Crunch Time: How Sustainability is Taking Over the World of Sports bY: Owen Volk

In the world of sports, sustainability is no longer just a buzzword, but a necessity. Year after year, as stadiums fill and competitions heat up, some players in the sports industry are stepping up their game to tackle environmental challenges.

From energy-efficient stadiums to waste management initiatives, many sports organizations worldwide are embracing sustainable practices, suggesting that the thrill of the game and the health of our planet can go hand in hand. For hockey, the journey to sustainability took a major leap forward back in 2011 in Syracuse, NY with the Syracuse Crunch.

Syracuse Crunch and Hartford Whalers warming up at the War Memorial Arena in Syracuse, NY. (Doug Kerr/CC BY-SA 2.0 Deed)

The Syracuse Crunch are the Tampa Bay Lightening’s minor league affiliate team in the American Hockey League (AHL) who play home games at the War Memorial Arena in Syracuse. Back in 2011, an initiative was implemented by the Crunch and Onondaga County to capture rainwater from the arena’s roof and use it to create the ice that the team skates on.

This project was just one of many implemented by Onondaga county to address stormwater pollution after major rain events. Former County Executive Joanie Mahoney conceived the plan and was a central figure in bringing it to fruition. This allowed the Crunch to be the first professional hockey team in the country to skate on ice made from rainwater. To this day, the Crunch continues to use the system and has only on rare occasions had to bring in water from outside sources.

So how does the system work? Rainwater is collected on the roof of the building and runs through drains into three 8-foot-wide reservoir tanks in the basement. Water is stored in the tanks throughout the year. (Photo taken by Owen Volk)

When the water is ready to be used, it's filtrated through a system and then run through cooled tubes up to the rink level where it's sprayed. The water is also used for the plumbing system in the bathrooms throughout the building. (Photo taken by Owen Volk)

As is normal in most hockey stadiums, underneath the ice is a coolant system of glycol. With both the glycol and chilled water supply, the rink remains frozen and the arena remains cold enough for hockey games. (Photo taken by Owen Volk)

The NHL has been implementing similar initiatives across their stadiums as well. In 2011 the league made an effort to highlight water stewardship, and through a partnership with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation, they counterbalanced 88 million gallons of water through the purchase of water restoration credits.

Ice management systems have also been upgraded to manage the quality of the ice without having to introduce any extra water. Omar Mitchell, the NHL Vice president for corporate social responsibility spoke on the importance of these initiatives saying, "The reason why the League is focused on environmental sustainability issues is because of two major points: The roots of our sport are tied to playing outdoors and therefore we need cold weather, and the fact that the way we play is on freshwater, frozen fresh water. Because of those two main concerns, we as a League have realized that this is something that's authentic to us, and it's something that we need to take a leadership stance [on] and be aware of the challenges that brings to the business of our hockey and the growth of our sport.”

An overhead shot of Climate Pledge Arena during its renovation in 2019 (Wikimedia Commons)

On the other side of the country in Washington State, the Seattle Kraken have a newly built stadium, known as Climate Pledge Arena. In 2020, the Kraken signed the Climate Pledge, a project of Amazon and Global Optimism in which signees commit to achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2040. With this goal in mind, they built the stadium which today operates at carbon net zero

They are completely fossil fuel free, run on 100% renewable energy, have carbon offsets, and are a functional zero waste facility. Tim Lewicki of Oak View group (the group that manages the arena) stated during their opening press conference, “In the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, Oak View Group, in partnership with the Seattle Kraken and Amazon, set the most audacious sustainability goal ever in the sports and entertainment industry – to build the first arena to be net zero carbon. Despite remarkable obstacles, today we celebrate this achievement for Climate Pledge Arena and the entire industry.” The stadium itself is also a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified: Silver building. LEED Is an internationally used rating system for environmentally green buildings. It's used as a means of recognizing buildings that go above and beyond to provide leadership in building sustainable and cost-saving green buildings. Certification is based off the number of requirements on a predetermined list met, and the rating system goes Certified, Certified Silver, Certified Gold, and Certified Platinum.

One of the other most notable stadiums to excel in LEED certification is Mercedes-Benz stadium, the home to the Atlanta Falcons. The stadium is the first professional sports venue in the United States to reach LEED Platinum certification.

Hockey isn't the only sport featuring teams who are working to rebuild their stadiums and systems to help support environmental efforts. All 32 NHL teams, as well as teams like the Boston Red Sox, Denver Broncos, FC Barcelona, and many more have now partnered with a company called the Green Sports Alliance.

According to its website, this trade organization seeks to, “[Convene] stakeholders from around the sporting world (teams, leagues, conferences, venues, corporate partners, governmental agencies, athletes, and fans) to promote healthy, sustainable communities where we live and play.” To do so, they’ve started the Play to Zero campaign which Roger McClendon, executive director of the Green Sports Alliance, has been quoted saying, “With global reach, the sports and entertainment industry can use the Play to Zero program to measure, mitigate, recognize and celebrate environmental impact across waste, water and energy operations towards net zero.”

The Play to Zero Campaign is bringing together like-minded individuals in places of power to help fund and promote healthy and sustainable communities. Being able to enter these communities and share the knowledge and resources that they have helps to engage members throughout the community while bringing behavioral change that will take sustainable practices and make them a habit. This is projected to be the most substantial way to introduce and carry-on sustainable practices through sports.

As for the Syracuse Crunch, they haven’t stopped working to find other areas of improvement throughout the arena to improve sustainability since introducing the rainwater program. In the last few years, renovations have taken place that have installed a new scoreboard with more environmentally friendly LEDs, new LED lighting has been put up around the stadium to replace the old less environmentally friendly bulbs, and the new VIP lounge and box seating were built with sustainable practices in mind.

As the environmental crisis becomes more and more dire, it has become imperative that across the world we start making changes to begin attempting to slow down the effects of climate change. With the help of teams, leagues, and athletes around the world, sports have an opportunity to do something that they're good at: Win one for Mother Earth.