Greener Brackets: Analysis Looks At Carbon Intensity To Pick March Madness Teams

Is your bracket busted? Perhaps you should have looked at that fourth seed’s carbon footprint instead of counting seniors and freshmen.

There are dozens of methods to filling out a March Madness bracket. You can pick based on the combat abilities of team mascots. Or by colors, or your devotion to the schools, or how much you like each city or region. Some people have even watched a game or two, and try to base their choices on a studied understanding of college basketball.

There’s a new approach that tries to answer the question, “What bracket would expend the least amount of greenhouse gas emissions?” It tells you which teams could get to the championship using the most carbon-neutral path.

Hint: going to school near tournament sites helps a lot. The analysis, conducted by consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, bases their calculation on projected team and fan travel between the school and the tournament site, combined with the assumption that higher seeds will draw larger fan bases. Though traveling by plane rather than coach bus means a higher carbon footprint, fan travel represents a much higher impact than team travel.


So how’d they do? Louisville, Davidson, Northwestern State, and Mississippi filled out this bracket’s Final Four, with each team’s journey projected to emit nearly 152,000 metric tonnes of CO2. St. Mary’s had the largest projected footprint, with a little over 166k. Florida Gulf Coast ranks 50 out of 68. Both Wichita State and Lasalle snuck into the top half of the pool ranked 33 and 31, respectively.

The women’s bracket got the same treatment as the men’s, with Maryland, Tennessee Chattanooga, Baylor, and LSU representing the carbon-friendly Final Four and UCLA bringing up the rear.

I spoke to Joe Marriott at Booz Allen, who worked on this analysis, to ask him more about how he did the analysis and what it means.

Q. Did you find yourself rooting for teams based on their carbon footprint?A. After doing the analysis, it’s hard not to. I taught at the University of Pittsburgh for a few years, so I was rooting for them until they lost in the first round. Ironically, I’ve been so busy with our carbon footprint analysis of the tournament that I’ve paid less attention to my own bracket. The Louisville story, being a tournament favorite and having a small carbon footprint, has made following them pretty compelling. Very rarely does the work that we do — characterizing the environmental footprint of large-scale energy systems — have an impact on something this prevalent, so it’s been fun to watch the tournament unfold the way it has so far.Q. When I fill out a bracket, I choose by alumni I know, or if I like the city/state. Two rounds into the tournament, do you think taking environmental considerations into account would be a smart thing to do for next year’s brackets? Perhaps long plane flights would impact player performance more than short bus trips.A. I think reducing travel requirements — and the associated carbon emissions — could be included among the other considerations that go into assigning teams to certain playing locations, and further down the line, in deciding where to hold tournament games. Of course, encouraging group ground travel, whether by bus or by train, would significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions over air travel. Our goal with this analysis has been to raise awareness and to give decision makers the data they need to make more informed decisions that might affect the environment, not to label any teams.Q. You used the Life Cycle Analysis approach to calculate each team’s impact. Can you tell me a little more about how you customized the LCA to this analysis?A. We used a very simplified version of what we normally do for our clients. When we perform LCAs, it means considering and collecting data on a wide variety of environmental and social impacts, and also looking at all the processes that might contribute directly or indirectly to our product or event. In this analysis, though, we just looked at greenhouse gas emissions, and focused on the travel of the teams and fans. Clearly the analysis could be expanded to be more comprehensive, and we’ve been talking about ways to do just that in the future. In this analysis, we first looked at the teams, and used a straightforward distance calculation to gauge how far they’d have to travel to their assigned venue in each round. We then assumed that one-third of the fans at any given venue are local, with effectively zero travel footprint, and the remaining two-thirds are inversely allocated to the teams by their rankings. In our calculation, this means a two-seed that played a 15-seed in the opening round would have a 15:2 advantage in fan attendance at the venue.

The greenhouse gases for the travel are cradle-to-grave emissions for ground and air travel which were compiled from a variety of government and academic sources.Q. Is there anything you’ve learned from the March Madness carbon footprint calculation that you might apply to LCA analyses in other contexts?A. Not necessarily on the science side — as I said, this analysis is actually pretty straightforward compared to what we do for other clients. But I think it is important to find simple ways of communicating complex environmental results to interested parties who won’t necessarily have a science background. For example, most people are familiar with the system we are looking at here but we cannot report our results in kilograms of 100-year carbon dioxide equivalents per passenger-kilometer and expect that most people will understand what those results mean. So we spent quite a bit of time thinking about our potential audience and how they relate to energy and climate issues.Q. Would the whole tournament’s footprint decrease if it were held in one city? If so, which city would that be?A. It would. We haven’t run that particular analysis, so I don’t have specific numbers, but holding the tournament in a single city limits that back-and-forth travel that’s required for some teams. I would guess that you’d need a Midwestern city, perhaps a little closer to the East Coast, like St. Louis or Indianapolis.Q. Are any arenas particularly climate-friendly?A. We only looked at travel to and from venues. According to our analysis, the climate friendliness of a particular arena won’t have anything to do with its energy consumption. However, it is going to depend on its geographic location relative to the teams that play there. In that sense, arenas that are located near clusters of schools will tend to be better.Q. Are there any plans to apply this analysis to professional sports teams? I would assume interleague in the MLB would make different years more or less carbon-intensive.A. Great question. The people on my team certainly have an interest in continuing to explore the intersection of the analyses that we do and popular sports. We’ve started talking about looking at next year’s World Cup — another tournament-style event that requires a lot of travel by the teams and the fans. Right now, for other pro sports, I think we’re still at the point where we’re raising awareness, both with the fans and the decision makers putting the schedules together. Those folks need to understand that energy and climate are important issues, then we can apply the method in ways to really start to make a difference.Q. Any recommendations to reduce the overall carbon footprint of sports seasons in general?A. Events like the NCAA tournament are an exception for sports in that the venues are ostensibly neutral and, while chosen well in advance of the season, are a variable you could move to lower the travel footprint. In most sports that involve travel, such as football or baseball, the locations are obviously set so you’d need to make changes to schedule constraints, such as the number of times teams play each other or conference alignments, to more closely group teams that play each other often. Our analysis shows that location matters. The NCAA tournament is really the perfect example –we cannot change the location of the college or university, but we can treat this analysis as a great case study to show how location and travel affect our environment. .

Of course, improving the efficiency of travel is always a good idea.

You can fill out your men’s bracket here, and your women’s bracket here.