The Carbon Footprint of Sports

Image of baseball stadium.

Image by Tim Gouw.

Watching an Anaheim Ducks hockey game in the spring, the announcers were ecstatic about teams playing more games against opponents outside their division and conference. Since 1997, Major League Baseball has interleague play. Now, baseball also has teams travel more to play outside their divisions in order to let fans see “all the stars firsthand.”

This summer, the Pac-12 Conference in collegiate athletics is in crisis, as first UCLA and USC bolted to the Big Ten Conference and now, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State are apparently following suit. That means that seven schools will have to travel across time zones in order to play teams mostly in the Midwest but also including teams in the East like Maryland and Rutgers. The only saving grace is that they will most likely be put in a single western division, meaning they will still play mostly among themselves.

In case you haven’t noticed, July was the hottest month ever recorded on the planet. Ocean temperatures along Florida’s coast exceeded 100ºF. In Iran, the country shut down recently because temperatures were too high. Sea ice at the North Pole is disappearing. Forest fires raged in Canada while brush fires burned uncontrolled in Greece. Closer to home, the metro Phoenix area has exceeded 110ºF daytime temperatures for x number of days straight. When it’s not boiling hot, it rains like crazy. Japan had a mass flooding event, as did China.

This is the world of heat domes, melting glaciers, and drownings. Climate change is here, it’s real, and it is not going away. In the interim, both professional and collegiate sports are endorsing the idea of traveling more so that teams can get exposure in front of fans they have not seen before. Why are they doing it? Money, of course.

Professional sports has always been oblivious to the carbon footprint it has generated. It’s laughable, for instance, when the NBA has players sitting on the bench wearing #NBAgreen t-shirts (or something to that effect) around Earth Day every year. How many thousands of miles do teams travel each year? On average, it’s about 41 000 miles for the 2022-2023 season, down from about 43 000 from the year before, but that’s really just one or two trips less per season. Thanks, Lakers and Clippers, for playing in the same building.

When pro teams are not flying cross-country, there is the other carbon footprint that no one wants to talk about: building a new stadium or arena every couple of decades because, well, you know, nobody can be successful in a stadium that’s more than 20 years old. Currently, it is all but a done deal that baseball’s Oakland A’s are going to move to a new stadium, maybe in Oakland but probably Las Vegas; new stadiums and arenas are being contemplated in Kansas City, San Antonio, Washington, and Philadelphia, just to take a short list. Every time that a new facility is built, it means the old place must get torn down and new construction releases new atmospheric carbon with every glug of concrete that comes out of a cement mixer’s pipe.

Now, the disintegration of the Pac-12 will mean that the eight teams (Colorado jumped ship to the Big-12 Conference too) will spend more time flying than ever before. For UCLA and USC, Pac-12 games up the coast at Berkeley and Stanford, which were less than two hour flights, will be replaced by trips to places like Minnesota which is more than three hours away. What’s the average Greenhouse Gas (GHG) footprint traveling from LA to Minneapolis-St. Paul? Around 950 pounds of atmospheric carbon per person on that plane (or 435 kg for the internationally-inclined).

It’s not forgivable that pro teams are greedy enough to feign ignorance when it comes to their GHG contributions. It’s also not forgivable that the NBA tries to greenwash itself every April to show to the world that it really cares about the environment. But it’s even more unforgivable when universities that engage in researching and studying the effects of climate change participate in activities that make things worse, all in the name of securing better television broadcasting deals for the schools involved. Yeah, it’s about the money, but it’s not money that gets shared throughout the universities. Athletic programs more or less fund themselves because it’s so darn expensive to field a football team.

The capitalist system has taught us that it’s all about the green, but in the 21st century, society needs to realize that another kind of green is far more important. What we have on our hands is an existential crisis. TV deals or not, many of us may be dead in two decades if we do not do something about climate change. Humans must radically change their behavior and think about GHGs and their carbon footprint with every move we make. For their part, both collegiate and professional sports need to reevaluate their travel schedules and hyper-localize rather than send athletes two or three time zones away. Fun fact: Occidental College (in Eagle Rock, part of Los Angeles) no longer fields a football team, but they used to play UCLA and USC in the 1930s. The schools played at the LA Coliseum, maybe 10-15 miles of travel for Oxy and for UCLA, zero for USC.

That’s the kind of rethink that’s needed. Play sports, but no need to travel so far to do it. For my part, I am boycotting UCLA’s athletic program. As an alumnus and a fan, I find the abandonment of the Pac-12 Conference wrong. It’s anti-climatic.

Edgar Kaskla is a lecturer in Political Science at Cal State Long Beach.