Athletes for the Earth

Hoop Dreams: The NBA and Sustainability

People think of basketball and they think of the NBA, the WNBA, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant,  March Madness and California native Monique Billings, number 25 and forward for the Los Angeles Sparks, to name a few. Although sustainability is not the first word that comes to mind when you think of the game, it is something that is creeping into the NBA’s vocabulary as well as their messaging. This month marks the first year anniversary of one of their newest environmental programs: Launched last April 2023, their Arena Sustainability Task Force has the aim of reducing waste, increasing recycling, and saving energy at their arenas. It’s notable and commendable too that there is a scientist leading their overall sustainability strategy and not a marketing manager.

Meet Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, the environmental scientist behind their efforts. He realized the NBA could reach more people than purely the science community alone. According to Dr. Herskowitz, less than 20% of adults in the United States follow science yet over 80% follow sports. So when former NBA commissioner David Stern and player programs president Kathy Behrens reached out to Dr. Herskowitz, to help them get the NBA on a path to sustainability  – he didn’t hesitate.  Making visual changes was key – “If we set up compost bins and recycling bins in the concourses of the venues, the fans understood that we were committed to environmental responsibility,” Hershkowitz said.

Now 10 arenas are certified in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system, an internationally recognised standard in sustainability globally meaning the arenas are specifically designed to be energy efficient.  The league has an eco-friendly academy in Senegal and a recycled glass court in Spain. NBA teams – the Milwaukee Bucks, Phoenix Suns and Sacramento Kings all participate in various Earth Day activations every year and the Miami Heat take part in the Beach Sweep at North Miami Beach to clean up trash. 

With a revenue during the 2022-2023 season alone of 10.58 billion USD it’s easy to dismiss this sort of growing commitment to sustainability with some cynicism but there have been achievements that are more than just savvy ‘green’ messaging.

Some Sustainability Success 

The NBA has managed to reduce the environmental impact of their team travel by changing the way they schedule games so that it limits the amount of times teams criss-cross the country.  For example, traveling teams will often be scheduled to play the Heat and the Magic, teams both based in Florida, on the same trip rather than flying out twice. It’s the same with the two LA based teams, the Clippers and the Lakers, and the Nets and Knicks in New York. This way the NBA can reduce their carbon footprint and stands a much better chance of halving it by  2030 which is their stated goal. In their 2022-2023 season, the NBA decreased their annual over-all miles traveled by 50,000 miles. While it’s not enough to save the planet – it’s a start!

Which is good – as reducing their carbon footprint – is also one of the goals they signed on for when the NBA signed the United Nations Climate Change Convention’s Sports for Climate Change Framework (UNCCC). 

What’s That?

The United Nations introduced the Sports for Climate Change Framework  in December of 2018 and it has five core principles that every team and league must follow if they sign on: understand systematic efforts to promote greater environmental responsibility, reduce overall climate impact, educate for climate action, promote sustainability and responsible consumption, and advocate for climate action through communication. 

Aside from reducing their carbon footprint with clever game scheduling, the NBA has also reduced their use of plastic bottles by 80% in their offices. They are now actively  conducting a thorough evaluation of all league events to figure out how they can work with their various partners to reduce impacts and offset unavoidable carbon emissions. 

What About the Fans? 

The NBA has some of the most famously fanatical fans in sports so can they leverage this loyalty to change fan behavior when it comes to sustainability? The NBA is trying to use their platform to educate their fans through NBA GREEN which raises awareness about the importance of doing right by the planet.

If they can get their ‘green messaging’ right they have the capacity to reach a lot of eyeballs globally, so it is clear why the UN has a sports strategy and must have wanted the NBA to sign onto it. In May 2019, the NBA league had 150 million followers across all social platforms and 1 billion people around the world watched the NBA Finals. It is the most popular sports league in China with 300 million people actively playing basketball there. 

In April 2023, the league had 32 billion video views across all NBA and NBA related accounts. With international followers making up more than 70% of the NBA’s social media followers, half of their audience is 25 and below. They even have K-pop star SUGA as an NBA Ambassador! 

It is clear that the NBA is actively catering to their younger audience and going green might appeal to that same demographic. We hope they are successful in turning their fans into green activists – here’s hoping!