Aly Criscuolo was fielding so many emails and calls from college students about her job that she organized weekly office hours so that the inquiries wouldn’t interfere with her day job. The 32-year-old is sustainability and corporate social responsibility director for New York Road Runners. She not only works to make one of the world’s biggest marathons, the TCS New York City Marathon, more sustainable, but also the smaller events that the organization puts on each weekend, as well as its internal operations.
The field of sports sustainability is even younger than Criscuolo, with the oldest of these kinds of jobs maybe 12 to 15 years old. Most are much newer, especially the rare few in the C-suite, like Erik Distler, AEG’s vice president of sustainability. He, like many who are interested in sports sustainability, knows that reducing the impact of the resource-intensive sports and entertainment events that the industry hosts is job one. That work is similar across industries.
“What really got me interested was pillar two, which often doesn’t exist,” but does in the sports world, Distler said. “The hearts and minds, the influence of sports, the love we have for our favorite athletes, the teams we love — I talk about it as a responsibility to advance these environmental issues that are more important than the sports themselves. That leveraging platform stuff is really interesting.”
But unlike dentistry, for example, where students follow a defined educational pathway into a career, those working in sports sustainability find their way into the field from dozens of entry points at various stages of life. A survey that Sports Business Journal conducted of nearly 40 people working in sports sustainability found some common educational backgrounds in environmental studies or architecture, but also outliers like nuclear engineering, religious studies, and the Chinese language.
There are tons of opportunities to develop the field because of that cornucopia of backgrounds, said Jessica Murfree, a sports ecologist and visiting assistant professor in Texas A&M’s kinesiology and sport management program. “In thinking about opportunity, a lot of people are talking about a career in sports sustainability right now,” she said. “It’s kind of a hot subject.”
Everyone that SBJ spoke to for this story agreed that younger generations are more interested in this kind of work, and that the sports industry is increasingly just as interested. There is a void, though, in between the prospects and the industry, a gap that the higher education system is probably best suited to fill. While the varied backgrounds are creating a diversity of thought in sports sustainability now, the field will still need expertise and practical training to support it in the future.
“Historically, we had some folks over on the side talking about sustainability,” said Suki Hoagland, who teaches the class “Sustainability in Athletics” at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, which opened this fall on the back of nearly $2 billion in philanthropic giving. “More and more, the business world is realizing that sustainability has to be a priority for the entire enterprise. And we have to get the people ready. All these universities that work in this space have to crank it up to meet the challenge.”
The personal connection
Criscuolo majored in finance and minored in environmental science and Spanish at Fairfield University, pairing a natural science minor with a hard skill major, a common way to carve out a sustainability career platform in the absence of an actual program.
After graduating, she spent five years working for General Electric in the energy and environment realm but hit a ceiling and decided to pursue an MBA at Bard College, located in Manhattan at the time. Sustainability was embedded in every course. Her capstone project focused on making triathlons more sustainable, though she never realistically thought she would find work in the sport’s less mainstream pro ranks. Of course, the New York Road Runners job was posted a week after she graduated.
“It seemed like it wasn’t a possibility,” said Criscuolo, “but the industry came along quicker than I thought it would.”
She’s been there three years now, making an impact through waste diversion stations and reusable bag programs, and establishing NYRR’s sustainability strategy and key pillars. At the 2021 TCS New York City Marathon, NYRR diverted 141 tons of waste — the weight of about 79 taxis. The role was a new one at NYRR, so Criscuolo has been able to mold it to her vision. The educational foundation from Bard was critical in doing that.
“If I had walked into my role at New York Road Runners without that MBA experience, I would not have known what to do on my first day,” she said. “The education, the hands-on experience, walking in on Day 1, I knew exactly where to begin, what my first six months would look like. I had the confidence as well, which I would not have had without the MBA.”
There is often an underlying passion that fuels the pursuit of these jobs. “In our field, which I would say is more social than natural, I think it relies on that personal connection to the work,” Murfree said. Prodigy Search partner Mark Gress said that for many of the candidates his firm sees chasing higher level sustainability jobs, their qualification is “mainly coming from real-world work experience, volunteer work on the nonprofit side, and, candidly, a passion and desire to see this succeed.”
Gress is looking for a sports marketing executive with a sustainability focus for Dow, but the field is still new enough that very few, if any, C-suite-level jobs are being created. It’s not clear if there would be enough viable candidates to fill the roles if the jobs did exist.
“It’s not like someone grew up low level in the organization and went up to a C-suite job,” said Nolan Partners President Chad Biagini. “They’re often coming from public affairs roles or supply chain roles where they developed understanding of sustainability throughout their careers instead of studying it.”
Many more involved with sports sustainability are simply finding the responsibility to oversee an organization’s sustainability efforts landing in their lap. Or they are stumbling upon the work, like Rossetti sports architect Phonephasith “Fil” Choulramountry. Earlier in his career while at architecture firm HKS, Choulramountry helped design North Texas’ Apogee Stadium, which became the first LEED Platinum-certified sports venue of any kind when it opened in 2011. He’d never had sustainability training, but easily incorporated the way of thinking into his work because it gelled with his personal ideals.
“It was definitely on the fly, while at work, especially with clients when they ask,” he said. “When you work with clients like that, you end up hiring LEED professionals and then you learn from them, the checklist they have.”
Only four of 38 respondents to the SBJ survey said that their college education led them into sports sustainability work.
“For meaningful work, having people with diverse backgrounds is an entire asset,” said Murfree, who originally studied marine biology in college before switching to sports management. “Half of me is sports, half of me is the environment.”
Distler worked in finance before an internal calling led him to get a master’s at Presidio, a sustainability-focused graduate school in San Francisco. He joined AEG last year with one person reporting to him, but with the understanding that he’d be allowed to build the team back to its pre-pandemic four-person total. Thus far, Distler said, it’s much easier to find young people fresh out of school to fill those kinds of roles than directors or senior managers.
“There are more degrees both graduate and undergraduate level that are now showing up on people’s résumés that are applying for jobs,” he said.
More supply needed
The practical, day-to-day aspects of sustainability are new enough that it’s been tough for higher education to find enough qualified people to start building sustainability programs. One academic told SBJ that the schools with sustainability courses often only had them because a specific professor taught there; if the professor left, the sustainability classes would essentially go with them.
One such college instructor helped steer Melanie West into the field. The 24-year-old interior designer started as an intern at architecture firm HOK in July 2021, working under Sustainable Design Leader Vanessa Hostick, before being hired full time last fall. West majored in interior design at the University of Missouri, where she took a couple of sustainability-geared courses. Those piqued her interest, and the professor nudged her to take a sustainability certificate course, then again nudged her and a classmate to enter the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon design challenge, in which teams design innovative and sustainable buildings.
That experience opened West’s eyes to the intersection of design and sustainability and led to her opportunity at HOK. She’s still working toward full certification for interior design work but in the meantime completes LEED and WELL Building certification applications or helps Hostick put together sustainability assessments and projections for the firm’s projects.
“Before I got into the professional world, I didn’t really even know what a career in sustainability looked like,” West said. “Sustainability could be anything. You could be a fashion major, in marketing or business, and you could still pursue a sustainability career. Not a lot of people know what that looks like, so talking to people in that field is huge.”
There are no sports sustainability programs or schools; there aren’t too many general sustainability schools at American colleges either. The University of South Florida’s Patel School of Global Sustainability has offered a master’s program for about a decade and features nine concentrations, including water and energy, tourism, business, global climate, hospitality, and food sustainability and security, though nothing explicitly focused on sports. And it’s not tied to USF’s Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management program.
“With the state that we’re in with the world in general, I definitely think there needs to be a standardization of learning about” sustainability, said Choulramountry. “To understand it is extremely important.”
That will change in the coming years as students and industries, and the planet, make the need clearer. Hoagland has seen that already; her Sustainability in Athletics class was born out of a pointed request from Stanford University student athletes.
While most universities lack the 10-figure donation Stanford received to launch the Doerr School, many could create sustainability course tracks through a combination of existing classes and the addition of environmentally focused professors. Academics told SBJ that the focus of any new programs needs to go beyond theoretical research and become more practical, a shortcoming that Stanford has pinpointed, Hoagland said. The university made an intentional strategic shift in recent years to become more purposeful, to not be content collecting knowledge and expertise without connected action.
That will be the fundamental guiding principle of the Doerr School, where sustainability will be a prefix to hundreds of courses, not just a handful. It will bring programs, majors, and faculty from all over Stanford and its seven schools under a new umbrella, with plans to build a new campus and hire 60 new faculty. It’s not clear that sports sustainability education has a significant place in the school’s course catalog yet, but some of its thousands of graduates will undoubtedly find their way into sports business.
“We can’t just be over here in our ivory tower creating knowledge,” said Hoagland. “You need both” experts and interdisciplinarians. “We have to have these people that go deep in these disciplines, and the purpose is they create new knowledge. But we now know that’s not sufficient to face the sustainability challenge we face.”
Hoagland’s class is already working with a European data scientist on developing metrics for measuring sustainability impact, a necessity for the sports industry — and many other lines of work — to track progress or failure, and investment success.
“It’s only natural at Stanford where sports are such a large part of our ethos, we have this opportunity to create these sustainability experts to go into the athletics industry,” Hoagland said. But, she added, “we don’t have the supply line yet for the need, not even close.”
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