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Green Sports Blog: An Interview with Lew Blaustein About His Push for the 'Greening' of the Sports World

The Green Sports Blog is one of the premiere websites covering the intersection of sports with the worlds of energy, the environment, and climate change. Publishing at least once or twice a week, this blog spreads awareness of the eco-athletes in the big leagues, provides commentary and analysis of the latest green initiatives in sports, and is a one-stop shop for this growing field of study.

I had the opportunity to speak with Lew Blaustein, the writer behind the Green Sports Blog, and ask him some pressing questions I had as both an energy nut and a sports fanatic. And if after reading my interview with Mr. Blaustein you feel compelled to learn more, I highly recommend you head to the Green Sports Blog and sign up to receive email alerts when new articles are published and follow him on Twitter as well.

My conversation with Lew Blaustein

Chester Energy and Policy: First off, Lew, I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to speak with me about the work you’re doing at the intersection of energy and sports, a topic that I think doesn’t get enough attention. I have a couple of questions I’d love to ask to get some more insight into your work and the difference you’re hoping to make in the sports industry as it relates to energy.

Lew Blaustein: Sure, fire away!

Chester: To start with the basics, why sports? What drew you to investigate and highlight the intersection of sports with green issues?

Blaustein: Well I would say that the question should really be the other way around. I always wanted to work in sports ever since I was about seven years old, but I knew I was a crummy athlete, so I first tried sportscasting, which was a very tough way to make a living. Then I tried sports business– ad sales, business development, promotions, marketing, communications, and I did that for over 15 years.

Through all of this I always considered myself a ‘lowercase e’ environmentalist, but my passion for it did not rise to the level of my sports passion until 9/11 occurred. I was always living and working in the New York/New Jersey/Connecticut tri-state area, and when 9/11 happened I was working for Sports Illustrated for Kids. In the wake of the attacks, though, I felt I had to do something, but what was that something? I really didn’t know, but then about three or four months after that Thomas L. Friedman, an author and columnist with the New York Times, wrote a column that said green is the new red, white, and blue.

The idea was that the United States at that time comprised about 4% of the world’s population and 25% of the world’s energy use, as this was before the fracking boom, domestic production boom, and the rise of India and China to any large degree (now we’re closer to 4% of population and about 20% of energy use). So, Friedman made the point that our insanely profligate energy use was fueling the terrorism that we were fighting. That really resonated with me. I thought it was this bipartisan type issue that everyone would want to reduce our country’s energy demand.

I was inspired– I went out and bought a hybrid car (eventually I just got rid of my car, since you can do that in New York City), I changed all my light bulbs, I almost became vegetarian, all these sorts of things. As time went on, I got schooled on climate change, and so then it made even more sense. So, I went off in 2005 and left Sports Illustrated for Kids and became a communications/business development/marketing consultant with a sustainability focus.

Then a few years later, around 2008 or 2009, I started thinking what if there was an intersection of green and sports and how cool that would be, given my duel passions. In short order, I found out about the Green Sports Alliance (GSA) and poked around some more and in 2013 I decided to start this blog because no one else was doing anything like it. I thought this would help me get to know all the people in that world (small as it was and still is) and that would help me build my consulting business, which has happened to a degree. Then it turns out that people like the blog and so that’s how that all came to be.

Chester: Interesting, so you used your existing background in sports and leveraged that as your way to do the most good for the country and the world, using sustainability as your foot in the door.

Blaustein: Yes, exactly.

Chester: Great, well you mentioned your blog– which I’ve become a huge fan of and I really enjoy the work you’re doing. I was wondering if there are any articles you’ve written that have become your favorites, for whatever reason that might be that they’ve held a spot in your heart.

Blaustein: That’s a great question. There are a couple of articles that jump out– there’s a series of articles I’ve written about the Forest Green Rovers, a minor league soccer team in the fourth tier in England.  They’re in this part of working-class England that would be akin to Youngstown, Ohio, and they’re owned by a solar and wind company in that area. The guy who owns that company is a real entrepreneur, environmentalist, and character in the best sense of the word.

He bought the team when it was in the throes of bankruptcy and he decided to make it the greenest team in sports, which he has done to the nth degree: the team’s field is organic, it’s mowed by a solar-powered “Mo-bot,” the 5,000 seat stadium has solar on site, and many of the players are provided with electric cars. The biggest innovation in my opinion is that all the food sold at the concession stands is vegan, which is also the only food that is served by the staff to the players. That vegan-only food approach was met with initial opposition from the fans, which is unsurprising, but, over time, they gave the food a chance and liked it.

Opposing teams would end up coming into the stadium and sing songs mocking the team for its greenness, but the Forest Green fans started to like the difference that these changes brought their team and so they started singing songs mocking the songs that were mocking them! And then, the team started to win, and they got promoted from the fifth-tier to the fourth-tier league– the highest they had been in over 120 years. Hopefully they will avoid relegation back to the fifth-tier. They’re just above the “drop zone” with four matches to play (Note : as of publication, it looks like the Forest Green Rovers are safe from relegation). No matter what, Forest Green Rovers are a great story.

Another piece that comes to mind is a satirical column about LeBron James when he came back from the Miami Heat to the Cleveland Cavaliers and how the reason why he did, in my imagination, was that he was afraid of the effects of climate change in Miami.

A last series of articles I’ve written that I’d bring up is a couple of stories about Leilani Münter, this self-described hippy vegan eco-chick with a racecar. She’s basically “Danica Patrick with a Tesla,” a Tesla that’s powered by her home’s solar panels. She currently drives in the ARCA circuit just below the NASCAR level.

Chester: Excellent, those all sound like great articles that I’m now eager to go back and read and encourage others to do the same. Getting back to energy use in sports and what changes can be made going forward, one of the aspects of sports that most people think about when it comes to energy use is the stadiums themselves. You hear about LEED-certified stadiums and the latest green innovations coming to newer stadiums and all these ways stadiums can be changed to make sports greener– but outside of these energy-efficient parts of stadiums, what are some of the other key users of energy in sports that might present future energy savings that are less discussed in mainstream circles?

Blaustein: The biggest source of carbon emissions in the putting on of sports is actually fan travel. How do you change that? Sports organizations are already doing that in some respects with re-urbanization of stadium locations. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, stadiums were often built in the suburbs, and now they’re being situated back in the urban core with much greater access to mass transit. But there is more that can be done in this respect– incentivize fans to take mass transit, provide bike accessibility, make it prohibitive to park, provide parking and charging for electric vehicles (especially in places like California where the electric vehicle penetration is already more significant than anywhere else).

While fan travel is the hardest to control, that’s where the emissions are. I also think that getting athletes to talk about travel is important, such as public service announcements (PSAs) with athletes talking about how they drive electric vehicles or hybrid cars or even ride bikes to get around. LeBron James actually did a video for Nike when he was with the Miami Heat about how he rode his bike to work, which ended up increasing bike commuting in Miami by 8 to 10% by some measures.

Chester: Regarding fan involvement, is there anything else you’ve come across that the average energy- and environmentally-conscious fan can do to make a difference when it comes to making sports greener?

Blaustein: I would say, semi-satirically, they can read my blog to keep up with what is being done and can be done at the intersection of green and sports! But aside from that, there are a few things that fans can do, and I’d separate fans out by the fans that are traveling to the games and the fans who are watching the games on television.

For those who are watching the games in person, I would again emphasize that they take mass transit. When discussing people who go to games and have mass transit as an option, that is the best thing they can do. The next best thing they can do if mass transit is not an option is to carpool. Those two options will do the most to eliminate carbon emissions of fans who are going to watch the games live in person. Or even if you’re going on a road trip or traveling by plane to see your team at a mega-event, fans can offset their travel as an option to reduce their carbon footprint.

The vast majority of people, though, consume sports on television or on their phone or on the Internet. For these fans, being green is a little trickier, but awareness of the issue is critical and fans watching from afar can push their teams to talk about their greenness. Awareness is the biggest problem to me about the green sports movement to this point, where teams are doing incredible things, from LEED-certified stadiums to zero waste games and more, but they don’t talk about these initiatives, so most people don’t know they exist.

This issue is a bit of a catch-22, but if you know these initiatives are going on then you need to tell your team and league to promote the fact that they exist, so more people can know about them. But basically, the people who are aware need to push the teams and the other purveyors of sport to talk the talk as they walk the walk, which takes a bit of activism.

Chester: Those are great answers, and hopefully anyone reading this post will be able to take something away that they can and will do. I’m curious from your experience, within the sports world are there specific sports or leagues where the overuse of energy or the environmental impact is more of an issue than with others where more work should be focused?

Blaustein: To put on an event, whether it’s football or baseball or basketball or hockey or soccer, it’s all pretty much the same. It’s true that a football stadium that holds 80,000 fans will be more energy-intensive than a hockey arena that holds 20,000, but an arena that holds 20,000 will often also have to make ice and will have more game days in total. So there often isn’t use in looking at it in terms of which sports or leagues have the most to improve upon, but rather I would take the flip side and talk about which leagues are doing the most already.

To that question, I would say the answer is the National Hockey League (NHL) and it’s not even close. The reason is because the league, from Commissioner Gary Bettman on down, understands that the heritage of hockey is played outdoors on frozen ponds and that tradition is threatened by climate change. Their game is also played on water, and water itself is a huge environmental issue.

Chester: I did see that they touched on those topics on their sustainability report they just put out.

Blaustein: Right, and the NHL is the only league that has issued a sustainability report and now they’ve just issued their second one.  The NHL is also carbon neutral and they talk about climate change. There is real substance to what they are doing. NHL Green is promoted more than any other league’s green initiatives, though I do think they could do a lot more. I think, though, that the NHL has provided the best example.

Major League Baseball has also done plenty, especially when Bud Selig was the commissioner due to his personal interest in the topics, and a number of the teams are doing great things. National Football League (NFL) teams are also doing some important work in the greenness, though leadership on the issue from the league itself is relatively nonexistent in my opinion. The National Basketball Association (NBA) is doing some good things, I think they’re the most pro-social league of the domestic sports organizations, but I think they need to publicize their green activities much more.

Major League Soccer (MLS) is the best positioned to make sustainability, climate change, and the environment a big push because they have by far the youngest fan base amongst the five major American leagues and they need positive attention.  To the younger cohorts, the question of climate change is not an ‘if’ question but a ‘what do you do about it’ question.

Chester: I appreciate you approaching the question from the positive spin angle, and clearly there are a lot of tremendous initiatives going on across the American sports landscape. After hearing about several of the initiatives already underway that you praise and some new strategies that you think could be implemented, I’m curious if there was one change, no matter how impractical or unrealistic, you would make to sports or specific leagues if you were given unlimited power as a ‘sports czar’ for the day. Is there any single act that comes to mind?

Blaustein: Yeah. Because most people consume sports through the media, sports broadcasters are great at promoting issues like fighting breast cancer, preventing domestic violence, promoting literacy– you name the cause. And that, of course, is a good thing. Sports media needs to add the climate change fight to the mix. If I were commissioner of sports I would put climate change fighting PSAs on every game and also embed it into the broadcast. The next Super Bowl is going to be in Atlanta, so how cool would it be if (broadcaster) Jim Nantz said “Hello friends, from the first LEED Platinum-certified football stadium in the United States, welcome to Super Bowl 53.”

Chester: That would be great to hear! I know we’re about out of time, so my last question will be a quick one. Do you have any reading recommendations for people who are interested in these topics of energy and the environment in sports?

Blaustein: I feel like the answer is going to sound self-serving, but read the Green Sports Blog because we publish on average twice a week and we’re covering everything that goes on at the stadiums to the eco-athletes to the politics of greenwashing (not that there’s too much but we try to keep on top of that) to the innovations to what needs to be done and what’s not yet being done. It’s the source for news and commentary about that intersection. I really do think it’s the place to find out about that stuff.

Chester: Well I would certainly second that notion, that the Green Sports Blog is the place to go for these topics, so I don’t think you come off as completely self-serving!

Blaustein: Oh good. I felt a little funny saying it, but I think that is the place! If you’re really into it, then come to the Green Sports Alliance Summit in Atlanta at the end of June. I’m not a shill for the GSA, I’m not paid by them at all, but the next Summit will be coming up soon and I highly recommend it.

If you enjoyed this post and you would like to get the newest posts from the Chester Energy and Policy blog delivered straight to your inbox, please consider subscribing today

If you’re interested in other energy-related blog posts on the topic of sports, please see my previous posts on deciding the 2018 March Madness tournament by which schools are the most green, an analysis of the most sustainable teams in the NFL, and a look at what happens to energy demand on Super Bowl Sunday

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