Sports can play a high-profile role in sustainability with concessions operations carrying an immediate and long-lasting impact.
The Phoenix Suns’ partnership with Footprint is supposed to raise awareness to the prevalence of plastic in everyday life and its impact on the environment. Suns Chief Revenue Officer Dan Costello said his were among the first eyes opened.
“We were startled as we spent time with their scientists,” he said of Footprint, the plant-based fiber and material science company from Arizona. “Once you get into these deep discussions and go on this journey you just find yourself looking at plastic everywhere you go.”
Footprint Chief Marketing Officer Susan Koehler readily plied Costello with upsetting facts, such as that humans consume a credit card-sized amount of plastic every week through their food supply, or that only about 9% of plastic actually gets recycled.
“I’m almost mad because she’s almost ruined my experience everywhere I go,” Costello joked. “It’s an unlock.”
The Footprint-Suns partnership, which aims to remove all single-use plastic from the Suns’ newly renamed Footprint Center, offers a glance at a future in which the sports industry takes on a weightier role in confronting environmental issues.
Sports can play a visible role in promoting and enacting sustainability practices, and concessions in particular has potential for immediate impact. To understand the volume, consider that the average U.S. Bank Stadium crowd in Minneapolis produces 35 tons of waste, or that the Miami Dolphins are eliminating, annually, an estimated 812,000 plastic bottles and 613,000 plastic cups from public use.
The future of concessions
“People value being cared for in ways that matter to them. … We have to understand what matters. Data science and its importance to the fan experience will grow in prominence and meaning in the next five to 10 years, and from that all manner of experiential innovation will follow.”
— John Sergi, Founder, Hospitality As Strategy
Most sports venues have the potential to be closed loops — customers don’t bring food in or take it out, unlike a restaurant — increasing the likelihood that composting and recycling succeed.
Taking important steps — like the Atlanta Hawks and State Farm Arena enlisting volunteers to help achieve a zero-waste event, or the plan that Footprint and the Suns have to eliminate single-use plastic at their downtown Phoenix arena — could shift the public’s thinking about the environment.
“It goes a long way to normalize it. A ballpark is not thought of as a fringey place,” said Maisie Ganzler, Bon Appétit chief strategy and brand officer. “It’s one thing when you see this at your local food co-op, but when you see it at a ballpark, you’re like, ‘oh, this is part of a broader society, part of the establishment.’”
Initially, the pandemic, which necessitated the use of individually wrapped food items and utensils, seemed like a setback for the sustainability movement. But COVID-19 seems to have affected the public’s wider awareness, and according to numerous studies and surveys has increased environmental consciousness during the last 18 months. The virus forced adaptability into people’s lives, something that could benefit the sustainability movement.
“At this point, with our lives changing on a daily basis, there are people that very willing to listen, to learn, and change the way they’ve done business in the past,” said Jay Satenspiel, Spectra senior vice president.
Food waste makes up a quarter of all material that goes into landfills, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, and once there it decomposes and produces harmful methane that warms the planet. The EPA’s 2018 Food Waste report estimated that sports venues waste more than 38,000 tons of food per year.
Plastic, which when paired with recycling seemed like a planet-saving solution, has instead leeched into our food supply and our bodies, and piled up in waterways and landfills.
Only 8.7% of plastic was recycled in 2018, according to the EPA. Six American states — Alaska, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia — recycle single-digit percentages of their waste.
The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Climate Report, which estimated that humanity would need to move greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050 to maintain a livable climate, further raised urgency around sustainability efforts.
Regulations are advancing in the U.S., including six states that have banned food waste from going to landfills and a growing slate of city and state legislation against plastic, including banning plastic grocery bags.
The future of concessions
“Data science is how we make all of our decisions now and I see that becoming even more important moving forward. The information we have and how we use it is going to be a linchpin. If you don’t know the details you can’t solve the problem.”
— Alison Birdwell, President and CEO, Aramark Sports and Entertainment
Corporations, many of which sponsor sports teams and venues, are increasingly focused on sustainability goals, and moving away from shareholder-focused short-termism. Environmental, social and governance criteria that many investors use to screen companies before investing in them have helped. Footprint’s Koehler said that $40 trillion will be invested in ESG-approved companies in the next five years.
A fall 2020 survey by consulting firm Kearney found that over 80% of respondents were considering the environmental impact of their purchasing, up from 71% in 2019. In the same survey, 85% expressed a commitment to turn down plastic utensils during the coming year. And a recent Morning Consult/Bloomberg News survey found 35% of respondents are making an effort to eat less meat; the meat and dairy industries contribute about 14.5% of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization.
It’s not just fans paying attention. Satenspiel said a band whose name he wouldn’t disclose asked Spectra to fill out a sustainability questionnaire before committing to play one of their venues.
“We’ve been building toward a better and better food experience, and better being defined in many ways, including better for the planet,” said Bon Appétit’s Ganzler. “And that people, while they do want to have a fun, escapist experience at the ballpark, they don’t want to check their values at the door.”
Not just lip service
Teams, venues and concessionaires are taking action.
The Vikings diverted 91% of waste during the 2018 Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium, and they’ve maintained an 80% average since. The remaining waste that isn’t diverted is converted to steam at a trash-to-energy facility and is used to heat buildings in downtown Minneapolis.
The Washington Nationals are avoiding using 5 million ketchup packets this season, while the Golden State Warriors receive all their ingredients at Chase Center in reusable containers. Concessionaires have the reach to play an oversized role, too; Delaware North is now making straws available only upon request in venues it serves, while Aramark helped the Philadelphia Eagles switch to recyclable straws, eliminating 500,000 plastic straws annually from Lincoln Financial Field.
“When we have the concessionaires along with the team and the team owners asking those questions, then it becomes ‘how can we find a solution to this?’” said Green Sports Alliance Executive Director Roger McClendon, whose group has 340 pro sports teams committed to using their platforms to advance environmental responsibility. “Those conversations are happening more and more.”
Atlanta’s State Farm Arena is one of the best examples of the closed loop in action.
Two and a half years ago, the Hawks diverted just 10% to 20% of waste away from the landfill, including recycling and food donations. Today, the arena has diverted 90% of its waste from the landfill for three straight months, an effort helped by instituting compostable-only food vessels and utensils and the hard work of a half-dozen sorters clawing through the venue’s postgame waste to maintain compost integrity. That 90% mark is even more impressive considering the city of Atlanta doesn’t offer municipal composting and the Hawks pay to have their waste taken to a private composting company. A source told Sports Business Journal the composting program runs six figures annually.
The Hawks held the world’s first zero-waste sporting event, credentialed by Green Business Certification, in May during a playoff game versus the New York Knicks. Every game after hit the same zero-waste threshold.
“This is not an easy decision; this is not something we’re doing out of convenience or to save money,” said Geoffrey Stiles, the Hawks’ senior vice president of facilities and events. “It is at great cost and great effort. It is something we believe is the right thing to do because we love our town, we love where we are, and we’re going to take care of it.”
Beyond composting and recycling, the sports industry is increasingly looking for, and finding, alternatives to meat and plastic.
Impossible Foods, which makes plant-based meat, first appeared in a sports venue in 2018 but is now in 56, including Wrigley Field and Notre Dame Stadium. Impossible Foods President Dennis Woodside said the company’s products require 90% less water, almost 90% less land use to produce than the animal agriculture industry and emit close to 90% less greenhouse gases. The company’s production is up tenfold in the last 20 months or so, Woodside said.
The future of concessions
“Over the next five years, we see more connection with guests via mobile apps. Prior to arrival, those apps will inform on menu item availability, special promotions and other value propositions. They will also provide the ability to pre-order F&B items, tender payments and provide access to delivery portals, eliminating the need for point-of-sale devices that tend to slow down service.”
— Daniel Smith, President of Hospitality, Legends
Aluminum is another product with current tailwinds that’s emerging as an alternative to plastic, especially recycled aluminum. Ball Corp. has naming rights for the Denver home of the Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche, and makes its cups from 90% recycled aluminum, helping offset the significant environmental impact of new aluminum creation.
Aluminum is simply more recyclable than plastic; 75% of the aluminum ever created is still in circulation, according to the Aluminum Association, compared to about 10% of plastic. Ball Corp. President Dan Fisher said a Ball cup recycled at an arena could be back in that building within 60 days.
The next step for live sports concessions: “Having sustainability thought of in all decisions,” Ganzler said. “Not specifically only in waste or only having a garden, but weaving sustainability into all stands.”
So much more can be done. HOK’s Sustainability Leader Vanessa Hostick recommends venues make their composting and recycling bins much bigger and brighter than the landfill waste receptacle to grab attention, and to partner with a local food bank so that unused food can be donated. Sustainability consultant Kristen Fulmer suggests teams and concessionaires reduce portion sizes to limit waste, and that effective messaging can lead people to enacting some of these basic changes at home.
Stadium kitchen operations present clear sustainability possibilities. Fulmer mentioned smart meters that identify where energy waste is occurring, technology for reducing energy use around refrigeration systems, and on-site renewable energy sources (solar and wind especially) as likely to proliferate in the coming years, especially in new venues.
“There was a wave of new stadiums that came on line maybe 10 or 15 years ago that were internet connected and technology played a front-and-center role in the experience,” Woodside said. “You’re going to start seeing that with sustainability. It’s something that stadium operators and owners want. They want to be part of the solution, don’t want to be perceived as part of the problem, and they’re going to be leaning into this in the future.”
Work to do
Fulmer also sees mobile ordering as a potential contributor to sustainability. She’s had conversations with mobile app developers about adding options during the ordering process to reduce waste, such as a button for not needing napkins or condiments. In-venue apps could also send push notifications and coupons about new food options that are locally sourced. And teams could close the loop by sending their compost back to those same local farmers from whom they’re buying ingredients.
Though all the American sports leagues have sustainability programs, none have environmental mandates for their teams. Fulmer noted that the German Bundesliga is voting this winter on whether it will install carbon neutrality goals for its clubs.
The NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB or MLS mandating its teams take certain sustainability steps would send a powerful message, as would leagues or teams investing financially in the development of sustainable products and industries.
The future of concessions
“Anybody who moves totally away from traditional hospitality is missing it and anybody who doesn’t move toward totally frictionless experiences is missing it. You’ve got to play to both sides.”
— Andy Lansing, President and CEO, Levy Restaurants
That could help the entire industry because the economics of sustainable concessions are still challenging. Bobby DiCicco, Levy Restaurants vice president of hospitality at State Farm Arena, said he’s on daily calls trying to find producers of sustainable products, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic’s disruption of supply chains.
Ball’s Fisher said that distribution systems don’t exist for aluminum like they do for plastic, and that much of the higher cost of non-plastic products lies in the greater difficulty manufacturing or moving the product.
Alicia Woznicki, Aramark vice president of design and development, estimated that a Ball aluminum cup costs in the 30-cent range, while a typical paper cup (which contains plastic seams) runs 10 to 15 cents. Spectra’s Satenspiel estimated that a compostable hinged tray for hot dogs would cost three to four times more than a Styrofoam clam shell. But private equity’s interest in sustainable goods includes associated infrastructure; investment will ultimately bring costs down and improve availability.
“If the smartest folks in the world are putting their dollars to work in this area, I like our chances to get there sooner rather than later,” Fisher said.
Corporate partnerships are another way to absorb increased sustainability costs. But increasingly, everyone involved is willing to pay a little more in the meantime.
“In terms of what we’re putting in them and the overall value to the consumer, it’s very easy to justify the expense when they see the value perception of what they’re getting, a high quality of food, a high-quality packaging,” said Aramark Sports and Entertainment President Alison Birdwell. “People are willing to pay for that.”