Few universities have dealt with the sustainability of their sports programs or have long-term plans to do so, says a new report.
Only 10 percent of institutions at the NCAA's Division I-A level have developed a strategic plan for sustainability in their athletics programs, and fewer than half report that sustainability is a high priority.
The findings come from the "2009 Collegiate Athletic Department Sustainability Survey Report," to be released on Thursday by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. The report includes responses from 97 of the 119 athletics programs in the NCAA's premier division about their attention to sustainability, a concept that integrates environmental stewardship, economic development, and social responsibility. Sustainability typically includes, for starters, efforts to use clean energy, reduce waste, curb carbon emissions, and construct green buildings.
With Division I-A institutions supporting an average of 17 sports each, "the collective environmental impact is potentially quite large," the report says. "Unfortunately, however, because few campuses are assessing these impacts, the overall impact of sports programs is unknown."
Many large athletics departments are gradually turning their attention to sustainability: Nearly three-quarters said the emphasis on environmental programs was increasing, and more than two-thirds said key decision makers were either "strongly positive" or "slightly positive" about such programs.
But they are moving slowly, often concerned about environmental programs' effects on their bottom line and unsure of where their practices fit with those already under way at the university.
Forty-one percent of departments responding to the survey have a representative from the athletics department on the university's campuswide sustainability team, but 79 percent did not know whether the president of their university had signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment. (To date, more than 600 college presidents have signed the agreement, including about 30 that oversee the biggest sports programs.)
The majority of respondents said the person or group responsible for developing a sustainability plan was either the facilities-and-event operations division of the athletics department, or the campuswide facilities department. None said the athletic director was responsible for such a plan.
Forty-seven percent of respondents said they did not know how much of the university's overall energy use was attributed to the athletics department.
College sports at its most competitive is a big business, and the respondents indicated that green practices were considered, like any other new venture, in terms of how they would affect the bottom line.
One-third said decision makers thought the environmental programs would have a slight negative effect on the bottom line. Many respondents also said they were concerned about the return on investment of such a program.
The survey also measured the emphasis athletics departments place on various environmental programs. Those receiving a "high" amount of emphasis were energy efficiency (49 percent), energy conservation (42 percent), office and events recycling (38 percent), and green turf management (30 percent).
Ignoring the Impact of Travel
The greenhouse-gas emissions associated with team and fan travel is one area of particular concern that has not been fully dealt with in campuswide sustainability plans, the report says.
Few departments measure the greenhouse-gas emissions of their operations, including fossil fuel and electricity use, and travel by teams, employees, and fans. Even fewer said they were actively considering doing so.
More than 40 percent of respondents said decision makers thought environmental programs would have no effect on fan loyalty. DeDee DeLongpré Johnston, a board member of the association and director of sustainability at Wake Forest University, says athletics programs would be wise to capitalize on their fans' enthusiasm for green practices.
When Ms. DeLongpré Johnston was the sustainability director at the University of Florida, fans tailgating before games in the 650 acres surrounding the football stadium would "go berserkbeserk" when they saw her patrolling the area with her "Green Team" to pick up recyclable trash.
"The fans love it," she says. "They would see us coming in our T-shirts, and they would be like, 'Green team! Where've you guys been? We love you!' They'd try to give us tips."
The NCAA has a Green Team of its own at its Indianapolis headquarters, where staff members have pledged to promote environmentally friendly habits in their office and in the region. The organization is also developing sustainability programs for national championships and other NCAA events.
Yet despite the mounting support, Ms. DeLongpré Johnston says, many of the largest athletics programs still appear to rank sustainability behind their most important priority: winning. "Perhaps it's not a centerpiece right now," she says. "Everyone has a different bottom line against which they measure their own success."