In sports, as in life, the desired path is always from the minor to major leagues.
Yet, in a 21st-century twist, the new stadium housing the Madison Mallards baseball team has reversed that logic. When the team embarked on a $2 million renovation of their stadium in Warner Park, they chose to reuse seats from a couple of major league baseball stadiums, filling up the stands with chairs from the famed Camden Yards in Baltimore, and several rows in left field from Wrigley Field in Chicago.
"Some fans joke that we will never win another title," says Mallards general manager Conor Caloia, acknowledging a famed curse that has dogged the Chicago Cubs since their last World Series win in 1908.
"Hopefully painting the seats green will help," he says, referring to the team color of the Mallards, who play in the Northwoods college summer league. By recycling seats from other stadiums, the Mallards scored a sustainability double play: They saved hundreds of pounds of plastic chairs from the landfill, and they also saved an equal amount of raw materials that would have been used to produce new chairs.
It is a sunny afternoon, hours before the stands will fill up with fans for tonight's game against the Waterloo Bucks. Caloia is trim and clean-cut. In his tan pants with flat pleats, turquoise-blue collared shirt and sleek sunglasses, his image is more GQ model than traditional Birkenstock-and-bearded eco-warrior. But just as the Prius and farmers' markets have gone mainstream in the past few years, sports programs around the country are helping move ideas about sustainability from the fringes to front-and-center in American culture.
Standing in the bleachers behind home plate, Caloia turns around and points proudly to the 1,500-square-foot souvenir stand a stone's throw away. It is a soaring, two-story metal building. "Ninety-five percent of the materials used to build that were recycled," he says.
The shop's exterior walls were once the stadium bleachers; upon closer inspection you can still see the small round green stickers that numbered the seats. Caloia says that fans routinely claim to find their old seat when looking at the shop's new wall.
In fact, looking for signs of sustainability around the stadium is something like a scavenger hunt. Adjacent to the front gate is a massive bike parking lot, where "concierges" are available to wash your bike and fill your tires during the game. And this year, about 50 recycling bins were added to divert as much waste as possible from landfills. The team has achieved a 40% recycling rate, says Caloia, a respectable batting average considering that the national average for at-home recycling trails by about 10 percentage points.
The team also is trying to source more food and beer locally. "Every bratwurst that comes through here is from a local guy," says Caloia. (That place is Stoddard's in Cottage Grove, which produces specialty brats for the games, including brats with ground frog legs added to the mix when the Mallards play the Green Bay Bullfrogs.)
"We feel more responsible doing this," he says, as if recycling a bulky amount of building materials and buying locally are no big deal, even though just a few years ago the concept of green initiatives was as unique as a Jamaican bobsled team. Now, sports programs from coast to coast and throughout every major and minor league are competing to be the "greenest." In the process, sports, once the home to SUV ads and mountains of disposable plastic water bottles, may become America's best hope for sustainability going mainstream.
"This is just something that we should be doing," Caloia says.
Whether it is 5,000 fans for a Mallards game or 80,000 for Badger football Saturdays, game day is an exercise in mass consumption. Such temporary gatherings easily can generate a ton of garbage in half-eaten hot dogs, discarded plastic water bottles and tossed-out glossy programs. They are also huge draws on electricity, from the stadium Jumbotrons to the gas-guzzling cars that transport the majority of fans to stadiums.
But over the past three years, sustainability initiatives have spread like wildfire through sports programs - professional, amateur and college alike. Eighty percent of major league baseball teams now include "green teams" or "sustainability initiatives" as part of their management strategy and are actively pursuing ways to reduce their carbon footprints, both for game-day operations and in their new facilities.
Last year, the Minnesota Twins opened Target Field, an impressive and dynamic silver LEED-certified building that maximizes natural heating and cooling and encourages bike and public transportation. This building nudged out the Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., as the most environmentally friendly ballpark in the country.
Likewise, the Brewers kicked off a sustainability week in late June, which included installing a new scoreboard that uses half the power of the previous Jumbotron and a commitment to put in low-flow toilets, which will save 2 million gallons of water annually.
But it is not just baseball: Representatives from every major sports league and from dozens of college sports programs have joined the green effort over the past few years. The Philadelphia Eagles have installed wind turbines at their stadium, and the most recent Stanley Cup series went "water neutral" by replacing each drop used during the finals - from the rink to the faucets - with an equal amount restored to an overtaxed river in central Oregon.
To some extent, these initiatives reflect changing national habits and attitudes. But the "going green" movement in sports is hardly arbitrary.
In late 2009, representatives from six professional teams gathered in Seattle for what one attendee calls an informal lunch.
"We really didn't know what would grow out of this," says Scott Jenkins, the Seattle Mariners' VP for ballpark operations. Included were managers from three teams owned by Microsoft co-founder and CEO Paul Allen - baseball's Mariners, basketball's Portland Trailblazers and soccer's Seattle Sounders. They were joined by representatives from football's Seattle Seahawks, hockey's Vancouver Canucks and women's basketball's Seattle Storm.
What resulted was the formation of the Green Sports Alliance, an organization that is steering what may be the quickest and farthest-reaching sea change in sports ever.
Jenkins grew up in Kenosha and attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was an All-American in cross-country. After graduation he worked for the university with facilities management. His first big project was the Kohl Center 13 years ago. From there, he helped open Miller Park in Milwaukee.
At that time, says Jenkins, "sustainability wasn't at all a focus. How we made [stadiums] efficient was driven by the business opportunities." But cutting fuel costs and reducing carbon footprints began to emerge as concurrent goals. "Concern for the environment and the bottom line just go hand-in-hand," says Jenkins.
After leaving the Brewers, Jenkins moved west to work for the Mariners. He now sits on the Green Sports Alliance board of directors and, three years ago, encouraged major league baseball teams to conduct their first survey about recycling rates at ballparks. They found a middling 12% recycling rate, with a couple of West Coast teams - the San Francisco Giants and Seattle Mariners - leading the pack at 25%.
"Once you start to share ideas and to benchmark them, then you see dramatic changes," says Jenkins.
Only a few years later, those first results seem downright paltry. With more visible recycling bins, better signage and more fan education, the Giants have jumped their recycling rates to an impressive 85%, and most teams have followed suit.
Jenkins is easygoing, and conversations flow from small talk back to high-minded ideals. He returns to discussing Americans' rates of consumption. "We're trying to bring these ideas in from the supply side," he says, meaning that sport programs cannot follow their fan base's expectations, but that teams need to be the ones curbing appetites and changing habits.
"Sports hold great potential for raising awareness and sharing what can be done," he concludes. This July, the number of membership teams for the Green Sports Alliance jumped from six to 20.
But if professional sports are forming unprecedented alliances to step up as cultural leaders, so far college sports lag.
Five years ago, Mark McSherry was taking a graduate course at Harvard. One evening, someone posted a question online about what the Red Sox were doing for sustainability. McSherry realized that there was no information available to answer that question. He also recognized an opportunity, eventually forming ProGreenSports.
Since then, McSherry has worked with professional teams like the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Nationals. Also, in 2009, he conducted the most comprehensive survey so far about what college sports programs are doing for sustainability; he contacted 119 programs and heard back from nearly 100.
The results were telling.
"The pros run more like a business," says McSherry, noting that such "green initiatives" as reducing electricity for lights and monitoring heating and cooling systems are big money savers. "Colleges," he says, "are more driven by visionaries."
McSherry's study found that while 70% of pro teams had developed a strategic sustainability plan, only 25% of college programs had done so. Moreover, 15% of college respondents - more than twice the percentage in pro sports - dismissed sustainability as a "fad."
In 2010, McSherry released results from a second year of surveys. These showed college programs still lagging pro teams but quickly gaining ground. The percent for pro programs running "green teams" climbed a few points to 80%, but nearly doubled to 40% for college programs. And, most notably, nearly all respondents at the college-level pledged that "emphasis on environmental programs will increase."
It is difficult to pinpoint exact changes and trends for Wisconsin's sports program; McSherry's study doesn't identify individual institutions. Even so, several indicators show that the university has recently ramped up its sustainability efforts, including within the athletic department.
Most broadly, the "College Sustainability Report Card" has shown marked improvements campuswide over the past three years. The report is prepared by the Sustainability Endowments Institute, an independent academic think tank based in Boston. The report card looks at a variety of indicators, from food services to buildings' efficiencies, and is one of the most widely read and respected measurements of what colleges are doing for sustainability. Although sports programs are not included in the rating, the report card does offer a general idea about an institution's attitudes. (Starting next year, the Sustainability Report Card will begin to incorporate McSherry's data into its ratings.)
In 2009, UW-Madison earned a B overall on the College Sustainability Report Card, with especially poor grades - C's - in energy policy and student involvement.
Over the past two years, though, the university has dramatically improved sustainability efforts, with high-efficiency lighting and HVAC systems bringing about major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and dining services more than doubling the percentage spent on organic and local foods, from 16% to 42%. In 2011, UW-Madison earned its first overall A.
These upticks in sustainability efforts also are evident in the Badgers sports program, even without specific studies to say so. Four years ago, for example, the Daily Cardinal published a somewhat damning article about what the Badgers were doing for eco-friendly measures. The headline read: "As other large universities' athletic fields go 'green,' recycling at UW athletic facilities still seen as 'infeasible.'" The article went on to say that events at Camp Randall and Kohl Center offered "little to no active recycling," and quoted Barry Fox, UW athletic department director of facilities, calling recycling efforts at sporting events "impractical."
That sentiment is eons from current attitudes. At a recent tour of the Kohl Center, senior assistant athletic director Tim Wise points out that the blue recycling cans are bigger than the regular trash bins.
It is difficult to get excited about the size of trashcans, but Wise is clearly enthused - or at least very determined to show that Badger athletics has joined other leading programs around the country with sustainability efforts.
Wise has been around sports programs since his college days in South Carolina, where he worked as a ticket taker. He continues the tour around the Kohl Center, pointing out small changes. All of the light switches are now motion-triggered, automatically turning off when employees leave their offices or athletes finish on the basketball courts. "Student athletes are not always the best about remembering to turn the lights off," Wise says.
But Wise saves the biggest achievement for last: Stepping outside Gate B and into the summer heat, he points to a construction site with a bleached dirt pit about 100 yards long, ringed by a concrete wall.
Right now, it doesn't look like much, but university officials hope that this site - a new practice rink for the hockey teams scheduled to open in October 2012 - will be the school's first LEED-certified sport facility. They broke ground five months ago and have been scrambling to pick up points in the LEED certification process, from installing a more efficient HVAC system to recycling leftover building materials.
Says Wise: "Sustainability is just part of the job now."