From his Brooklyn home, LJ Nassivera rides public transit to and from work at Citi Field every day, taking the G Train to the 7 Line before exiting at the Mets-Willets Point subway stop near the stadium.
It’s a fitting commute for Nassivera, who was hired in late 2022 as the New York Mets’ new vice president of transportation strategies. He’s one of the North American sports industry’s few in-house executives focused full time on a team and venue’s transportation issues. The Mets created his position for a variety of reasons, including to increase public transit ridership to Citi Field events. Post-pandemic, only about 20% of the team’s fans are arriving at the stadium by subway or train, which Nassivera said, “for a New York City stadium is not good, not enough.”
But there are other aspects where having someone in-house devoted to transportation planning can produce noticeable results, like improving the fan experience, using team-owned real estate more cleverly, and reducing a sports venue’s impact on the surrounding community at a time when many new projects are being built within existing neighborhoods.
“We’re a ginormous stadium that’s been out here for 60 years, plunked down in one of the most dense and diverse places on the planet in Queens that, quite frankly, a large majority of them don’t care about baseball and just want a better life,” Nassivera said, referring to the Mets’ former home, Shea Stadium, as well as Citi Field. “We need to be good neighbors first and foremost, and being good neighbors means transportation, sustainability, connection to the local land uses … and that is very much about planning.”
Nassivera mentioned the most important area his role can affect: sustainability. Nearly any changes to a venue’s transportation plan — whether getting drivers to prepay for parking to increase efficiency or raising public transit ridership — lessen a venue’s harm to the environment.
“Transportation is probably the single biggest carbon footprint impact” stemming from the sports industry, said Hassan Madhoun, Stantec associate transportation engineer, who formerly worked for the CFL’s Ottawa RedBlacks.
The carbon emissions from fans’ travels are considered Scope 3, indirect emissions not produced by the team or venue owner, which make them tricky to calculate. The venue is ultimately the reason for the emissions. But there is no direct number to cite, like there is for water or energy usage.
“If a sports team owner wanted to have a big impact on climate change, you have to talk about transportation. Sports teams have a different kind of muscle to do that,” said Paul Supawanich, director of programs for the Global Designing Cities Initiative, who worked on the Chase Center transportation plan in 2019 while with the San Francisco mayor’s office. “In the U.S., in the Bay Area, 50% of greenhouse gas emissions were transport related, and private vehicles were a bulk of that.”
Mixed-use development is also playing a big role in the sports industry’s increased attention to transportation planning by changing who sports venues’ constituents are — no longer just fans, but also residents and workers — as well as more starkly revealing parking lots’ poor use of land when compared to revenue-generating developments that can improve the fan experience and neighborhoods (see related story, below).
That’s why it’s likely that there will be more full-time, in-house hires for roles like Nassivera’s in the future. Venue transportation planning is no longer something limited to the design phase of a new stadium construction project. It’s an ongoing challenge that can always be improved with far-reaching impacts benefiting a team’s relationship with its fans and, potentially, its revenue lines, the surrounding communities, and the global environment.
“Urban arenas and stadiums need to be more accessible,” Nassivera said. “I grew up in South Carolina, I’m all for tailgating, I get it. The majority of our pro sports teams are in large urban areas that have some transit or are thinking about transit. The future is with more sustainable mode choices and options, and not just being a stadium in a sea of parking.”
Working at a building named Climate Pledge Arena, the pressure was on Rob Johnson, the Seattle Kraken’s senior vice president, sustainability and transportation, to reduce the carbon footprint of fans traveling to and from events at the arena, a top-three contributor to the team and venue’s overall operational carbon footprint. That goal, coupled with strict city permitting stipulations and the desire to lessen impact on the dense neighborhood surrounding the arena, sparked an effort to subsidize fans that use public transit to reach the venue.
The public transit subsidy, worth $7 for a round trip, was offered for just Kraken and Storm games in the arena’s first year. The team and venue relentlessly advertised the subsidy and non-car travel options.
“We were really proactive early because sociologists in the transportation space will tell you that once a behavior is ingrained, it’s really hard to change,” said Johnson, one of the sports industry’s few transportation-focused executives. “As a new team, we knew we had a chance to really ingrain behavior in fans to use public transit to come to games.”
A quarter of fans who visited the arena in its first year used the public transit subsidy, and the Kraken paid about $600,000 to reimburse them. As of Jan. 1, 2023, the subsidy is now available for all ticketed events at the building.
Technology provided a key breakthrough for Johnson and the Kraken. Integration of Ticketmaster’s API and the local Transit GO Ticket app’s digital fare payment solution into the Kraken team app enabled more accurate tracking of transit ridership. When a Kraken fan bought a ticket to a game, public transit passes equal to the number of tickets were automatically sent to the fan’s digital wallet.
Those digital transactions provided the Kraken with real-time data and better enabled the team to track ridership at a high level. If the Bruce Springsteen show was running late, for example, and Johnson knew 2,000 fans had ridden the light rail to the concert, he could request an additional late train from the transit authority so they could take the train home again. Johnson was thrilled when the arena received an average net promoter score in the low 8s and the high 7s for overall satisfaction with transportation to and from Climate Pledge Arena following its first year of the subsidy program.
“That means that it’s kind of an afterthought,” he said. “That’s exactly what I want it to be.”
Other sports venues have partnered with local transit authorities in a similar way — for 14 years, Phoenix Suns and Mercury game tickets have doubled as passes for the local light rail system, with more than 58,000 rides specifically attributed to that program in 2022 alone. That analog method — fans show their phone or physical ticket to anyone checking train tickets — doesn’t provide any data or help track a team’s fans’ use of public transit.
Industrywide, tracking anything related to the impact of fan travel is difficult. The Golden State Warriors worked with researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, in late 2022 to better understand Chase Center’s associated carbon footprint over the course of a full year. One of the main points was to establish a baseline, against which future goals could be compared. Given the current state of emissions tracking, fan surveys are still a critical source of information.
“Within the GOAL [Green Operations & Advanced Leadership] system, we’re trying to encourage people to survey, do visual assessments periodically. Even just making some educated assumptions goes a long way to measuring what that carbon footprint is,” said Kristen Fulmer, OVG360 director of sustainability, who oversees the GOAL sports sustainability network for Oak View Group. “What we haven’t seen as much is that true measurement of carbon footprint.”
As sports venues return to urban areas, and mixed-use development projects anchored by stadiums and arenas surge, sports industry leaders are forced to pay more attention to how their venues fit into the broader world. And, following about six decades devoted to the automobile, that broader world is undergoing immense changes in how it moves around, including the development of electric vehicles, a returning focus to public transit, and new technologies like electric scooters and rideshares.
That changing world includes less tolerance from communities and municipal governments for automobile traffic. Full-time transportation experts are helping teams navigate increasingly strenuous city-required transportation management plans that can include stipulations about what percentage of venue visitors must arrive and depart by means other than automobiles, how quickly an area must be cleared of event-related traffic postgame, and pedestrian safety goals.
Achieving a balanced “modal split,” the use of multiple modes of transportation to and from a sports venue, is often a key aspect of the government-mandated transportation plans. Multimodalism could mean anything, whether pedicabs, ferries, scooters or light rail, and is key for public transit, too, in case one option is offline.
Multimodalism can be useful in longer distance situations, too. Numaan Akram, whose company, Rally, crowdfunds bus trips to live events, moves roughly 2,000 people to Green Bay for each Packers game from about 20 locations around the state of Wisconsin. Akram estimates that each Rally bus takes about 30 cars (and their exhaust pipes) off the road and out of stadium parking lots.
Even at car-reliant venues, reducing traffic and queuing can lessen environmental damage — fewer idling cars equals fewer emissions — while improving the fan experience. For that reason, Joe Leung, OVG360 vice president of parking and mobility services, has made pre-sales of parking a fundamental aspect of OVG’s venues’ transportation setups, thus eliminating paying an attendant by hand and getting cars parked faster. Leung said the industry average for pre-sold parking is about 40% to 45% of parked cars, but OVG360 is setting baseline targets for its venues at 70% or higher. Moody Center, Climate Pledge Arena, and Acrisure Arena, based in public transit-devoid Palm Springs, are all over 80% pre-sold parking.
Leung was originally hired as vice president of parking, but mobility was soon added to the title.
“There are so many other ways guests get to our venues, and we have to support those,” he said. “The guest journey that [venues] outline is bookended by the parking and mobility side of it. It can have a really great impact on that guest journey or a really bad impact. More and more venues are seeing the importance of those bookends.”
Communication is a key aspect of these executives’ jobs. That can be internal — working with partnerships or social media teams within the organization — and external communication with local government agencies, transit authorities or neighborhood groups, and always to a team’s fans.
“It’s like 80% of the job,” said Madhoun, who created a transportation plan for the Ottawa RedBlacks when they redeveloped a hundred-year-old stadium that had no parking or public transit nearby. Madhoun and the team developed a park-and-ride program from scratch, then used their fans’ ZIP codes to send tailored emails containing transportation recommendations specific to where the fan lived in the region.
“You can get all the buses procured and the parking lots leased for game days, but ultimately the execution comes down to getting the word out to people and convincing them to take the option,” said Madhoun.
And that is the primary challenge for Nassivera and Citi Field.
“We are in one of the most dense, urban places in the Western Hemisphere in New York City, with the busiest subway system and the biggest commuter rail system in the United States right at our front door,” he said. “But we also are an affluent, suburban-leaning fan base as well. Many of those people want to drive and that’s perfectly fine. We’re just trying to find the right balance.”