesting results. 

Six hours before each game, the researchers set up and used stationary and mobile air quality monitors around the tailgate lots. The monitors captured relative humidity, ozone, temperature and carbon dioxide levels. Three hours prior to the game, when fans started showing up, spikes in air pollution were captured — the primary culprits being charcoal grills, older generators and especially idling cars. 

“There’s kind of a slow ingress and egress from an event, so you have a lot of idling cars that generate a plume of air,” Bunds explained. “In this microenvironment around the stadium, there were some games we saw where the air pollution didn’t go back to low levels until about 12 hours after the game.”

These pre-game pollutants caused spikes that were more than 20 times worse than the recognized levels for moderate air quality. Pollutant levels also rose significantly when a rush of fans left the game in their cars. Pollution inside the stadium seems to be unaffected by the fan activities outside. The stadium itself produced outstanding air quality.

Another cause for concern is athletes’ health being adversely affected by air pollution. The poor air quality from wildfires across the western United States poses a health risk for athletes, which has prompted officials to carefully monitor pollution levels around sport venues. Fans can also experience the harmful effects of reduced air quality. This is to a lesser degree since athletes pull the pollutants deeper into their lungs with all the oxygen they must intake each time they move.

Improper waste disposal is another negative impact of sports games. The Zero Waste Wolfpack program, adopted in 2015, has helped limit the landfill by diverting waste away from it through composting and recycling education at football games. Volunteers at NC State games point fans in the direction of proper recycling receptacles and educate on what should be recycled and what should be composted. 

During the 2019 season, 279 volunteers devoted 960 hours toward making Carter-Finley and its tailgating lots cleaner. Tailgate lots saw a landfill diversion rate of 19.2%, while the stadium had a diversion rate of 41.2%.

According to Casper, recycling may be an easier issue to address, while car idling and grilling are more difficult from a behavioral standpoint. “We need to think about sustainable ways to carpool and address how sports stadiums can make it easier for fans to be overall more sustainable,” he said. 

Changing the game 

Sport teams, both professional and collegiate, are working to reduce their environmental footprint by implementing sustainable practices at their facilities, including solar panels. 

At NC State, for example, the athletic sustainability council hosts quarterly meetings to examine the latest metrics and to explore opportunities to improve the impact of Wolfpack sporting events on the environment. The council, on which Bunds and Casper serve, formed in 2012 and includes members from the Sustainability Office, Waste Reduction and Recycling and the athletic department. 

One significant step forward for NC State is the addition of solar panels at Carter-Finley Stadium. The installation, which is almost complete, will serve as a critical opportunity for the university to reduce its environmental footprint and set an example for students and fans. The panels will be located on the southern end of the approximately 58,000-seat stadium, on top of the Murphy Center.

“Here at NC State, we are in a great position because our athletic directors care about sustainability in sports and recognize it can make a valuable difference,” Casper said. “We’re moving in the right direction.”

Many professional sport teams are also implementing sustainable practices to reduce their environmental footprint. In the United States, the NFL’s Houston Texans football team has installed a 180-kW solar panel system on its stadium. This system produces enough energy each year to offset 22 households.

Internationally, SC Freiburg, a German football club, is working to reduce the negative impacts of air pollution by setting up a system where each game ticket allows attendees to take the train for the day to and from the games.

SC Freiburg is also currently finalizing a contract to add solar panels to its stadium. Those solar panels will go into a grid, with a certain percentage of that usage being used for their games and to run the athletic offices. The team will use a heating system that will involve piping in steam from a factory across the street to heat their sports field and offices. It is expected that this heating system will reduce the stadium’s carbon footprint by 550 tons of carbon dioxide each year. 

Leading by example 

Sports teams that implement sustainability messaging can have a more successful outcome in protecting the environment, according to Casper. 

“Sport brands build fan affinity, for example, a loyal Wolfpack fan may experience a social norm to do what other fans are doing and what the team has asked,” he said. “This is why sponsorship does so well in sports.”

Casper has conducted research on the power of team messaging and how loyal fans will follow. “According to behavioral theory, you must first have awareness and knowledge to change behavior,” Casper explained. “With solar panels, fans may be aware of them, but by seeing them, it adds knowledge … and that helps with the decision-making process, which then leads to action.”

One professional team that takes the environment seriously is the Philadelphia Eagles, which started the Go Green campaign in 2003. Go Green is an organization-wide sustainability program implemented throughout the year to reduce the Eagles’ environmental footprint. 

With the aid of The Conservation Fund, the Eagles offset 100% of the carbon emissions they generate during travel. Other strategies that the team employs at their games include water filtration fountains to reduce water bottle use, compostable straws, a bike-share program, recycling program and more. All of the team’s operations are also solar- and wind-powered, with its home stadium using more than 10,546 solar panels to generate electricity. 

“I’m not sure if you will ever be able to look at the carbon footprint of a facility and say it’s a net positive,” Bunds said. “But I think you can figure out ways where you have a captive audience where you can educate on doing things environmentally-friendly. You have the opportunity to play a role in mitigating your air pollution by facilities.”