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Earth Day: Big and small ways MLS could go green

It’s Earth Day everyone. Here’s what MLS going green would look like.

Coronavirus - Frankfurt am Main Photo by Arne Dedert/picture alliance via Getty Images

Happy Earth Day, everyone. To celebrate, I figured it would be useful to think about the sport in the context of things like pollution and climate change. Each year, MLS actually does their own Earth Day themed event. Last year, it involved all the teams playing in jerseys made from discarded plastic, community outreach, and financial donations and investments in green causes and initiatives.

I think it’s good that MLS commemorates Earth Day each year. That said, I tend to find what the league does to be a bit on the symbolic side than anything else. I would like to see some initiatives announced that have a bit less flash and little more substance to them. With that said, I came up with a couple big areas that MLS could focus on to really cut down on their impact, especially their CO2 emissions. Dealing with climate change means sometimes making some big changes. That said, we are talking about a soccer league, not an environmental NGO. With that in mind, I’ve kept the list down to things that are specifically related to how MLS currently operates. And I’m not asking the league to take on unrelated expenses or make big donations. Ideally, everything on here is either a small expense, or one that actually helps the league and the specific team save money in the long run. The focus is on making things greener and more efficient, not on telling your favorite sports team to buy some windmills, invest to protect 100 acres in the Amazon rainforest, or dump a truck full of money on some speculative new tech. I’m trying to stick with what’s decently affordable, effective, and doable.

What is MLS Already Doing?

As part of last year’s Earth Day announcement, MLS announced that they would estimate how much CO2 the league cumulatively emitted and that they would pay to offset that amount. In other words, they promised to pay to match the amount that they emitted with efforts to prevent the emission of the same amount of carbon somewhere in the world. The league said that they emitted about 14,500 tons of CO2 and I have no idea how accurate that sum is. Let’s assume that number is right (because I’m neither a statistician nor a climate scientist). I found one of those businesses that will invest those carbon offsets for you and they list their price at $11 per metric ton of CO2. Which puts MLS on the tab for a little less than $1.5 million.

That amount feels a little underwhelming to me (it’s about as much as the current value of Omar Gonzalez on Transfermarket), but it seems to check out. As it turns out, carbon offsets simply are very cheap. So, while it’s not really a big investment, it’s an appropriate one. I can’t really ding them for that.

Scheduling and Expansion

However, you know what’s better than paying to offset CO2? Not emitting it in the first place. One of the big sources for emissions in professional sports is actually from travel. MLS could significantly reduce carbon emissions by organizing their schedule to reduce the amount of travel.

As part of one of my pieces on MLS Expansion, I dug into how much flight time the Chicago Fire would have in a season based on whether they were in the eastern conference or the western one. The idea was to see how much more travel Chicago would have to do if the team got pushed into the Western Conference as expansion continued (Chicago conveniently is both the western most club in the Eastern Conference and has two international airports that connect the city to most everywhere in the US and Canada) , but I cut the segment from the eventual piece (and Nashville went to the Western Conference instead, anyway.) Anyway, I found that the Chicago Fire would increase flight time by over 20% just by switching conferences. That’s a big deal, not just in terms of carbon emitted, but also on the cost and the toll on players.

But that’s just one club. Let’s consider for a second how big it would be for the league if, across the board, there was a 10% decrease in air time. That’s big cost savings, improved quality of play for visiting teams, better mental and physical health for players, AND reduced carbon emissions. And it can be done by reorganizing the schedule.

Right now, MLS plays 34 games in the regular season, with one set of home/away matches for each opponent within the conference, and one match against 10 opponents in the other conference, staggered so that half the games are at home. As the league continues to add more and more teams, that schedule is going to change further. That gives the league the opportunity to tilt the scales a little in ways that save money. For example, the league could set up a third division and restructure the schedule so that there’s less travel. Or, the league could add teams strategically in order to reduce the amount of travel time. For example, Charlotte, which is currently slated to play starting next year, is not very far from the rest of the east coast teams. Or, you could add a handful of west coast teams to push Minnesota, Nashville, St.Louis, and Kansas City into the eastern conference, substantially reducing travel time.

Make the Stadiums Greener

Aside from travel, the stadium is probably the single biggest carbon footprint for any individual MLS team. And that makes the stadiums a big target for going greener. You can either make a stadium emit less carbon, or you can make it more efficient at what it does. These changes can either be built into the architectural design of the building, or put in as renovations.

MLS has been going through a major stadium boom for the last 15 years. Right now, Cincinnati, Columbus, Nashville, Austin, St.Louis, and Sacramento are building their new home; Miami is trying to finish on their proposed deal; and NYCFC, New England, and potentially Chicago are looking to get their own stadium built. That’s a lot of stadiums expected/hoped to be built in the coming years. Throw in potential additional expansion teams, and that number climbs even higher. Then there’s the possibility that teams will replace their stadiums, as Columbus is already doing. That means there’s a lot of construction going on that can be structured to be more efficient.

To start with, getting the location right is a big deal. And this is something that MLS has been doing well on. It’s only good marketing strategy, but putting stadiums in urban centers, where they are easy to get to and replace structures like parking lots and abandoned buildings, is also efficient city planning. It means that less green space actually gets sacrificed and people drive less to get to the games.

In addition, clubs can also be using cleaner materials in construction. Reducing the amount of concrete used in a building can be a big deal as concrete continues to emit CO2 for years after it’s been set. Swapping for sustainably sourced wood can make a big difference. When concrete is necessary, using a concrete mix that is cleaner or even carbon neutral can reduce the emissions from the project in a big way. (And it might even save some money.)

Finally, there are some design elements that can be implemented that reduce the carbon footprint. It goes without saying, if the stadium doesn’t have to be replaced, it ends up being a lot greener (and cheaper) in the long run. So build it right in the first place. Beyond that, getting good installation and ventilation in locker rooms and offices can help a lot. If you design it right, you pay less for heating and cooling. Finally, stadiums should be designed with multi-use in mind. As much as I like the idea of stadiums being specifically and solely for soccer, that’s not efficient. Sharing the space is better for the community, the environment, and the club (because they can charge rent). So, making the space open and available for minor league sports, concerts, and even an NWSL team can, in the long run, make the space much more efficient.

But what if you’ve already got a stadium? Well, there’s still some room for some modest renovations. If you are looking to build an awning to give supporter’s some shade, why not top it with some solar panels? That means the stadium has a passive benefit even when there aren’t games. On top of that, the clubs can sell the electricity back to the grid, cutting down on electricity costs and potentially making money when the stadium isn’t in use. Clubs can also swap out old appliances for new, greener ones. Swapping out gas-fueled stoves or heaters for electrical ones means swapping from running on fossil fuels, to running on electricity that is increasingly based on renewables. In addition, new appliances tend to be more efficient, which means reduced power bills. Finally, you’ve got the simple change of planting a few trees in those stadium concourses. Putting some green spaces in the stadium’s entryways makes the space more appealing, and helps the environment, albeit in a small way.

Support Public Transit

Like most people, when I want to go to a game, I hop into a car and drive. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Arsenal in the English Premier League has a stadium that fits over 60,000 people, and yet, Emirates Stadium has essentially zero parking on the premises. As part of the agreement to build the stadium, the club agreed with the local neighborhood to have only very limited parking. Indeed, other clubs advise their supporters traveling to away games not to drive because there’s nowhere for them to park. Instead, the club relies on a few preexisting parking lots and, more importantly, a preexisting metro station that’s just a few minutes walk.

Now, in most cities in the United States, it’s simply not realistic to have no available parking. Outside of New York City, most cities simply don’t have the public transit infrastructure to make that happen. But that doesn’t mean that clubs shouldn’t try and locate themselves on metro routes or attempt to cut back on parking.

Sitting on a transit line is kind of a “duh” move. But it also gives an opportunity to shift parking into something else. Think about it this way: the only time stadium parking is really necessary is when there is an event. Otherwise, it’s sitting there, not getting used. That’s space that could be going for something else like gardens or parks or even buildings. And it’s space covered in tarmac instead of absorbing heat and water, contributing to overheating in cities and floods. Clubs either have to pay to buy those parking spaces, or pay rent for them. But what to do about it? Well, in a number of cities, there’s more than enough parking in the city (take this survey of Los Angeles as an example.) If you have a sufficient metro system, people can use it to park somewhere else. That reduces travel time and distance, it reduces the amount of traffic (which makes all the neighbors like you more), and makes an opportunity to turn that space into something more useful.

And, finally, clubs should publicly and vocally support expanding transit lines. If more people can easily and affordably travel quickly within a city, more people can go to a game. But building transit is expensive and often fraught. Without a lot of public support, these projects often don’t get done. I should know; here in Cincinnati, we have the single largest failed subway system in the world. Look, it’s simple. If they build it, they will come (to your games).

The Low Hanging Fruit

The list above is focused on big ideas and concepts. But there are also small ways that clubs can make themselves greener. Here are a few ideas, some of which your local might already be doing.

Put recycling bins everywhere: If recycling is easy and available, more people will do it. Putting separate recycling bins with every garbage bin can make a big difference.

Cut plastic out of the game day experience: You don’t need a plastic cup for your beer when a metal can will do just fine, right? There’s so much little plastic bits that seem to pop up everywhere that you really can do without. Food wrapping, The little plastic bags for merch. If people need plastic straws, let them bring their own. If you can’t eliminate it entirely, swap it for paper or aluminum, stuff that is more easily recyclable or compostable. In the long run, it probably reduces litter by a lot, makes recycling and composting a lot easier, and (depending on how much is eliminated vs. substituted) might just save some money.

Get a contract for composting: Look, I get that sometimes, food has to be thrown out. But does it have to be thrown out into a landfill? Landfills are a major source of greenhouse gases, so diverting some of that waste into composting adds up.

Upgrade the bathrooms to water efficient toilets and sinks: I mean, this just saves money in the long run, right?

Do more environmental outreach in the local community: An easy way to build some cheap PR is to get a couple of players on the team to show up and pick up some trash up with some fans. Go plant some trees with a school or something. Doing something local often is a cheap and effective way to get your brand some positive associations, and there’s usually existing local organizations who can help facilitate.

Politely ask people to throw away their crap: If you ask people to do something, they are more likely to do it than if you don’t say anything. Just put up a couple of signs and add a sentence to the announcer at the end of the game.

Make electronic tickets a preference: I get that some people need to print out their ticket for whatever reason, but putting a ticket on a smartphone kills approximately zero trees.

That’s it from me. If you’ve got thoughts or ideas, let me know in the comments below. And Happy Earth Day. Be safe, everyone.