Why America’s Major Sports Leagues Are Talking About Climate Change

Pond hockey in New Hampshire CREDIT: AP
Pond hockey in New Hampshire CREDIT: AP

Across Canada and the northern United States, thousands of children a year learn to love the game of hockey in the winter when they lace up their skates, grab their sticks, and head to the local pond to piece together a game on their frozen sandlots. They imitate the stars they see on TV, the Gretzkys and Crosbys and Ovechkins, and turn into lifelong players and fans.

But those kids are starting to run into a major problem: the frozen ponds they play on are less and less likely to form each winter, as a changing climate makes winter warmer and open ice more scarce.

That isn’t just bad news for kids who want to play the game. It’s also worrisome for the National Hockey League, a league already a distant fourth among America’s top four professional sports that depends on those pickup games and frozen ponds to help build new generations of fans and players. And the NHL isn’t alone. The NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, and WNBA are all worried about the effects of environmental changes on their sports and the people who play them, which is why representatives from those five leagues plus the U.S. Olympic Committee joined Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) on Capitol Hill today to discuss their efforts to reduce energy usage and address climate change — and the efforts the federal government could take to do the same.

All of the representatives noted that their leagues felt a social responsibility for improving the environment. But they also stressed that it was good for business, and that in some ways their businesses depend on it. Warmer summers and polluted air have already made playing sports like baseball, football, and basketball outside more dangerous at certain times in the year. For the NHL, chief financial officer Craig Harnett said, fewer frozen ponds means less access for young people. All of that means fewer people can turn into fans and players through actual participation.


“It’s no secret that many of the people many of the athletes who aspire to become professional hockey players or amateur or college hockey players, they learn on the pond. And to the extent that it becomes more difficult to create ice in those environments, you’re obviously limiting access to it,” Harnett said. “Right now in this country we already don’t have enough access to rinks and ice times, and we as an organization would like to see more access to that.

“It builds fans, it builds athletes, it provides more access and more competition, and we’re all in favor of that.”

Whitehouse and Waxman organized a bicameral task force to address climate change earlier this year. In letters to the task force released at different points throughout 2013, all of the leagues demonstrated efforts they have taken to reduce waste and energy use, mostly in their stadiums. Reducing energy use will naturally help the environment, but it’s also been good for their bottom lines.

Major League Baseball clubs, for instance, have saved millions of dollars in utility costs by becoming more energy efficient. The Seattle Mariners saved $1.75 million alone between 2006 and 2012, MLB’s letter to the task force said. The same can be said for the other leagues. The NBA’s Miami Heat save $500,000 annually on energy and water costs, according to the NBA’s letter. The NHL letter states that its teams have “routinely seen return on their investment within reasonable periods, after which both utility bills and carbon emissions decline dramatically.” In addition, the leagues now track energy use at their stadiums, focus on using more sustainable products in their arenas and at their events, and donate or re-use most products to reduce waste. At Super Bowl XLV in February, the NFL reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 24,000 tons (equal to the output of 8,000 homes), saving money and helping the environment in the process, according to its letter.

The leagues have also taken broader steps, trying to improve the efficiency of vehicles they own and going as far to make their stadiums and arenas more accessible to cleaner forms of transportation, including bikes and public transit.


Still, the leagues said, more needs to be done. The NBA supports the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to boost fuel economy standards and lower carbon limits for new vehicles. The league has also endorsed “power plant standards and a handful of other clean air and energy efficiency measures” that fall under the “existing authority of the EPA and the Department of Energy.” The NHL has also partnered with the EPA, and while it and the other leagues were hesitant to explicitly endorse specific policies, whether President Obama’s new initiatives or otherwise, representatives showed openness to those efforts.

“I think we’ve shown that we do support the EPA programs by joining up and partnering with them on many of their programs,” Harnett said, adding that if new Obama administration proposals to regulate power plants “would help the environment, we would favor those types of reasonable regulations.”

The NFL took a different approach, focusing less on government actions and more on “ways in which our organization can be a socially responsible, socially leading type of company,” NFL senior vice president Adolpho Birch said.

The involvement of the leagues, Whitehouse said, is further proof that climate change is something that affects all Americans and that action needs to be taken.

“The more this looks like something America wants, the harder it’s going to be for polluters to maintain their lock on Congress, and that is the goal that we seek to achieve through these meetings,” Whitehouse said. “Them being here today could break through the barricade of special interests.”