National sports reach into the community through the arena of sustainable design.

WRITTEN BY Jeff Harder

In recent years, sustainability has transformed from a niche concern to a leading consideration in pro sports. Thanks to efforts from individual leagues and inter-league initiatives from groups like the Green Sports Alliance, teams and their ownership increasingly see that facilities that are environmentally sound are also economically efficient. At the same time, green sports venues expose everyday audiences to green building and play a crucial role in building broad support for sustainability.


“It’s got to be a cultural shift, and sports can help make it possible,” says Scott Jenkins, chairman of the Green Sports Alliance and general manager of the Atlanta Falcons’ New Atlanta Stadium.


There are at least 30 LEED-certified sports venues up and running or in the works. And whether the competition plays out on the hardwood, the gridiron, the ice, or the outfield, these LEED-certified facilities give fans, teams, and the communities they call home plenty of reasons to cheer.

Retired basketball player Alonzo Mourning plants an edible garden.

Miami Heat/NBA

If you’ve watched the NBA Finals within the last decade, chances are you’ve seen the AmericanAirlines Arena. The 19,600-seat venue has been home court for the Miami Heat, a team that’s made five trips to the NBA Finals in nine years and walked away with three championships during that stretch. But over that same span, the arena itself earned two titles without anyone stepping to the free-throw line: In 2009, the AmericanAirlines Arena became the first NBA facility to receive LEED for Existing Buildings certification, and earlier this year, the arena received LEED Gold recertification, becoming the first sports and entertainment facility in the world to earn that distinction.


The Heat Group’s forays into sustainability began in earnest in summer 2008, when a league-wide partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council equipped each NBA team with a greening advisor to make sustainability recommendations. To its pleasant surprise, the organization had already been using sustainable practices in pursuit of a better bottom line, like recycling, tracking energy consumption, and using micro-irrigation systems.


“We realized we were doing a lot more than we were even aware of, just by being responsible building owners and building representatives,” says Jackie Ventura, operations and sustainability coordinator for The Heat Group. “That led us to pursue LEED certification.”


The highlights of the AmericanAirlines Arena start with its location in downtown Miami. Its proximity to public transportation led to about 6,700 alternative transportation trips during the 2013-14 Heat season. During the same season, the arena diverted a total of 330,810 pounds from landfills. More than 63 percent of the arena’s cleaning products and more than 85 percent of its purchases meet LEED standards. (The latter earned the arena the Office Depot Leadership in Green Purchasing Award in 2013.) Efficient plumbing fixtures reduced water consumption by nearly 17 percent. The arena uses almost 27 percent less energy per square foot than comparable facilities, three quarters of its annual electricity is offset by renewable energy certificates, and the organization counters remaining emissions with carbon offsets.


To spread the green gospel, the Heat have been venturing into their community. “A lot of the features that make the arena sustainable aren’t things that can be visually represented to our fans—I can’t show someone that our air is clean, that we’re reducing our electricity—so we’ve tried to educate them,” Ventura says.


The seventh year of the arena’s Re-Heat Delivery program supplied more than 33,000 pounds of unused food from Heat home games to area homeless assistance programs. Their How Low Can You Go challenge—an initiative to reduce energy consumption in Broward County Public Schools, the sixth-largest public school district in the country—lowered energy use by more than 1.5 million kilowatt hours and recognized the top three schools on the court. And past and present Heat players James Ennis, Hassan Whiteside, and Alonzo Mourning were in attendance at the most recent Heat Beach Sweep, an effort exposing elementary school students to sustainability principles through creating edible food and butterfly gardens, building composting boxes and an outdoor classroom, and other hands-on projects. “As a brand and as an organization, we have visibility: People know who we are,” says Lorrie-Ann Diaz, the Heat’s senior director of business communications. “So when we’re pushing this message of responsibility and being stewards of the environment, we have a big reach, and we use the platform we have to push that message out into the community.”


Later this year, the AmericanAirlines Arena will see new additions, like car-charging stations in its public parking garage and, most notably, a 24,000-square-foot solar canopy on the arena’s East Plaza, the result of a partnership with NRG to showcase the latest in clean-energy technology. It’s an inspiring environment for all who enter: While the arena embodies sustainable thinking on a grand scale and serves as a living model for other NBA teams about just how impressive a LEED facility can be, it shows ordinary fans that it’s not so hard to make their own lives a little greener. “If we can do it here, in a 1.2 million-square-foot arena, with 1.6 million people through our doors every year,” Ventura says, “there’s no reason why you can’t implement a fraction of what we’re doing in your 2,000-square-foot home.”

The Falcons Stadium in Atlanta will pursue LEED Platinum certification.

Atlanta Falcons/NFL

A year and a half ago, when Scott Jenkins became general manager of the stadium that will serve as the future home for the Atlanta Falcons, he followed the precedent set by the team’s leadership. “From the beginning, we set an objective: We were going to raise the bar in whatever we do, whether it’s the fan experience, community involvement, or sustainability,” Jenkins says. “You bring in a talented team of people with the right vision, and you let them work.”


When the Falcons take to the field at the start of the 2017 NFL season, that vision will have materialized as the new Atlanta Stadium, a 71,000-seat venue pursuing LEED Platinum in the city’s downtown with a largely transparent exterior, a retractable roof, and a sleek, angular design. Not only is the project on track to be the first LEED Platinum NFL stadium, it’s also poised to be the first Platinum pro sports stadium in the country. “In many ways, this project is influencing the future of LEED for sports facilities,” says Carlie Bullock-Jones, founder and principal of Ecoworks Studio.


Green building was already a priority for Atlanta Falcons owner and chairman Arthur Blank: USGBC issued LEED Gold certification to the office of his Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation back in 2004, making it the first building in Georgia to receive that designation. But while LEED certification had been in mind since the Falcons proposed building a new venue after more than two decades at the Georgia Dome, a plan aimed at achieving Platinum status was simply the consequence of achieving broader goals that fit their community. For example, in seeking to capture and use as much water on site as possible to help combat the long-standing flooding concerns on the city’s west side, the stadium is poised to achieve every LEED water credit. “Every aspect of the strategy had to be authentic,” Bullock-Jones says. “If we get to Platinum, that’s fantastic, but first it had to make sense for us and for the community.”


Construction teams broke ground on the stadium in 2014, and by spring 2017, the result will be a model of sustainability on the gridiron. Located within a quarter-mile of two MARTA rail stops, the stadium and its environs will feature roughly 4,000 photovoltaic panels, electric vehicle charging stations, and high-efficiency water fixtures. Along with recycling programs and other common initiatives, the stadium also has plans for on-site food production: apples, figs, blueberries, and other edible landscaping are available to all patrons, while an urban garden area adjacent to the stadium’s administrative offices provides sustenance to a full-time staff of more than 200. Then there’s the five-story LED video display board and the retractable roof: By properly timing the opening and closing of eight machine-operated roof petals, ambient air can pre-cool the stadium prior to games and reduce the energy spent on air conditioning.


Though the onset of the 2017 season is two years away, once the new Atlanta Stadium opens, it will draw attention from far beyond the Peach State. The Falcons’ leadership already has big plans for their new venue. Along with Falcons games, the stadium will host Major League Soccer’s Atlanta United FC, along with sporting events currently held in the Georgia Dome. There are concrete plans to host the NCAA Men’s Final Four in 2020, and Jenkins says they’re hoping to host the College Football Playoff National Championship Game in 2018 and a Super Bowl in 2019. “This stadium will take [green building] to a national and international level of exposure because of the significance of the events we host,” Jenkins says. “We’re planning to have some of the biggest events in North America, in a place with iconic architecture that’s also LEED Platinum.”

The Falcons stadium will have a five-story LED board and a retractable roof.

Minnesota Wild and Edmonton Oilers/Hockey

The Xcel Energy Center’s path to becoming the first NHL arena in the country to earn LEED for Existing Buildings certification started with its next-door neighbor: the Saint Paul RiverCentre, a convention center on the same Minnesota campus, operated by the same management that oversees the St. Paul-based Minnesota Wild NHL team. After benchmarking energy use and waste production at the convention center, the team behind the scenes realized more than geography linked the two properties.


“We quickly realized that any programs we implemented had to be campus-wide: All the trash from the Xcel Energy Center and the convention center ends up in the same place,” says Kathy Ross, senior director of strategic communications for the Minnesota Wild. “From there, we looked for the best place to start.” That included reducing the arena’s waste by half and increasing recycling by the same amount within two years. “It was simple to understand, but it was challenging in that it involved changing all of our behind-the-scenes processes,” Ross says.


Now, the Wild’s commitment to sustainability is visible to its more than 3 million annual visitors as soon as they set eyes on the solar photovoltaic array on the outside of the parking garage. A solar thermal array on the roof of the RiverCentre feeds clean energy into downtown St. Paul’s electric grid. The center offsets its energy usage with wind energy purchased from its parent Xcel Energy.


Elsewhere, along with boosting its annual recycling rate to 60 percent and engaging in a slew of sustainability-minded community outreach programs, the Wild’s organization-wide embrace of sustainability has resulted in more than 40 percent of employees taking some alternative form of transportation to work every day, while Wild players purchase their own offsets for the energy used at home games. “For us, it’s changed the culture of our organization,” Ross says of the effects of LEED pursuit. “It’s had a real, positive financial impact on our business, and it’s having a positive impact in our community. Those are the things that every sports organization strives to do.”


North of the border, the Edmonton Oilers are eyeing their first season on the ice at Rogers Place, their forthcoming LEED Silver-certified arena. Slated to open in time for the 2016-17 NHL season, the arena is a natural next step for a team that’s embraced sustainability as a practical key to success.


After winding down their tenure at Rexall Place, the Oilers looked to site Rogers Place within a vibrant entertainment district in downtown Edmonton, with retail, commercial, and residential spaces sprouting from what was once a largely derelict area of the city. So far, more than 3,400 tons of waste—about 90 percent of the total—has been diverted from landfill during construction.


When the arena is finished, Rogers Place will be plugged into the city’s pedestrian corridor and walking distance to seven light rail stops. At every turn, the arena optimizes energy performance: Design of the arena allows in the natural light, while heat recovery ventilation and a highly insulated building envelope keep occupants comfortable on the coldest winter nights.


“The beauty of green building, in my mind, is its simplicity of design and operation,” says Tim Shipton, vice president of communications for the Oilers Entertainment Group. In the lead-up to 2016, the Oilers are also figuring out ways to further green their food and beverage operations. “We’re not going to do a lot of things that are way out there, things that would cause our business to do things we otherwise might not do. Instead, it’s just about being smart with our business practices.”


Edmonton is an especially progressive city when it comes to sustainability, Shipton says. And in a sense, the Oilers’ adoption of green building principles just comes with the territory. “Focusing on sustainability doesn’t just make sense from a business perspective: I think there are expectations in the city and amongst our fans that we do it,” Shipton says. “And when the building opens up, I believe we’ll have exceeded their expectations.”

The Xcel Energy Center, the first NHL arena in the country to earn LEED for Existing Buildings, directly impacts 3 million visitors per year.

Minnesota Twins/MLB

After the sustainability conversation caught the ear of the leadership of the Minnesota Twins, even though the baseball franchise was interested in going green, there wasn’t much they could do beyond some small-scale recycling in the front office. That’s because someone else owned and operated the Metrodome, the team’s home base for the more than a quarter century during which they won a pair of World Series titles. “We didn’t run the facility operations, so our hands were tied on what we could do over there,” says Gary Glawe, the Minnesota Twins’ Senior Director of Ballpark Systems. “As soon as we made the decision to own and operate our own facility, we wanted to do everything we could to come out of the gate with some sustainability goals, then improve from there.”


That new facility is Target Field, the downtown Minneapolis venue that earned LEED Silver for New Construction in 2010—the first Major League Baseball facility to earn the label—and LEED Silver for Existing Buildings: Operation & Maintenance the year after that. Essentially, Glawe says, diving wholeheartedly into sustainability was a matter of setting an example for the 40,000 visitors that take a seat in the stands every game. “Professional sports, and sports in general, has so much influence on the general public,” Glawe says. “Even when times are tough, people still invest their money in it. Being in the public eye and showing leadership in sustainability is just the right thing to do.”


Target Field’s green endeavors have already had a quantifiable impact. Along with donating more than 10 tons of food to local charities every year, Target Field has diverted 5,419 tons of waste from landfills so far thanks to initiatives like switching cups and other concession packaging from plastic to compostable materials, and ensuring trash cans are side by side with bins for recyclables and compostables throughout the stadium. Staff continue to retrofit Target Field’s existing lighting with state-of-the-art LED systems. Along with using efficient water fixtures, the stadium has a cistern that stretches between the foul poles underneath the warning track to collect rainwater, which has purified and repurposed more than 4 million gallons of rainwater for use by the stadium’s housekeeping staff. The field is also just a short walk from downtown and near commuter rail and light rail stations.


To hear Glawe tell it, just about any sports teams would benefit from embracing LEED the way that the Minnesota Twins have. Furthermore, the industry is uniquely equipped to deal with the expense of scaling sustainability for a venue’s tens of thousands of visitors. “Especially in sports, if you run into a situation where you can’t fund it financially, there’s a lot of opportunities for partnerships with different companies that can help you achieve your goal—maybe you trade for advertising rights.” And whatever those investments might cost up front to align a sports venue with green building standards, the payoff is well worth it. For the franchise, for the community, and for the environment, going green is a home run.