Which spectator sport is best for the environment?

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
April 9 2009 6:31 AM

Are the Yankees Bad for the Environment?

The hidden costs of heading to the stadium.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

With the start of the 2009 baseball season, green-minded sports fans may want to know which spectator sport is most harmful to the environment. Two years ago, the Green Lantern weighed the costs of a trip to the ballpark, the football stadium, and the hockey rink; the column is reprinted below.

I recently attended an NFL game, and was struck by the fact that the stadium lights were on despite a 1 p.m. kickoff time—for the television cameras' benefit, I assume. That got me thinking about how much energy is required to host a major sports event. If I want to be greener about my fandom, should I ditch pro football in favor of a more environmentally friendly sport? And if so, what sport would that be?

The banks of blinding, buzzing metal-halide lights that ring most stadiums certainly look and sound like massive energy hogs. But they're just minor contributors to a game's environmental footprint. The same can be said for the electricity that powers an arena's air conditioner, lights up the JumboTron, and keeps the nacho cheese from congealing into a viscous goop. The energy required to operate a sports venue is fairly minor compared with the energy that fans expend in simply getting to a game—a fact too often overlooked by advocates of sustainable stadium design.

A football stadium that seats approximately 78,000 fans, for example, will consume about 65,000 kilowatt hours of electricity and 35,000 cubic feet of natural gas on game day. In the United States, where roughly half of our electricity still comes from coal, each kilowatt hour of electricity produces an average of 1.55 pounds of carbon dioxide. Natural gas is cleaner per unit: Each cubic foot emits 0.12 pounds of carbon dioxide. Putting on a big-time pigskin game thus ends up pumping around 47.6 metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere—or just 1.35 pounds per fan. For comparison's sake, the average American's carbon footprint is 64.81 pounds per day.

So, gathering 78,000 fans in one relatively compact place seems pretty efficient, right? But keep in mind that a stadium of that size will have something like 19,000 parking spaces. Let's be charitable and assume that all the fans drive standard cars and light trucks, which get an average of 21 miles per gallon. Let's also assume (again, very charitably) that each fan travels 29 miles round trip from home to game, the same distance as the average American's daily commute.

Using the standard Energy Information Administration figure of 19.564 pounds of carbon emitted per gallon of gas, then, all those cars spew out 232.84 metric tons of carbon dioxide. And that's surely a massive underestimation, given that many fans drive hundreds of miles in tailgate-ready RVs to pull for their beloved team.

Though football games are massive productions, at least they're infrequent—an NFL stadium hosts just eight regular-season contests a season. Professional baseball is much dirtier over the long haul, with each stadium hosting 81 regular-season games ayear and drawing an average of 2.66 million fans (vs. about 542,000 fans per NFL stadium). Hockey and basketball are cleaner than baseball mostly because their games take place in smaller venues and they play shorter schedules, thus attracting fewer fans; the average NBA franchise gets 728,037 paying customers per year, while the NHL average is 678,440. Basketball is almost certainly the greener of the two indoor sports, since keeping an ice rink frozen requires more energy than maintaining a hardwood court. (The Lantern didn't even bother to crunch the numbers for NASCAR; any sport that centers around vehicles that get four to six miles per gallon is obviously pretty far from green.)

Since a game's environmental impact has everything to do with transportation, though, it's tough to say which sport is the absolute greenest. Antiquated Fenway Park in Boston is arguably one of the most eco-friendly stadiums in the nation, because of the fact that parking is so scarce and most fans must take public transportation. That gives it a big leg-up on modern counterparts that claim to be green, whether by virtue of their solar-powered LED boards or their cup-and-bottle recycling programs.

But cutting down on automobiles, of course, is easier said than done, especially in cities with less developed public-transportation options than Boston. Football stadiums have the most trouble, since they require so much land—land that urban centers are often unwilling to spare. New Yorkers will recall the brouhaha that erupted when the Jets proposed building a stadium on Manhattan's rail-accessible West Side. (The project failed, and the Jets and Giants will keep playing their games in suburban New Jersey.)

If your conscience is really bothering you, yet you can't imagine abandoning football, there are alternatives. May the Lantern humbly suggest you check out the Arena Football League? Fewer fans plus smaller venues equal less environmental impact. Plus, they've got those wacky rebound nets.

Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for Gizmodo. His first book, Now the Hell Will Start, is out now.