The hockey team that wants to save the planet

The revolutionary journey began with a vision. Five years ago, backed by hundreds of millions of dollars, it trickled out into public view. In the heart of Uptown Seattle, the executives at Oak View Group, an arena management company, saw opportunity. They envisioned luxury: expansive concourses, skyline views, ultra-modernity. They hoped all of it could lure the NHL and NBA to the Emerald City.

In 2018, they got their wish. The NHL committed. Developers soon began their renovation of historic KeyArena. They finalized designs. Ordered equipment. Started demolition. “We were well on our way to construction,” says Rob Johnson, a vice president of the newly-minted hockey club.

Then, in early 2020, they paused.

They convened architects and contractors. Tim Leiweke, the Oak View Group CEO, remembers it being “traumatic.” Because their plans had changed.

They’d delved into negotiations with Amazon. Amazon wanted naming rights to the arena, but didn’t want its own name plastered all over. Instead, it wanted to make a statement, and wanted the NHL expansion team to make a commitment to what Leiweke called “not just the cause of our lifetime and our generation ... the cause of our planet.”

And so, in 2020, construction veered down a new path. “We had to totally redesign the entire building,” Johnson says. “We had to re-permit the building.” They set out to make it the most environmentally friendly sports venue in the world, littered with innovations, the biggest being the three words that now glow atop the iconic pyramidal roof.

Climate Pledge Arena.

Jeff Bezos, Leiweke recently said, had “figured out how to scare the hell out of us.” Leiweke, like so many others, had realized that Earth is in grave danger. According to the world’s leading scientists, human activity has sent global temperatures rising. And they will continue to, leading to extreme weather and catastrophic outcomes, unless and until humans drastically curb their greenhouse gas emissions.

In one sense, sports seem wary of the threat. Winter Olympians are sad and fearful. Suffocating heat, meanwhile, has disrupted summer events, prompting speculation about further disruption in the future.

But sport, as author David Goldblatt wrote last year in a first-of-its-kind study, “is not just a victim of change.” It’s “an important contributor too.” Reliable data are scarce, but Goldblatt estimated that the global sports industry annually emits 300-350 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, its atmospheric damage roughly equivalent to that of Spain or France. It is far from the most carbon-intensive industry. Its footprint, though, is significant.

And in this sense, for much of the 21st century, its major players have stayed silent.

Recently, though, industry experts have noticed a dramatic shift, a newfound understanding of sport’s environmental impact, and a growing resolve to do something about it. The Seattle Kraken, the NHL expansion team who’ll open Climate Pledge Arena this weekend, exemplify that shift. They also want to accelerate it.

They understand that they alone can’t save the planet. “We're not gonna solve climate change,” Leiweke admitted. “We know that. But can we inspire an entire industry? Can we inspire an entire marketplace?” And can they do what so many politicians and scientists have found difficult: compel corporations and citizens to act?

“Sport could make a difference here,” Goldblatt says. “It really could.”

Amazon purchased naming rights for the home of the Seattle Kraken, calling it Climate Pledge Arena. (Courtesy of the Seattle Kraken)
Amazon purchased naming rights for the home of the Seattle Kraken, calling it Climate Pledge Arena. (Courtesy of the Seattle Kraken)

The carbon footprint of sports

Twenty-eight Super Bowls ago, as the NFL prepared to take America’s biggest show to Atlanta, Jack Groh, an environmental communications consultant in Rhode Island, had an idea. He and Ed Augustine, an Atlanta attorney, took on what Groh now calls a “pretty extensive literature search to try and find out if anybody had done a solid waste recycling program at any sports event. And we came up with bupkis. We came up with nothing.”

So, in 1993, they approached NFL senior vice president Jim Steeg. “What are you doing about the environmental impact of Super Bowl?” Augustine asked.

Steeg, lacking a substantive answer, responded: “Well, what do you think I should do about it?” And he hired Groh and Augustine to find the answer, which, in Year 1, was a meager one-off recycling initiative.

Climatologists, by then, had been warning of global warming for decades. But the world, throughout the 20th century and well into the 21st, mostly spurned their advice. The sports world, naturally, was no different. Groh’s NFL program expanded, slowly, every few years. A decade ago, “the bar was low, and a lot of this was new,” says Brett Blumberg, now a director at the Green Sports Alliance. “To talk about even getting recycling in every venue was a tough conversation. And to talk about carbon or climate in the context of sports was basically non-existent.”

“A lot of this has been ignored over the years,” Groh admits. “Because it just wasn't — it didn't seem as critical to people.”

Now, says Groh, the longtime director of the NFL environmental program, “with 2030 approaching, all of a sudden, people are poking their heads up, and saying, ‘Wait a minute, how are we gonna make this stuff happen?’”

He’s referring to a deadline set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations body that has called on mankind to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and in full by 2050. Doing so could avoid worst-case scenarios and mitigate the climate change consequences that scientists and vulnerable populations fear. Many governments and major corporations have committed to hitting those targets.

But most sports organizations haven’t. “There has been no shortage of environmental slogans in the sports world,” Goldblatt wrote in his study, “but there has been precious little action.” In 2016, the UN launched a Sport for Climate Action Framework. It called “sport’s contribution to climate change … considerable,” and invited teams, leagues and other entities to essentially adopt UN objectives.

Five years later, though, less than 10% of franchises in the big four North American leagues have signed on. Maddy Orr, the founder of the Sport Ecology Group, calls the number “pathetically low.”

More than half of the franchises in the big four have joined member organizations like the Green Sports Alliance, and many have promoted ad-hoc initiatives. Some have focused on waste diversion. Some have switched to renewable energy, in part to lower costs. Best-practice sharing has become more commonplace. A majority of people interviewed for this story presented evidence that, across the sports landscape, the focus on sustainability is growing. Many are encouraged by progress.

But only a few teams have codified strategies and goals. “A very low percentage are fully committed,” Orr says. Very few, if any, have attempted to track all emissions and calculate a true carbon footprint, which many experts feel is an essential first step. Yahoo Sports surveyed NFL and NBA teams, via their spokespeople, and none was willing to turn over comprehensive data. (Some teams, such as the Philadelphia Eagles, long considered the U.S. sports leader in sustainability, track emissions, but only release select findings publicly.)

These lagging standards are what the Kraken, from Day 1, want to upend. Independent experts familiar with the Seattle project confirmed that it is unique, and legitimate, not a high-profile example of “greenwashing.” Orr called it the “gold standard.” Johnson, the Kraken’s vice president of sustainability and transportation, promised that the club will do “detailed carbon accounting,” tracking all emissions related to their activities, reducing what they can and “offsetting” what they can’t.

It’s a “massive” undertaking, he says. And an expensive one. What the Kraken hope is that it will become a blueprint.

Creating a carbon-neutral arena

So how, exactly, does one create a carbon-neutral arena?

That’s the question Kraken executives asked themselves. They hired Jason McLennan, a prominent green building consultant, to help answer. They muzzled gas lines midway through the construction process, and committed to decarbonization, to a 740,000-square foot facility powered exclusively by clean energy. They installed solar panels, electric stoves, and an all-electric dehumidification system.

They’ll also ban single-use plastics. They devised a “rain to rink” system, whereby they’ll funnel rainwater that hits the roof into a 15,000-gallon underground cistern, and turn it into the hockey team’s home ice. They’ll fill some concessions with plant-based, locally-sourced food, and donate untouched leftovers to nearby food banks and shelters. Coupled with composting and recycling, they’re targeting a waste diversion rate of 97%, doing much of what sustainability experts recommend. And “it's all replicable,” McLennan says. “We can do this everywhere.”

What the Kraken can’t do, though, is eliminate the biggest chunk of sport’s carbon footprint. Experts estimate that, depending on venue and event, 50-80% of that footprint comes from spectator travel. From thousands of fans driving gas-guzzling, environment-polluting vehicles to games. Team travel, often on fossil-fueled airplanes, contributes too.

The solution, first and foremost, is to incentivize eco-friendly modes of transportation. Experts urge teams to replace sprawling parking lots with bike racks and electric car charging stations; to use political clout and financial resources to bring public transit as close as possible to their front doors. The Kraken have done some of that. They’ll even fully subsidize transit passes for any fan with a ticket.

While the incentives help, perhaps more than any in-arena innovation, Johnson estimates that they will reduce the team’s fan-travel footprint by a mere 8-10%. The Kraken’s activities will still pump carbon into the air. To reach “net-zero” — to emit no more carbon into the atmosphere than they remove from it — they, like many companies and governments, will purchase “offsets.” The idea is to fund initiatives or carbon sinks, such as forests, that displace fossil fuels or absorb carbon that would otherwise contribute to warming. The logic is imperfect. The practice is controversial, and should be a last resort, experts say. But it’s a currently unavoidable aspect of a sports franchise’s route to neutrality.

To some outsiders, all of this seems silly. The impact seems relatively miniscule. The Kraken’s reductions represent a fraction of the emissions of one of 32 teams in one of hundreds of sports leagues worldwide. And that league, the NHL, without factoring in fan travel, reported that its 2016 carbon footprint was 182,355 metric tons. Even accounting for fan travel, the number likely wouldn’t touch seven digits. In an earlier 2014 report, when the footprint was larger, longtime environmental scientist Allen Hershkowitz wrote that, “relative to large industrial sources and power plants, the NHL's carbon footprint is relatively small.”

But, as Hershkowitz also wrote: “There is no action too small to undertake when it comes to addressing our ecological problems.” And more importantly, a sports team’s impact isn’t confined to these material actions. Nearly every expert who spoke with Yahoo Sports made this point.

“The single most important thing the NHL can do to address the urgent ecological challenges we face,” Hershkowitz wrote, “is to help change cultural expectations and attitudes about how we relate to the planet.”

FILE - In this Sept. 1, 2020, file photo, the historic roof of the former KeyArena and a tiered seating area tower over trucks and a crane working at what will be center-ice of the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle and the home of the Seattle Kraken NHL hockey team, which will become the NHL's 32nd franchise. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
After a complete refurbishing of the former KeyArena, Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle will officially open Saturday when the Kraken host the Vancouver Cannucks. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Sports’ environmental role

Earlier this year, when Footprint, a material science company on a mission to rid the world of single-use plastics, sought to amplify its green message, its executives knew exactly where to turn. Susan Kohler, Footprint’s chief marketing officer, called up the Phoenix Suns. Together, they rebranded the team’s arena Footprint Center, and established the latest in a growing line of sports-corporate partnerships that promote sustainability. Because sports, Kohler says, are “what people care about,” and are sustainability’s path “through all the clutter.”

Since, she has met with more NBA and NFL teams. More and more, those teams are seeing the climate fight as a worthy cause. Experts mentioned the Eagles, 49ers, Patriots, Falcons, Seahawks and Warriors among others doing good, green work. The Clippers recently announced that their new multi-billion-dollar arena will be carbon-free and “climate-positive.”

For years, many teams hesitated. Some, according to the recently released Sustainable Sport Index, have balked at costs. Some, industry sources say, feared hypocrisy, an inability to walk the talk. Others worried that the talk itself would be interpreted as political, especially during the Trump administration, which “certainly wasn't pro-environment,” Groh says, and “certainly wasn't pro-sustainability.” The NFL environmental director says that when his league and others discussed joining the UN sports initiative, “we all believed that it was important to be part of this international framework around sustainability, and to support these goals.” They joined quietly, he says, without grand news releases because they didn’t “want to stick our heads up and get shot in the face for doing it.”

Beloved teams, however, are increasingly recognizing the power of their voices. Very few entities have the ability to speak to such a diverse and emotionally invested audience. Sport’s role, Goldblatt says, “is to be the leader, to normalize [climate action], to change the nature of the messaging, to speak to different people who are otherwise not listening.” Groh calls this the “central issue of sustainability for us.”

“That's the power of sport,” adds Roger McClendon, executive director of the Green Sports Alliance. “It's not what [sport] can do within the industry alone, it's what it can influence. It's the influence that is the biggest horsepower of change.”

McClendon warns that greenwashing — preaching sustainability but not practicing it — can backfire. Others agree. The carbon accounting, and the changes it can inform, are vital. “The more we reduce our emissions, it's a good thing,” Groh says. “We need to do that, and we need to take responsibility for whatever emissions we generate and whatever impact we have on the climate, regardless of the size of that impact.”

But, he continues, “reducing emissions at sports events and concerts and special events, is that what's going to save the planet? Is that gonna have such a significant effect that the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere will drop? That we're all gonna be able to celebrate? I think the answer is clearly no.”

The significant effect is leverage, the influence over governments, adjacent industries and fans that sport can wield. It’s the hearts and minds that sport can change. And that, precisely, is what the Kraken aim to do. Leiweke said they’ll open Climate Pledge Arena on non-gamedays to students and tourists. They’ll use an educational wall inside to tell visitors their net-zero story.

Johnson, meanwhile, speaks about the past few years and the coming many as a journey. “And we want to inspire our fans to go on this journey with us,” he says. “And think about how they could continue to reduce their own carbon footprint, and think about accounting for their own behaviors, and what they might be able to do in their own lives to help make sure that our world is more sustainable.”