Climate Impact October 17, 2023

This new sustainability standard is a game-changer for sports and entertainment venues

Illustration depicting a sustainably designed stadium / sports arena / entertainment venue

As excitement builds for face-off, hockey fans stream into the arena and fill the stands. A Zamboni smooths the ice, and hot dog vendors roam up and down the aisles. It seems like a typical scene at any National Hockey League match, but this is the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, and environmentally conscious fans have lots to cheer about here.

“The music is loud and the fans are all wearing their gear, and it’s a festive atmosphere,” says Trevor Braun, a Seattle Kraken fan who frequently hosts clients in the BNBuilders suite. “The sustainability aspect isn’t really apparent at first, but our guests are always impressed when they notice things like the compostable plates and utensils. It’s definitely a plus for them: They’re glad to not contribute to the cycle of waste.”

Named for the Climate Pledge, an agreement in which companies promise to reach net-zero annual carbon emissions by 2040, the building is the world’s first International Living Future Institute Net-Zero Carbon Certified arena. Since it targets zero waste and net zero carbon, all aspects of its operation are as sustainable as possible, from the ice made of rainwater, to the electric Zamboni powered by renewable energy, to the low-flow fixtures in the restrooms. Even the hot dogs are grilled over renewable electric heat, and single-use plastics are banned throughout the building.

A typical National Football League game sends around 35 tons of waste to landfills.

Arenas and other large assembly venues around the world host millions of fans annually at concerts and sporting events, resulting in massive social and environmental impacts. A typical National Football League game, for instance, sends around 35 tons of waste to landfills. But until recently, owners and operators didn’t have a clear roadmap toward sustainability, and net zero operation seemed unattainable.

The Climate Pledge Arena changed those notions, and a new sustainability standard, GOAL, aims to share its lessons with other venues, large and small. GOAL stands for Green Operations and Advanced Leadership and is a sustainability platform for arenas, stadiums, and other public assembly venues in the sports and entertainment industry. “We’ve taken what we’ve learned from the Climate Pledge Arena and used that knowledge to inform GOAL,” says Jason F. McLennan, the “deep green” architect who planned the building’s sustainability measures and authored the standard.

GOAL has about 40 members as of October 2023, including ten National Basketball Association buildings, ten National Hockey League buildings, five Major League Baseball buildings, and a growing number of Major League Soccer and National Football League facilities. In addition to sporting events, these buildings also serve as concert venues for major entertainers.

Each member signs on with GOAL for three years. The first year is typically spent gathering data, including baseline metrics like energy and water usage, waste volumes, and carbon emissions. Then members set goals, develop a tactical plan, and track their progress via an online dashboard.

Somewhat similar to Olympic competitions, the award system is granular, with bronze, silver, and gold certifications in 50 categories like energy efficiency and waste reduction. “This approach encourages competition and continuous growth while also recognizing smaller tactical strategies, ” says Kristen Fulmer, head of sustainability at Oak View Group, which administers GOAL. “It’s intended to demystify sustainable practices and explain concepts and principles that any arena can replicate, no matter its age or size.”

In addition to assisting with goal-setting and objective metrics, GOAL also provides intangible benefits like networking opportunities and access to industry experts. At a recent in-person member gathering, representatives of A-list entertainers explained why they’re more likely to book concerts in buildings that take sustainability seriously. Keynote talks were followed by networking and a round robin exercise, in which members learned about practical solutions to their environmental challenges.

Photo of sports and entertainment industry experts onstage, discussing sustainable operations at arenas and other venues
“Hearing leaders from the industry and then seeing direct ways they could take action was really valuable. The effect of bringing people together is hard to put a value on, but I think it's one of the biggest benefits that people have found in working with GOAL.”
Kristen Fulmer, head of sustainability at Oak View Group

Looking to the future, GOAL will be expanding its efforts to offer membership to convention centers and campus venues. Although the business models are different, the same sustainability principles apply. And on campuses, student environmental groups, sustainability offices, and concerned artists and entertainers offer new ways of pressing facilities to do better. “There’s different levers you can pull,” Fullmer says. “There are so many players, and it makes sense to help them work together.”

While acknowledging that changing the industry will take time, Fulmer is confident in the snowball effect. With famous performers and sports personalities pulling for change alongside visionary owners and operations professionals, she thinks it’s only a matter of time until most major venues are working toward some level of GOAL medals. “This is new for a lot of people, and honestly, our industry is so far behind  the wider real estate industry,” she says. “But the great scaling effect that sports and the arts have in social issues could be true of environmental impact, too.”

“The great scaling effect that sports and the arts have in social issues could be true of environmental impact, too.”
Kristen Fulmer, head of sustainability at Oak View Group