The greening of sports is no longer merely a concept — it’s moving forward dramatically. Stadiums have installed wind and solar operations, improved lighting efficiency, ramped up recycling efforts and diverted increasing amounts of organic waste from the landfill through composting efforts. The payback is not just good public relations but, increasingly, real bottom-line savings.

The Seattle Mariners baseball team saw first-hand the financial benefits of working for energy efficiency when it reduced natural gas use 60% and electricity use by 30% from 2006 to 2009 at Safeco Field. The Mariners now have one of the most comprehensive environmental programs in sports. “There are a lot of naysayers, but when they see the numbers they start to pay attention,” said Scott Jenkins, vice president of ballpark operations and chairman of the Green Sports Alliance. “Stadiums can become centers of best practices, and we’ve done that in Seattle.” (The Alliance is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help sports teams, venues and leagues enhance their environmental performance.)

Speaking in Philadelphia last September at the Leadership in Greening Sports Conference, the Mariners’ Jenkins said that his team had achieved more than $2 million in savings through conservation efforts starting in 2006.

“It’s worth more than $16 million each year for the league if they can achieve similar savings,” Jenkins said, adding that greening operations has multiple additional benefits that include fulfilling teams’ social responsibility and positively influencing culture. “You can reach a lot of people,” he said.

“Basketball teams are competing with each other to see who can do the most on environmental stewardship.” –Justin Zeulner

Building Momentum

The Mariners’ experience is hardly unique, because most professional teams are picking the low-hanging fruit and saving money in the process. Baseball Commissioner Allan H. “Bud” Selig points out in his introduction to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) 2012 Game Changer report that the league’s 30 clubs are now sharing data on best practices for stadium operations, resulting in reduced environmental footprints — and a better bottom line — for all of its 2,430 regular season games.

Selig’s counterparts in virtually all major sports have made similar commitments. It’s not just talk or window dressing. Today, according to NRDC, 19 professional stadiums or arenas have achieved LEED certification (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, a third-party verification metric of green buildings), complementing 24 college sports facilities. Of 126 sports teams in five major North American leagues, at least 38 are using some form of renewable energy, and at least 68 have energy-efficiency programs. All of the large caterers that service sports venues, feeding tens of millions of people annually, now offer “environmentally preferable” food and beverage options.

The NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers, another founding member of the Alliance, make an excellent case study. The 20,000-seat LEED Gold Moda Center (formerly the Rose Garden Arena) hosts two million visitors a year at more than 200 events.

Justin Zeulner, the Trail Blazers’ senior director of sustainability and public affairs, points to 2.5 million kilowatt-hours saved annually from energy upgrades at the arena, which is now running on 100% renewable energy. Electric use on game day has gone from more than 60,000 kilowatt-hours in 2008 to less than 50,000 in 2011. Annual electricity use has gone from 12 million kilowatt hours before energy-efficiency upgrades to less than 10 million now. The Trail Blazers’ waste diversion rate has gone from under 40% in 2007 to nearly 90% now.

Basketball teams, Zeulner said, “are competing with each other to see who can do the most on environmental stewardship.” And they have good reason to do that. Achieving LEED status cost approximately $260,000, with spending on everything from consultants ($150,000) and entry carpeting ($10,000) to thermal image scans ($2,500).

“Teams and venues are discovering that it generally costs more to landfill than to recycle.”–Alice Henly

There are upfront costs, but also big savings. From a 2008 baseline, Zeulner counts $2.1 million in energy savings, $330,000 in water savings and $570,000 in waste diversion. With an initial investment of $422,500, the Trail Blazers have saved $3 million since 2008.

Working toward Zero Waste

Achieving “zero waste” on game days no longer seems like an impossible dream for many teams, and it can be profitable. The San Francisco Giants were doing relatively well with a 2009 waste diversion rate of 57%, but they found plenty of room for improvement, and the rate soared to 85.2% in 2011 when the team intensified its effort to collect food waste for composting. The University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Boulder) achieved an 88% waste diversion rate at one game in 2011, and its total season waste generation at Folsom Stadium dropped 38% between 2008 and 2012. The stadium’s zero waste effort is expected to save as much as 455 million BTUs of energy by reducing the need for energy-intensive virgin materials by manufacturing plants.

The Ohio State University, meanwhile, achieved an average 87% diversion rate in the fall of 2012 (with a peak rate at one game of 98.2%). The Cleveland Indians cut their trash in half between 2007 and 2009, and that reduced compactor pickups by 64%, saving the team $50,000 annually.

According to Alice Henly, resource specialist and coordinator of college sports greening at the NRDC (and author of its Collegiate Game Changers report), “Teams and venues are discovering that it generally costs more to landfill than to recycle. Zero waste is an aspirational goal that involves an ongoing systems-based approach that considers what comes into your venue as well as recycling what winds up as waste. Every waste stream is a feedstock for another process. All materials have value, so thinking about how to use our resources as intelligently and efficiently as possible can mean saving money.”

The Mariners’ Jenkins has also seen a fast return. He estimates that tooling up the composting operation — which included replacing some worn-out waste bins — cost $150,000, but the team’s savings in 2012 alone equaled at least that. “The initial investment has been paid back, and we’re reaping the higher rewards now.” The same case can be made for energy and water efficiency improvements (such as spending $120,000 to replace water-wasting toilets that use 3.5 gallons a flush with more efficient units that use only 1.6 gallons).

When the Mariners noticed that chicken fingers were being sold with three different dipping sauces — but only one was getting used — they asked customers for their preference. “It’s not a lot of money, but those dipping sauces were 75 cents a serving,” Jenkins said. “Now we’re saving that money and avoiding a landfill cost.”

Solar to the Rescue

The Philadelphia Eagles’ Lincoln Financial Field has been a long-time leader in greening initiatives. Its “Go Green” campaign (also the team’s color), launched with assistance from NRDC and The Sexton Group back in 2004, includes compostable food packaging, cooking oil collection for biodiesel production, large-scale water conservation efforts (“The only water we waste is sweat,” says a sign in the men’s room), and recycled content paper for all tissue and napkin products.

“The only water we waste is sweat.”— a sign in the men’s room of the Philadelphia Eagles

In 2013, Lincoln Financial Field became the first American professional stadium to generate all of its own electricity for game days, through the installation of 11,000 solar panels and 14 micro wind turbines (only 1% of the project’s power generation, but a potent visual symbol). Together, the solar and wind projects provide more than three megawatts of electricity, which is six times the power the Eagles need for home games.

Given the visibility of pro football, the Eagles were able to attract sponsors for much of their greening work. For example, NRG, a New Jersey-based utility, built, installed and maintains the solar and wind energy systems, and through what’s called a power purchase agreement has guaranteed the team annual price increases that are well below predicted utility rate hikes. Over the 20-year agreement, the Eagles anticipate saving millions. For its part, NRG has a guaranteed 20-year revenue stream, and whenever the energy generated at the stadium exceeds the Eagles’ needs, NRG can sell the excess back to the grid.

NRG says solar is good business — it has installed photovoltaics at MetLife Stadium, providing power for the New York Jets and Giants. And it also signed an agreement to bring both wind and solar power to the New England Patriots.

In 2010 the commissioners of all sports leagues distributed a report co-authored by NRDC and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) that guides venue operators through the process of evaluating the viability of solar at their site. As a result, solar is gaining ground at sports venues. Relying on the guidance provided by the NRDC/BEF Solar Guide (and from others), CenturyLink field in Seattle (home to the Seattle Seahawks football team and Seattle Sounders soccer) installed more than 3,700 solar panels over 2.5 acres, producing 830,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually, and realized a 21% estimated energy cost saving. Through that and other measures, CenturyLink is avoiding emissions of 1,350 metric tons of carbon dioxide annually.

Conservation can also make a big difference. Busch Stadium, home of the St. Louis Cardinals, installed solar in 2012, but also started using compact fluorescents throughout the facility, installed occupancy sensors and a lighting control system, made efficiency improvements to the HVAC system and added insulation. The result was a 23% drop in energy use between 2007 and 2010, saving the team a total of $300,000 in energy costs. And energy is 15% to 20% of the operating budget at Busch Stadium.

Savings at the Core

Saving money is built into the environmental initiatives that are part of many athletic businesses. According to Mike Lynch, managing director of green innovation at NASCAR, the league’s green strategy was never meant to be a drag on the bottom line, but a financial asset. NASCAR Green can now point to Pocono Raceway, the “world’s largest solar-powered sports facility,” an impressive recycling effort, and a tree-planting program intended to offset on-track emissions.

A new NASCAR initiative is aimed at reducing the environmental impact of its 300 large transporter trucks, which each travel an average of 60,000 miles a year.

NASCAR’s enthusiasm is complemented by big initiatives at the individual tracks. The Pocono Raceway was facing a 40% to 50% increase in electricity costs due to deregulation, said Brandon Igdalsky, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania track. The track considered wind and solar applications, and building a power-buying consortium with local ski areas and hotels. What worked was solar, and not on a small scale. Pocono Raceway purchased a three-megawatt array, with 39,960 photovoltaic modules. The system cost $15.6 million in 2010, or $5.20 per watt (it would be $1.50 to $2.50 today because of lower solar prices). A 30% federal income tax credit helped pay for the system.

In its first full year of operation, 2012, the solar array produced 4.1 million kilowatt-hours of electricity. Igdalsky projects a 12-to-15-year payback for the solar system, which has a 25-year lifespan. The track has become a solar ambassador. “People listen to us, and we are a great platform to spread the message,” said Igdalsky. “Some 65,000 fans watch a NASCAR race.” At Pocono Raceway itself, NASCAR crowds often reach 100,000.

Pocono Raceway isn’t going it alone: In partnership with Panasonic Raceway at Sonoma in northern California installed a 353-kilowatt solar system that now supplies more than 40% of the track’s electricity. The photovoltaic panels complement the 3,000 sheep that graze the infield in place of carbon-intensive lawn mowing.

Large solar arrays have come down in cost (as Pocono Raceway experienced) and that has made some venues reluctant to invest in technology that might be cheaper tomorrow. An alternative is innovative solar leasing, which allows companies to simply purchase power from solar installed at their property by third parties.

California-based SolarCity specializes in zero-down solar leasing, and Peter Rive, chief operating officer, said that with such power purchase agreements, customers are “just buying energy, period. They don’t have to worry about tax credits and depreciation and getting a rate of return.”

Lancaster, Calif., has made a big investment in solar, and the city is partnering with SolarCity to put a $10 million, 340-kilowatt system at Clear Channel Stadium (which hosts the minor league baseball team Jet Hawks). “This new array will save the city tens of thousands of dollars each year, and that’s significant in the current economic climate,” said Mayor R. Rex Parris. The leased array will provide 98% of the stadium’s energy use. “The old ballgame is moving into a technological new age by taking a swing at alternative energy,” reported the Los Angeles Daily News.

Penn’s Fast Savings

Dan Schupsky is an assistant swimming coach at the University of Pennsylvania, and also a master’s candidate in environmental studies. He was instrumental in creating the Athletics Eco-Reps program at Penn (founded with 13 varsity team members in 2012), and he’s also working to “green” the school’s facilities.

“We started with smaller projects, such as a shoebox recycling program, a water- and energy-use survey for athletes, and putting recycling bins in the locker rooms,” Schupsky said. “Penn became the first Ivy League school to join the Alliance, and starting last spring we really got busy.” Lowering the carbon footprint of the Penn Relays “is a lot of work, but it’s good work, and the student athletes are really engaged.” Penn’s leadership has been recognized by the “Ivy Green Initiative,” which encourages similar efforts by all Ivy League schools and others across the Northeast.

An obvious target for Schupsky was the Sheerr Pool, where he serves as aquatics director. Built in 1967, the pool reflects that older era of technology. But it’s been updated with a variable frequency drive (VFD) that can dramatically reduce the operation of the pool pump and save quite a lot of money. Schupsky said the unit cost approximately $10,000, but will save more than that in its first year of operation, making a payback period of just 9.5 months.

The NHL could realize similar savings by applying VFD technology to its big cost center — making ice. “We can make the motors much more efficient,” said Omar Mitchell, the league’s sustainability director. He added that teams can also use cogeneration to capture and reuse excess heat from the operation of ice-making machines.

Penn’s pool technology has quick payback. But technologies with a longer return on investment (as in the Pocono Raceway case) makes some team and stadium owners nervous. Sean Langer, director of operations at the KFC Yum Center in Kentucky, home of University of Louisville basketball, told The New York Times that “seven to 10 years is a hard pill for my boss to swallow.”

Benefits Big and Small

Financial benefits can be obvious, as in lower energy and waste management costs, or more subtle, as in the case of the Miami HEAT’s transformation of its basketball stadium. LEED green building certification on the team’s existing facility, in 2009, cost only $74,000, said Jackie Ventura, operations coordinator for the Miami HEAT NBA basketball team, “because it was mostly based on things we were already doing.” LEED is widely recognized, and the AmericanAirlines Arena’s LEED certification, along with other environmental initiatives such as electronic waste collection days, community events (including HEAT Beach Sweeps and food donations to homeless shelters), and both water and light upgrades, put the HEAT on the map for green-oriented sponsors.

Ventura said that the HEAT’s energy savings total $1.6 million annually, and that its return on investment (from just energy savings and sponsorships) is a huge, one-time 3,413% return in one year. And that does not count savings related to shifting to ultra-low-flow urinals, compostable paper plates and strategically placed coolers replacing plastic water bottles. “We’ve gotten lots of recognition,” Ventura said. “It’s nice to be known for something other than LeBron James.”

The impressive thing about the greening movement is that it has been embraced widely by many teams and leagues — often for compelling reasons. In 2010 the NHL partnered with NRDC to launch NHL Green. Commissioner Gary Bettman was in part motivated by his concerns about climate change, which has led to lakes freezing later and melting earlier — challenging the ice hockey tradition of skating on frozen ponds. The NHL now measures all energy, water and waste generation at all NHL arenas and encourages more efficient operations. The league offsets emissions from events like the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Winter Classic, replenishes water in an amount equal to its arena use, and operates a food-recovery program that has donated more than 200 tons of prepared food to local shelters.

The NHL food program, launched in the 2010-2011 season, provided 163,000 meals in its first year and diverted 105 tons of food from landfills and incinerators, technologies where food waste causes greenhouse gas emissions. Such reuse and recycling programs, which have won EPA awards, are now a standard and expected part of professional sports.

Visitors to the Trail Blazer’s Moda Center now see Greendrop recycling stations (constructed out of post-consumer materials) nearly everywhere they look. They can park their bikes in one of 250 racks, or charge their electric car at one of 26 stations. If they’re hungry, they’ll find that 90% of the food being offered is local or organic (and work is ongoing for the last 10%). And the plates and cutlery they’ll use are compostable, which was very helpful in having the Moda Center go from 38% waste diversion in 2007 to 90% now.

The greening of sports is a relatively new initiative, with both NRDC and the Alliance as major catalysts in partnership with the biggest pro leagues and the teams. The sports greening movement has already accomplished much, and will definitely do a whole lot more as team owners realize it’s about more than goodwill. Thanks to the low-hanging fruit of energy savings, sponsorship possibilities and invigoration of the fan base, greening can be a profit center, too.