The NFL is heading to Arizona for the fourth time in Super Bowl history, but this year is shaping up to be one of the league’s most sustainable efforts. With over 120,000 people expected to descend upon Phoenix this week, the league has undergone some of its most ambitious initiatives.
For months now, the NFL’s Environmental Program, spearheaded by Susan and Jack Groh, have been on the ground in Arizona working with event organizers and members of the community to establish and support sustainability efforts around the Super Bowl and beyond.
When did the NFL start to prioritize sustainability?
The Grohs’ involvement in the NFL dates back nearly 30 years when they first approached the league to discuss sustainability practices ahead of Super Bowl XXVIII in Atlanta. While the NFL had little to show at that point, that simple inquiry became the foundation of sports sustainability in America.
Consistent with much of the conversation about sustainability at the time, the Grohs decided to start with recycling. According to Jack, there wasn’t a single sports facility in the country implementing solid waste recycling at the time.
That “small recycling project” was so successful that it inspired a set of three new goals – lightening the league’s environmental footprint, creating a “green legacy” in their communities and engaging sponsors and fans.
What is unique about Arizona?
In many ways, this intersection of goals makes Arizona ideal for the moment.
“There’s just increasing importance and focus on sustainability initiatives here in Arizona,” said Jay Parry, host of the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee. “There’s a real focus and intention from our local stakeholders to make sure that we are really being mindful about how we conduct our major event and also just leaning into sustainable businesses here in Arizona.”
Arizona hosted the Super Bowl for the first time back in 1996, two years after the Grohs came on board. Since then, the NFL’s biggest game has returned to the Grand Canyon state twice – in 2008 and 2015 – giving league and community leaders a reliable metric to measure their growth.
In the meantime, Arizonans have only become more acutely aware of the impacts of climate change on their desert environment, according to Nick Shivka, senior manager of sustainability initiatives at the non-profit Local First Arizona.
Shivka pointed to the nearly three-decades long drought that has plagued the region and significant water shortage in the Colorado River, a major water source for 40 million people across seven states and Mexico.
How do Arizonans feel about the climate crisis?
Locals are no stranger to these issues of drought, increasing temperatures and the inability to farm, but they’ve certainly continued to take note in recent years as the issues have worsened.
“We were starting to think about, you know, what is the impact of huge events like this and what is the responsibility of large organizations like the NFL and large events like the Super Bowl to account for that impact?” Shivka said.
Echoing the Grohs’ comments, Shivka acknowledged that recycling was the most accessible way to offset human environmental impacts throughout the 90s, but said it’s not quite enough anymore.
“Coming into 2022 we are thinking a lot about waste beyond recycling. We’re thinking about how can we not only make materials out of natural materials — like cups and plates — at the Super Bowl, how can we think about making them out of plants?” he said. “… The fact of the matter is that single use is still single use. And when we look at the numbers, being able to reuse materials is more sustainable every time. But the tough part about that is behavior change and getting people to believe in that system from the businesses to the consumers, etc.”
What are some of the NFL’s sustainability goals for Super Bowl LVII?
That’s where the Grohs, Parry and the NFL step in. Working alongside local Arizonans, this coalition is striving to host an event with 92% waste diversion, a 20% increase from 2015, according to Parry.
“We’re very intentional … on what should be recycled, what can be composted, and what needs to be actually, you know, end up in landfill,” Parry said.
“Those are the kind of aggressive numbers that we need to see because at the end of the day, the Super Bowl is profiting from the amount of people that are coming into the state,” Shivka said. “They’re spending money, they’re staying here, but they’re also coming into a state where its natural resources are kind of at dangerous levels, that really are kind of on a precipice here.”
While the spotlight descends on Arizona this week, the sustainability efforts of the league extend well beyond gameday.
Back in October, even later than their usual start date, the NFL planted 57 trees in Arizona, in honor of Super Bowl 57. According to Susan Groh, they’ve completed six “planting projects” and have another six coming up.
Parry echoed that sentiment by reiterating the NFL’s goal of supporting long-standing change with clear benchmarks.
“It’s really intended to engage the whole state,” she said.
According to Parry, they’ve since planted over 500 trees around Arizona and are specifically focusing on supporting the city of Phoenix’s goal of becoming a 25% shade canopy.
“Obviously, it lowers the temperatures in our kind of hot summers here and trees can lower the temperature 10 to 15 degrees,” she said. “… All the good it does in terms of the carbon footprint. So we’ve been able to plant the trees.”
How did the NFL partner with local and national organizations in these projects?
That change, however, wouldn’t be possible without the involvement of the community.
“When it comes to these projects that we mentioned, we don’t go into a community and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to plant trees. Hey, we’re going to do this. Hey, we’re going to clean up the river.’ We go in and they say, ‘What do you guys care about? What is it that you need in your community that we might be able to help and partner with you and make it happen,’” John Groh said. “Even if it’s a project you’re already working on, but you just need a little bit more resources to make it happen. And that way we know that that project is going to survive long after.”
Community organizers like Shivka are evidence of the local buy-in.
“When we think about the word sustainability, it’s a big word that can mean a lot of things to a lot of people,” he said. “But I’m hoping that the education for it includes considerations for the viability of our ecosystems, human and social well-being, and equitable opportunities for people to participate in the economy.”
That collaboration has led the NFL to nearly every corner of the country and industry impacted by climate change.
“Just the last few years, we’ve done things like restoring an entire coral reef off the coast of Florida, restored a kelp forest off the coast of California, and now in Phoenix we’ll be doing a huge habitat restoration along the Lower Salt River,” Susan Groh said.
She went on to name the Environmental Protection Agency, Forest Service, OdySea Aquarium and Phoenix Zoo as examples of the variety of different agencies they’re working with in Arizona.
“Our focus has really broadened and I think people are now realizing it’s going to take that kind of collaborative effort to really make a change around some of these environmental issues,” she said.
How does the Super Bowl help connect people trying to better their community?
While critics have grounds to accuse the Super Bowl of contributing to pollution and environmental destruction, many – including the Grohs, Parry and Shivka – recognize it as a rallying point that could result in lasting change.
“What we’ve found in each community is that once people get out there and volunteer to do tree planting, to build community gardens, to do this kind of stuff, it doesn’t matter what their original motivation was. Once they get out there and get that glow, that feeling of … I actually did something that’s going to help people make our community better,” Groh said. “What we found in going back and talking to some of these organizations is they say, Hey, these people keep coming back and volunteering. They want to be involved. But again, oftentimes people don’t know where to go.”
Shivka added that while he recognizes actions like planting trees and recycling won’t solve the climate crisis, he commends the NFL for their efforts and has a positive outlook for the future.
“It’s a great step for an organization like the NFL in events like the Super Bowl to say ‘ We care,’” he said. “We know, you know, this isn’t the end all, be all stop. This is not going to solve climate change, but it’s going to start to help. And maybe it’ll inspire others to take action.”