A Sustainable Future: No Step Too Small

Sports sits on a powerful pedestal, able to influence initiatives and create change. With sustainability an increasingly critical global crisis, our industry’s venues can be conduits to change, while also influencing the millions of fans who frequent them. The impact of initiative influence is explored with Kristen Fulmer, Senior Director of Sustainability, OVG360, Senior Sustainability Director, GOAL and Omar Mitchell, Vice President, Sustainable Infrastructure & Growth Initiatives, National Hockey League.

This transcript has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

What role do you play in the sports industry, and specifically in the sustainability and strategy space?

KF: I run a program called Goal within OVG360, which lives within Oakview Group more broadly. We help to integrate sustainability strategies into venues of all kinds including arenas, stadiums, convention centers, anywhere that OVG360 works and hopes to apply the learnings from Climate Pledge Arena and bring that to venues around the world.

I studied sustainable design within the world of architecture and worked in corporate real estate and in affordable housing for many years integrating sustainability there. I realized the opportunity for influence that certain buildings had and got really excited about and interested in sports to create change and transitioned there to think about venues more broadly.

OM: I am the Vice President of Sustainable Infrastructure and Growth Initiatives at the National Hockey League. I've been at the league for 10 years and I oversee all of our environmental sustainability efforts across the league and its member clubs.

We launched our NHL Green Platform in 2010 as a mandate by the commissioner to promote sustainable business practices and over the past 12 plus years, we're really seeing this effort become way more advanced and driven both at the league as well as at the club and venue level.

How is our industry doing its part to enhance sustainable venue design and operation?

KF: Sports and entertainment is a global industry the impacts of climate change is a global problem. Though these are big topics, we have to think locally and that means working within venues at a very local scale to create change. Venues around the world are starting to do that.

Using partnerships – brands that are really interested in creating an impact – is leveraging the voices and power of fans and visitors. Even hearing from athletes and artists who want to perform in certain venues and the demands to create influential change.

Sports and entertainment more broadly is enacting that change by listening to the world around them and inspiring change because we have such a platform to do that in a really exciting and really unique way.

OM: We've seen a real shift in how sports and entertainment venues have adopted sustainable business practices either by reducing operational costs or seeing it as a revenue driver by bringing in marketing partners and brands who share value with sports properties who are prioritizing sustainability.

Marketing partners are interested in this space. We're seeing that customers who are coming into venues are demanding some of the things that they feel are important to them from an environmental perspective.

One example of that was plastic straws and the fact that single-use plastics is a big concern particularly in oceans. And there was big movement around reducing single-use plastics, particularly straws, in sports and entertainment venues.

KF: The good and the challenging thing about sustainability is that it can look so different depending on where you are and depending on who's implementing it or what they want to do. There are really big initiatives a venue can take on and there are very small implementation strategies that venues can take on.

What other challenges are we overcoming as we strive to lead this initiative?

OM: There is so much opportunity to embed environmental sustainability into sports venue operations. It's almost overwhelming and so, it takes a seasoned practitioner to understand how you can implement things that I call “low calorie, high impact”.

Those are the things that will get buy-in from the executive level. Those are the things that will get buy-in when you talk about your environmental efforts with your customers, your consumers, those spectators who are going to come into your building. In order to make a sea-shift and a change, we can't boil the ocean. We need to start small, effectuate change at a local level and then grow our efforts.

KF: We can think about really broadly impacting and reducing carbon emissions. This requires thinking about this problem as a global issue but then we can think about waste and tactical small things that we can see and feel. That might be going to a landfill close by.

What we in the industry need to do is help make the connections between big scale impact and the realization that our local small efforts make a difference and vice versa. Realizing that these small efforts, such as waste reduction, composting, water reduction, within a specific venue has a global impact and there's no step that's too small to start to take to start your journey.

When adopting sustainability at any scale, it's really hard to know where and how and when to start and to have people to do it. You need someone who's passionate and, on the ground, tactically to know what sustainability strategies might be worthwhile taking.

Who can make the change and what do they need to understand to do so?

KF: You need someone to really shepherd the cause and be the leader. People think of it as being a budget issue but really sustainability, when it's integrated effectively, reduces cost over time especially when you can pull in brand partners who can help with some of the initial upfront investment that it takes to help you get there.

OM: We need to have executive leadership that's bought-in at the top because it's their mandate that will help drive this throughout the value chain and throughout your organization. On the flip side, it's not just executive management that needs this, it's also a bottom-up effect. So anybody from the chef to your janitor to your suite sales person can really be inspired by environmental sustainability and drive change within your organization.

What venues are leading the way?

OM: Climate Pledge Arena is one example of where it's embedded into their business operations, and I only see that as table stakes now where we're going to see this embedded in much more sports and entertainment venues going forward.

It's those little things that have real significant impact and it's thrilling to see that sports and entertainment venues can really be the catalyst for change. At the end of the day, we can only do so much within our operations, but if we can influence the millions of fans who watch our sport, who come into our venues, that's where we're going to have the real impact.

For more information:
GOAL is an industry movement, bringing together venue operators to take on sustainability together. The Founding Circle Members, announced October 24, 2022, include several NHL, NBA, MLB, NFL, and NCAA facilities as well as other live event spaces. Interested parties may reach out to: kfulmer@oakviewgroup.com

The National Hockey League is committed to promoting sustainable business practices with Member Clubs, players, fans, employees and partners by promoting innovative technologies to transform our business, and inspiring our communities and partners to lower emissions, conserve water, reduce waste and more. By doing our part, we hope to protect the places we play hockey for future generations. Learn more here at nhl.com/green.
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Oak View's GOAL unveils founding circle members
A Common GOAL: OVG, sports team partners create new membership platform to exchange sustainability best practices
NHL partners with SAP on digital platform to gauge carbon footprint