The biggest carbon impact of sports events typically comes from fans getting to and from the game, a factor that teams and leagues can only influence, not control. The Portland Trail Blazers estimate that energy used by the arena is responsible for 24% of its carbon footprint, while 73% is related to transportation: Attendee commuting totals 58%, employee commuting is 11% and business travel accounts for 4%.

This was the topic of a panel session at a recent Wharton conference on Leadership in Greening the Sports Industry, sponsored jointly by Wharton’s Initiative for Global Environmental Leadership (IGEL) and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). This article includes information shared at the conference and insights gathered from experts in the field.

Martin Tull, executive director of the Green Sports Alliance, recognizes the importance of addressing transportation issues. “Getting fans quickly and safely to the event is as important as it is complicated.” The Alliance is a nonprofit aimed at helping sports teams, venues and leagues enhance their environmental performance.

“The carbon emissions from fan transportation can be a significant portion of the sports organization’s emissions,” Tull adds. The issue is easiest to tackle in large cities with well-developed public transit systems. “Regardless of the venue’s location, there are steps that can be taken to encourage ride sharing, the use of public transportation, and even biking and walking.”

“You can’t encourage people not to drive to an event unless you have a public transit system and make it easy for people.” — Jill Savery

Tull points out that teams can be proactive by offering bicycle parking and preferred spots for electric vehicles and carpools. Partnerships with local or state transportation agencies can also be very successful for both parties. And in part because of the work of the NRDC and the Alliance, all of these initiatives are underway at sports venues around the country.

Encouraging Public Transit

Many teams are encouraging fans to use public transportation where available. Bike racks at Portland’s Moda Center are encouraging fans to ride to the arena and the regular Bike to Blazers event is popular, often attracting more than 100 riders. The perks are plentiful, including free food and beverages for riders when they arrive, discounts on shirts, free bike tune-ups and more. The Blazers also subsidize transit passes for their employees, who benefit from Portland’s world-class light rail and bus systems.

More than 30% of Moda Center visitors on game day now come via public transportation, according to the team. Even better is the performance achieved by the 2012 Olympics in London. “You can’t encourage people not to drive to an event unless you have a public transit system and make it easy for people,” said Jill Savery, who headed sustainability efforts for the America’s Cup races in San Francisco in 2013 and also worked on sustainability initiatives for the 2012 Olympics.

A free transit pass came with every ticket sold to the 2012 London Olympics, Savery noted, and attendees were equipped with maps and timetables. Ambassadors in bright pink vests helped guide them to their destination. “It’s all about behavior change,” she added. “If people try something new and have a good experience during a special event, it can lead to changes in their own lives.”

Savery’s work on the America’s Cup in 2013 helped shape a policy that promoted the use of bicycles as a mass transit option. Even event workers used bikes, including cargo bicycles to move goods in and out of the event. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition provided bike valet parking corrals in both 2012 and 2013. In 2013 alone, more than 6,000 visitor bicycles received valet service during 30 peak race days. Attention to detail like that led to 80% of spectators traveling to the event by walking, biking or taking transit, Savery said.

Doug Behar, vice president of stadium operations for the New York Yankees, says that the team also encourages fans to get to games via public transit. Using Metro North’s “Take a Train to the Game” program, on game days fans can ride to the 153rd Street Station on the Hudson Line. They can walk to the stadium in 10 minutes, and avoid the inconvenience of parking and getting stuck in long traffic lines before and after the event.

“There is a a massive opportunity for sports teams to cover their parking lots with solar, provide shade and cover while also generating energy.”— Peter Rive

Philadelphia sports fans can board Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) special “Sports Express” trains to get to games. “You can yell and scream at other drivers while stuck in traffic or you can shout and holler at the arena and leave the driving to SEPTA,” notes SEPTA marketing copy

More Concession Profits

Fan-friendly transportation improvements can yield dramatic benefits, and not only for the environment, advocates note. Thanks to an improved overall fan experience, concession spending and long-term ticket purchases are both likely to rise.

Another way sports organizations can foster greener travel is by helping fans optimize the route they take to and from the stadium and by expediting their parking once they arrive. New start-ups, like Roadify, ParkNow, and Click and Park might become useful in that regard, experts say.

At New York’s Barclays Center, which was built to incorporate a $72 million transit hub, event goers can now get real-time information about their transportation options. Electronic boards, supplied by Brooklyn-based Roadify, tap into the data created by transit agencies to offer up-to-the-minute status reports on subways and the Long Island Railroad. According to Roadify CEO Scott Kolber, knowing when the next train is coming makes fans more likely to use mass transit.

Paul Wessel, executive director of the Green Parking Council, said that there will be ample opportunity to improve the getting-to-the-game experience, benefiting sports teams and fans alike. “We all start with what we know,” Wessel noted. “For the Green Sports Alliance, the focus has appropriately been on the facilities themselves — waste streams, heating and air conditioning, lighting. Those are all high-impact at the stadiums. But lately the discussions have been about looking at the parking lots surrounding the stadiums and how to get people in and out of them.”

At Barclays Center (where fans are warned that parking is limited, and public transit is the better option), Click and Park provides attendees with routing information based on the latest traffic flows to get them in and out of lots as quickly as possible. And it lets motorists buy parking in advance (carpoolers get discounts). The National Arena District in Columbus, Ohio uses Click and Park to help get fans to Blue Jackets hockey and Clippers baseball games.

The High Cost of Idling

Reducing pollution and waste from idling vehicles has become a major environmental priority. According to Argonne National Laboratory, for instance, idling long-haul trucks use more than 685,000 gallons of fuel annually — at a $2 billion cost to the economy. And cutting back on idling dramatically reduces emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and particulate matter. Florida Citrus Sports, a nonprofit that works with Citrus Bowl Stadium in Orlando, reported that it used to have lines of cars trying to park 15 minutes after kickoff, but with Click and Park, all but late arrivals are in their seats 30 minutes before the game starts. As a side benefit, concession stand sales rose 34%. Click and Park has worked with three Olympics events in the U.S. (Atlanta and Salt Lake City) and Canada (Vancouver), NFL Super Bowls since 2005, and the NCAA.

ParkNow, a service largely owned by BMW, also focuses on reducing the “circling” that accounts for as much as 30% of city driving and increased emissions. Using a web page or cell phone application, sports fans can locate parking near a venue, compare prices and make an online reservation.

Teams can even save money on the parking facilities themselves. The Mariners saved 50% on their garage energy bills by installing motion sensor controls — after all, there is no need to light the building when nobody is in it. That’s one way to lower the carbon footprint of overall transportation impacts, but the best option would be to convince fans to leave their cars at home, observers say. That’s hard to do, but a number of teams are working on it.

And SolarCity’s Peter Rive said he sees “a massive opportunity” for sports teams “to cover their parking lots with solar, provide shade and cover while also generating energy. They have the roof space and parking lots that are perfect with solar.” In the parking lot at the U.S. Airways Arenas in Phoenix, and at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, solar panels double as shade for fans’ cars. The photovoltaic panels can be paired with electric vehicle parking to accommodate green-minded fans.

Transportation is still the big hurdle to overcome as sports teams and leagues work to maximize sustainability. The problem is far from solved, but innovative solutions are beginning to nurture less-impactful ways to put fans in seats.