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Greening Pro Sports: Rallying for Recycled Plastic Rally Towels

This post is part of a blogging series by economics students at the Presidio Graduate School's MBA program. You can follow along here.
By Izabel Loinaz

As it has been said, every challenge offers an opportunity.  This easily can be said for the professional sports industry in the US.

The Challenge: Annually, millions of swag items are made to last but for an instant and certainly not sustainably produced. The Opportunity: To capitalize on a simultaneous growth of corporate sponsorships and the greening of pro sports.

Sponsors pay big money for your attention
Take a look around your desk, room or office.  If you are one of the more than 150 million Americans (half the country) who follow professional sports, chances are you have some form of team spirit give-away, otherwise known as “swag” advertising your favorite team as well as corporate sponsorship logos.  Here in my office sits an orange “Go Giants” rally towel with a PG&E logo occupying the bottom right corner.
Typically, the free swag you collect is paid for by corporate sponsorship dollars.  While you spin your rally towel or bang your thunder-sticks in support of your team, corporate sponsors are banking on an opportunity to engage you and ultimately influence you to become a customer.

EIG, a Chicago based sponsorship consultancy and publisher of statistical research on the topic of sponsorships, has projected that in 2011, sponsorship spending in North America will experience a 5.8% increase to $18.2 billion. Sponsorship spending in the category of sports is projected to increase by 6.1%.  It is important to note that 68% of sponsorship spending is in the sports sector, a market share that is reliably stable. Historically, sponsorship spending has consistently grown annually until 2009 when, for the first time ever in North America, sponsorship spending dropped by 0.6%.

The greening of pro sports
A movement is arising to harness the capacity for the sports industry to make a substantial impact on the environment, promote sustainable business practices and influence change upon unusually large masses of people.  What is unique about this opportunity is the infrastructure between the professional sports industry and the population of fans leveraging influence, community, identity, messaging, and critical mass mentality matched only by organized religion and pop culture celebrities.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has already been championing the education and facilitation of greening sports with its “Greening the Games” guides and consulting services.  More recently, the NRDC partnered with Paul Allen and several Pacific Northwest pro teams and venues to launch the Green Sport Alliance in March of 2011.

Increasingly, sports organizations are finding their sustainability initiatives to be a competitive advantage in attracting corporate dollars. The Atlanta Braves attracted a partnership with Coca-Cola for a green campaign that entailed installation of Coca-Cola shaped recycling bins around the stadium and producing stadium staff uniforms from the PET bottles collected.  Similarly, the San Francisco Giants have secured key sponsorships with PG&E and Canadian Solar.

Currently, the bulk of focus and headway is on reduction of energy consumption and waste production.  However, many sports organizations are now taking a deeper look into the procurement and sourcing of their goods.  In a conversation with Justin Zeulner, Sustainability Director of the Portland Trail Blazers, Zeulner says he sees an opportunity to apply pressure on sponsors to abide by stricter purchasing standards when supplying the team with promotional giveaways. As a single team, he feels there is limited power to make such demands. But, with the momentum of sustainability trends and the Green Sports Alliance, he sees a critical mass building where such demands will become more common.

Increasingly, sponsors are seeking greener pro teams and pro teams are looking down the supply chain for greener pastures.  Clearly the time is ripe for an emerging and largely untapped market of sustainable swag.

Izabel Loinaz
is CEO of Spring Partners Inc, founder/owner of Spring Pilates & Yoga in San Francisco and an MBA candidate in Sustainable Management at Presidio Graduate School.  Izabel’s professional focus is in sustainable management of the sports, athletics and health fields.


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