Green Games: GWCCA campus at the heart of sustainable sports movement

The green team scored the winning touchdown during this year’s Super Bowl.

Yes, the Philadelphia Eagles’ uniforms sport a green hue and they did indeed lift the Vince Lombardi Trophy at the end of the game, but the efforts in place to reduce the event’s environmental impact was a victory within itself. After taking heat for various controversies and for its declining  TV viewership this season, the National Football League (NFL) stood up for a cause that a majority of Americans can get behind: climate change. Considering the fact that millennials and younger generations care about causes, especially environmental ones, a sustainability focus could be a strategy to improve the bottom line in more ways than one.

And the NFL’s environmental program is coming full circle while also upping the ante with Super Bowl LIII set for Feb. 3, 2019 at the most sustainable sports venue in the world, Mercedes-Benz Stadium (MBS) on the Georgia World Congress Center Authority’s (GWCCA) downtown Atlanta campus.

It’s an eco-friendly homecoming because Jack Groh, the NFL’s Director of Environmental Programs, kicked off the league’s sustainability efforts in 1994 at Super Bowl XXVIII right here on the GWCCA campus at the Georgia Dome with the first significant  in-stadium recycling program in the country. Although he claims “it was a disaster,” he persisted and built a program that was first able to claim zero waste at Super Bowl XLIX in Arizona in 2015.

While the 2018 Super Bowl in Minnesota wasn’t the first to achieve zero waste (commonly defined as 90 percent or more of the waste from a building or event being diverted from traditional landfills or incineration), it was the first to leave a zero waste infrastructure in place for future events at the venue. U.S. Bank Stadium should be able to recycle, compost, donate, or re-use the vast majority of materials leaving the building thanks to the NFL’s concerted collaboration involving stakeholders from the stadium’s management team and food and beverage provider.

The GWCCA’s Corporate Social Responsibility Manager Tim Trefzer (second from left) surrounded by Rush 2 Recycle volunteers he coordinated at Super Bowl LII on Feb. 4 at Minneapolis’ U.S. Bank Stadium.

The GWCCA campus and MBS, where the majority of Atlanta’s Super Bowl-related activities will take place, were able to get in a practice game with the College Football Playoff (CFP) National Championship in January. CFP, while a much younger event, has replicated many of the same sustainability initiatives of the NFL. For this year’s game between Georgia and Alabama, the electricity and water consumed at the stadium and convention center were offset with renewable energy credits (RECs) and by water restoration to Georgia’s Flint River through the non-profit Bonneville Environmental Foundation. Likewise, CFP was intent on leaving the city a little greener than before and did so by engaging Atlanta Public Schools in a campus environmental challenge that rewarded grants ($1,000 per school) for trees, plants, and other greenery at the schools .

Incorporating practices that minimize the environmental impacts and maximize the positive community legacy of mega-sporting events is becoming the norm rather than the exception. The NCAA began incorporating sustainability criteria in its Men’s Final Four bid specifications for host cities following the 2013 “greenest Final Four in history” also hosted on the GWCCA campus. Sports leagues, teams, and venues recognize greater fan and employee engagement, reduced risk, and more efficient operations can all result from taking a holistic approach to thinking sustainably. With 85 percent of consumers expecting companies to become actively involved in solving social and environmental issues and nearly the same percentage of millennials wanting to work for companies that hold the same values that they do, brand reputation and recognition are making the business case for sustainability a bit more obvious, too.

It makes sense that the NFL will up the environmental ante next year at Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta much like it did 25 years ago. This time, however, the game itself will be held at one of the world’s most environmentally-designed and constructed stadia, MBS. The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certified facility replaced the Georgia Dome last year, adding 1.8 million square feet of LEED certified event space to the GWCCA campus. In addition to the stadium, GWCCA boasts the world’s largest LEED certified convention center, the Georgia World Congress Center, which is LEED Gold certified, and the adjacent College Football Hall of Fame, which was awarded LEED Silver certification in 2015.

With mega-sporting events such as the Super Bowl, CFP National Championship, and Final Four (set for 2020 at MBS) looking to align with customer expectations and gain new – and younger fans, the Authority is blazing the trail for sports and sustainability.