the greening of sportsSports leagues and teams are beginning to take sustainability issues more seriously.If you watch sports on TV, you may be thinking from your perch on the couch that they are a relatively inexpensive, practically carbon-neutral diversion from life’s occupations. But sport is big business, facing many of the same environmental challenges as the manufacturing, agriculture, and energy sectors.

Whether it’s golf, baseball, football, basketball, soccer/futball, hockey, auto racing, rugby, cricket (yes, cricket! — remember, it’s huge in other parts of the world) or countless others, they individually and collectively have an enormous impact on the environment.

Grist has decided to take your carbon-based guilt and extend it to one of those few places that serves as a distraction from it: your favorite sport. In regular articles, I will venture forth and examine with a green eye (meaning both financial and environmental) some of the major sports the world has to offer. Within that context, I will try to unearth the good, the bad, and the ugly of operational practice that have profound impacts on the environment, both on a local and global scale.

While no sport or team is identical in how it operates, some themes are universal — including energy use, waste management, water consumption, pesticide use, land use, transportation, carbon emissions etc. Facing the sports community is a host of challenges — from complying with existing and future environmental rules to meeting high consumer expectations — all the while focusing on good business practices and a strong balance sheet.

To say that the professional sports community has yet to recognize the impact its members may be having on the environment is disingenuous. Professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey all have fledgling green initiatives at the league level, and several teams have taken major leaps at becoming sustainable operations (more on those in later columns).

However, this phenomenon is relatively new. As corporate America (GE, Proctor & Gamble, PNC etc.) began to embrace environmental sustainability as a profitable business model in the not too distant past, the sports industry has only made a measurable appearance at the table within the past few years.

Whether the change was self-started or the result of prodding by some heavy hitters within the environmental community is up for debate and further examination. What can be said is that certain segments of the professional sports community recognize the need to move towards sustainable operations, but the speed and fiscal capacity to do so are a continuing concern and claimed impediment.

For readers who are not familiar with the fiscal expenditure habits of a professional sports team, this next fact may be a shock. While the media brings us stories of sums being paid to professional athletes that can only be described as mind numbing (one example: a Manchester United soccer star is being paid the equivalent of $190,520 per week, and it may not be enough to keep him (too late: he just got bought by Real Madrid for $131.6 million), the front office staff is not so lucky.

While I am sure there are exceptions, historically, the folks who perform heavy operational lifting for sports teams and leagues are paid comparably middle-class wages. This frugality transcends other expenditures, including sustainability investment. The industry grabs as much free help as it can in the development of individual green initiatives. Eventually, as some teams have realized, investing real dollars in sustainability programs will not only save them money they would otherwise have to spend, but also generate new, profitable revenue streams as a result of the initial investment.

One question I have is this: In order to get the snowball really moving before it melts, who in sports business needs to step up to the proverbial plate? Is it the teams/organizations? The players? The fans? Or a combination of the three?

For those who argue that it is the team (i.e. owners) who should pay up (because operational costs are built into ticket prices, advertising dollars, licensing and merchandise revenue) — that’s a fair point. But sustainable investment was not originally built into pricing formulas, therefore, the cost for tickets and merchandise would have go up.

As for the players, they are certainly part of the organization and collectively receive the largest portion of the organization’s revenue. Thus they should bear some of the costs of sustainable practices in the form of reduced salaries (god forbid!).

And lastly, the fans. Costs are already passed on to the consumer, so the fan is inevitably invested. But an additional point needs to be made: When one is looking at the carbon footprint of an organization’s operation, the fan is by far the biggest contributor. Just imagine the carbon footprint of 108,000 fans traveling to and from one Michigan football game. How is that impact measured, and who should be responsible for offsetting it?

There are countless small examples of sustainable practices infiltrating the sport industry, including recycling programs at stadiums and planting trees to offset a team’s carbon emissions. Getting a sports team or college athletic departments to adopt a profitable sustainability program is an expensive and time-consuming commitment for which teams will need fan support, encouragement and assistance.

Because it does all start with the fans’ (make that customers‘) support. After all, sports is a business, and the fans are the customers.

Check back in two weeks for my first effort at describing the greening of sports — a closer look at golf. Why not? President Obama has been playing a lot of it lately (five times since late April).