I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the Green Sports Alliance Summit. One case study in particular continues to resonate in my mind, a complete revamping of an existing facility right across the Willamette River from where the Summit took place in Portland. It is a landmark example of how sports can help steer the development of policies which reach far beyond just the results on the court.
Perhaps the most engaging panel discussion at the Summit involved the case studies of the Minnesota Twins and the Portland Trail Blazers and their concurrent paths toward LEED certification for their respective facilities. LEED — the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design designation based on standards created by the U.S. Green Building Council — has been the international standard since 1998 in third-party verification of sustainable building design.
Alan Scott of the Green Building Service, an expert in the nuances of the LEED certification process, moderated the panel. Before the two team representatives presented their case studies, Scott elaborated the basic goal of LEED: to reduce the overall environmental impact of a building over its useful life by providing standards and the incentives to track and work toward the reduction of key impact numbers.
It isn’t a flawless system without kinks, but it is a reliable means to encourage the creation of work and living environments that are healthier both for the people who occupy them and for the greater environment in which they exist. However, it is a system that was conceived without the special demands of the sports arena in mind.
But sports have increasingly been aware of their leadership role in society. And several teams have awakened to their need to provide not merely quality entertainment but a quality environment in which to take in that entertainment. Minnesota showed how a stadium can be built clean and green from its conception to its completion, a new beacon of sustainable sport that offers a glimpse into the future of athletic arenas. Portland showed how the proper investment in an existing facility can have a lasting effect both on the balance sheets and on the pride of a fan base.
John McEvoy, the manager of ballpark operations at Target Field, took to the microphone first to outline the steps the process of constructing a LEED New Building-certified sports stadium in Minneapolis. Opening in April 2010 as just the second LEED Silver-certified ballpark in the United States, Target Field surpassed Nationals Field in Washington as the greenest stadium in Major League Baseball thanks to vigilance on the part of all staff involved in its construction and operations — from the owners and executive management on down to the maintenance and cleaning crews and the concessionaires.
The genesis of the quest first began in 2006, as the team and the Minnesota Ballpark Authority put up the $2.5 million in funds to get the project off the ground in lieu of seeking out grants to offset the additional costs. When construction began with the April 2007 groundbreaking ceremony, it began with the intention of creating the most sustainable place in the United States to watch a baseball game.
Working with Mortensen Construction, a local green construction firm, the Twins and the Minnesota Ballpark Authority set about rethinking every facet of stadium management. The beautiful part of LEED certification is that it is dependent not just on what goes into the building construction (recycled materials from around the Twin Cities were extensively reclaimed for use in Target Field, along with locally-sourced limestone and other building staples), but also in a change of mindset.
McEvoy was talking about complaints from customers in their suites that the rooms were getting too hot during afternoon games. The ballpark operations team soon discovered that there was nothing wrong with their systems; rather, people were simultaneously running air conditioning and opening the windows and doors for unobstructed views of the field and then wondering why they weren’t getting any cooler. You can automate all the doors and the lights you possibly can, but if fans and staff override the systems without thinking of the consequences it matters little.
The Twins were also aggressive in the leaguewide initiative to track waste diversion rates and increase the amount of waste kept from entering landfills. An aggressive recycling program prevents 140 cubic feet of trash a game from going to the dump, and the Twins have benefited from the new Green Track system created by the league offices to track key data for all 30 teams.
But even as they installed innovative scoreboards and LED lighting systems and worked with the city to install light-rail systems that helped reduce the environmental impact of both the team and the community around its stadium, tradition still wedged its way into the discussion. It all came down to something as simple as the post-game shower.
Soon after the ballpark opened in 2010, ESPN rated the shower pressure in locker rooms at every major-league stadium. It was a seemingly innocuous story, but when the Twins ended up dead last in the standings — after independently hearing complaints from opposing players as well as their own — the team took action.
Action, it turns out, is often as simple as running to your local Menards and buying several low-flow shower heads to test out. Once they had found a head that produced better pressure while still releasing just 2.0 gallons per minute, they bought up all they could and replaced every head that had been installed new so recently.
Sometimes sustainability can fail to function, but it is the wise operations that manage to roll with the punches and stick to their initiative despite the ridicule. McEvoy and his ballpark operations team could easily have capitulated to the laughter at their expense and gone with standard shower heads. Instead they sought a different solution, solving multiple problems with a combination of good intentions and a healthy dose of trial-and-error.
It is that sort of commitment which is infectious. The Twins have seen that initial outlay on LEED certification come back in the form of energy and water savings and reduced costs of waste management. McAvoy and his crew from top to bottom remain excited about the team’s continued motivation toward improving further its position as an industry leader in baseball’s drive toward sustainability.
What McEvoy’s 15-minute presentation demonstrated was that new stadiums can be beneficial to the local economy and can have positive ramifications for the environmental health of the communities surrounding them. With costs that ran just half a percentage point of the total cost of the stadium’s construction, Target Field demonstrates the feasibility of the premise that new stadiums don’t have to be a drain on resources nor do they have to be cost-prohibitive.
As the afternoon crowd applauded his speech, fortified by Widmer Hefeweizen poured from a keg at the Natural Resources Defense Council booth during the half-hour break before the panel’s start, Justin Zeulner — the director of sustainability and planning for the Rose Garden and the greater Rose Quarter campus — stepped up to the lectern and opened his PowerPoint presentation.
“This is something we have never before shown outside our organization — I’m going to walk you guys through the real costs of bringing your building up to LEED standards,” Zeulner said into the microphone to open his presentation of the Blazers’ case study.
Clicking through the slides, he presented numbers he had conservatively calculated with his bosses ahead of the panel at the World Trade Center. Each new figure demonstrated the real costs of the Blazers’ efforts toward creating the most sustainable arena in any American sports arena. In the process the numbers presented a compelling case for more stadiums and arenas around the nation to seek out the honor regardless of the age of the facilities.
On January 26, 2010, Zeulner and the Rose Garden staff learned that their comprehensive efforts had earned the arena the distinction of becoming the first sports facility in the United States to earn the LEED Gold certification. It was the culmination of a chain of studies and improvements at the 16-year-old facility, which cost $267 million to build in 1995.
The real question for teams seeking to improve their environmental footprint, though, is just how much each step is going to hit the bottom line. As the team with the highest attendance in the Western Conference, Portland is a town for which the Blazers represent their sole major pro sports franchise (or did, until the ascension of the Timbers to the MLS in soccer in 2011). The team, valued at $356 million by Forbes last year and owned by billionaire Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, can afford to make a principled stand to placate an eco-savvy fan base.
But how much does this really cost? Is such a move valuable for a franchise, or an altruistic decision that sends a team into the red?
Zeulner began clicking through the slides, each more revealing than the last. Consulting with Green Building Services, they determined their baseline parameters of their footprint:
- over 2 million people annually
- 200+ events
- 10.4 million kWh of electricity
- 1.4 million cubic feet of water
- 2 million pounds of waste
They also analyzed the breakdown by percentage of where the team was expending its resources:
- Guest commute — 58%
- Employee commute — 12%
- Energy use on Rose Quarter campus — 24%
- Waste disposal — 2%
- Business travel — 4%
This was part of the sustainability analysis and carbon footprint baseline draft, a $25,000 expense that was part of $150,000 worth of consulting costs that went into determining the environmental problem spots in the building as it entered the prime of its second decade of existence.
Clicking through the slides, Zeulner went faster and faster as he broke down the data as quickly as possible against the impending cutoff of a panel scheduled for just 45 minutes. In the end it might have been the most information-packed 45 minutes of the entire three-day conference.
In the end, the balance sheet basically worked out like this (everything slashed out involved grants and subsidies that came after the fact for the efforts):
|COSTS: $560,000||SAVINGS: $738,000/year|
Beyond the initial $560,000 expenditure to get the building to a point where it could receive the LEED Gold certification, there are additional ongoing costs of maintaining compliance with the standards. In addition, a recertification process will take place every five years (which the Twins, Nationals and other LEED-certified stadiums and franchises will also encounter as they continue their own journeys) that will incur further expenses.
But as the numbers show, the benefits — a waste-diversion rate of 60+%, 95% compostable materials in the stadium concessions, the use of 100% renewable energy, landscaping and stadium retrofits that save many thousands of gallons of water annually — far outweigh the up-front costs. In just a year the Blazers already recouped expenses from their ambitious endeavor…
The results have been promising in both places. The actions undertaken by these two franchises have galvanized their communities into greater support for initiatives beyond the sporting arena. It helps to change perceptions about sustainability initiatives, demystifying things like composting and recycling and other simple tasks in a comfortable setting that then allows a city and the individuals within it to reassess priorities.
The Twin Cities are investing in new public-transit infrastructure, the light-rail system to Target Field the start of an ongoing project which could significantly reduce the environmental impacts throughout the metropolitan area. In Portland, a city already renowned nationwide for their transit systems, traffic to the Rose Quarter on public transportation has increased nearly twofold.
And the beautiful part is that their example only spurs their rivals to greater action of their own. For the longest time the STAPLES Center in Los Angeles was the shining star of sustainability in the Western Conference with their 500 kWh solar array; now their direct opponent to the north has stolen the spotlight. Minnesota has upped the ante with Target Field over teams like Cleveland that had already began to initiate their own projects.
When Minnesota unveiled Target Field, they did everything possible to one-up Nationals Park. The next ballpark to open in the majors will do its damnedest to one-up Target Field. Innovation begets innovation, and the sharing of information that occurs both within a league among its teams and across sports boundaries at landmark summits like the Green Sports Alliance Summit only allows progress to occur with less trial and error.
Stay tuned… because while teams like the Twins and Trail Blazers are LEED-ing the way in sustainable stadium development and management, they won’t last on the top of the heap forever. Just like a championship makes a team the target of everyone’s best game the next season, the work done in Minneapolis and Portland is only going to inspire other franchises to one-up their competition. And sports around the world when competition can augment collaborative efforts to improve the overall footprint of all our pastimes…