A Green Revolution

May 5, 2022

This article was originally published in Populous Magazine, our biannual publication featuring news and trends from the worlds of sport, entertainment, and major public events. Find out more, and sign up to receive a free copy, here.

For sports and entertainment industries to reduce their carbon footprint, an all-round revolution is needed, addressing everything from building design, construction and day-to-day operation to spectator travel, catering, retail and broadcasting. Populous director Nicholas Reynolds explains the importance of seeing the big picture.

When Highbury, Arsenal FC’s famous home ground, was first built in 1913, its carbon footprint was miniscule in comparison to that of the vast 21st century stadia we see today. Construction materials and engineering techniques were much simpler in those days, requiring minimal energy. With a single covered stand and three open-air banks of terracing, much of the original Highbury was made of wood. Almost all the soccer fans – and even the players – lived locally. On match days they would walk the short distance to the ground. Catering and hospitality came courtesy of the local pubs dotted around the stadium.

“This was the original sustainable ecosystem of sport,” says Nicholas Reynolds, director at Populous’s London office. “After the match, fans drank at the different pubs, before gradually dissipating into the surrounding streets on their way home. There wasn’t the mass travel you often see at huge stadia nowadays.”

  • Fans arriving at Arsenal FC’s old ground Highbury in 1934.

This was the standard for sports and entertainment venues around the world in the early 20th century. At rugby clubs in Australia, at cricket clubs in India, at opera houses in Russia, at jazz clubs and ballparks in the United States, at pelota frontons in Spain, the symbiosis between fan, player, performer and venue was local, natural and sustainable.

As the 20th century progressed, sport and entertainment became increasingly global and commercial, with TV broadcasters injecting huge amounts of cash, so that this model soon began to crumble. By the 21st century, with vast out-of-town sports stadia and entertainment arenas drawing in thousands of spectators, often from long distances, the model was all but broken.

Architects now realise that, if the industry is to drastically reduce its carbon footprint, a sea change is needed. Populous, with its more than 800 staff and 22 offices around the globe, is at the forefront of developing the design thinking in this area. The firm is considering the carbon footprint of the buildings it designs – every aspect, from the embodied energy of the raw materials to the construction methods and machinery employed.

“But that’s only half the story,” Reynolds stresses. “It’s absolutely pointless creating the most sustainable building ever if you then put the least sustainable event ever inside it. You’ve just shot yourself in the foot. The two have to be in tandem.”

The ultimate goal is a future where buildings and their users have such a low impact on the environment that they actually end up being carbon positive, meaning they go beyond achieving net-zero carbon emissions by actually removing additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

This will require all stakeholders involved in the sports and entertainment industries – designers, builders, operators, owners, athletes, performers and spectators – to take a holistic approach, first to the construction of venues and later to their day-to-day operation.

Location plays a key role in a more sustainable future. New buildings should be located within cities, rather than way out in the suburbs, so that spectators can travel easily by public transport. Many Populous-designed sports venues achieve this: Emirates Stadium and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, for example, both well within London and close to their core soccer fan bases; or the Baltimore Orioles’ baseball stadium, in central Baltimore; and Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane.

  • Oriole Park at Camden Yards, home of the Baltimore Orioles, is right in the city centre, allowing fans to walk to games.

The day-to-day energy consumption of buildings must also be minimised. Air-conditioning, heating, lighting, water, food waste and recycling are all crucial aspects. Shining examples of projects that tackle this successfully can be seen in new Populous-designed arenas such as the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, USA (which opened in 2021) and Co-op Live in Manchester, UK (which will open in 2023). In fact, Populous has played a leading role in sustainable design ever since the 1990s when it worked on Accor Stadium (formerly Stadium Australia) for the 2000 Summer Olympics, which included passive features such as natural cooling to the concourses, and roof-harvested rainwater for pitch irrigation. The stadium is still considered one of the most environmentally sustainable stadia in the world, and marked the start of the green movement in sports architecture.

  • Stadium Australia hosting the Sydney Olympic Games, September 2000.

Alongside these design methods, a change in the behaviour of the spectators, athletes, artists and employees using the venues is key. The food and beverage offering can be locally sourced, for example, reducing the associated carbon emissions from delivery vehicles. Look how Levi’s Stadium in California (home to the San Francisco 49ers) operates a vast organic farm on its roof. Sports retail is another area where sports teams are making a positive impact. In the UK, Premier League soccer club Brentford FC is extending the life cycle of its home kit to two seasons, while Spanish soccer club Real Betis recently launched a shirt made from 100 per cent recycled polyester. The latter was one of a number of sustainable initiatives that led to the club being invited to speak at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference.

"Ultimately, the way sports bodies, sports clubs and live event businesses position themselves in relation to the environment will define their brands, and engage fans and customers who passionately care about the planet."

TV broadcasting companies and other media are also actively working to address their environmental impact. Notable examples include British broadcaster Sky’s work through its Sky Zero programme, running outside broadcast generators on bio-fuel, operating production services on renewable energy, and reducing the number of people and amount of equipment transported to events. Formula One, meanwhile, has implemented a climate change transition plan, in which most TV broadcasters are now operating remotely from a UK studio, powered by renewable energy, reducing by 70 tonnes the amount of freight previously shipped from race to race.

  • Fans arriving at Arsenal FC’s old ground Highbury in 1934.

There are similar drives toward sustainability within the music industry. Examples within the British music scene include Brian Eno, who has established an environmental charity named EarthPercent, with the aim of raising US$100m from the music industry by 2030 to invest in reducing its environmental footprint; Massive Attack, who have published research on low-carbon touring; and Coldplay, who have worked with environmental consultants to reduce the carbon dioxide generated by their current world tour by 50 per cent compared to their last world tour. They are also working with entertainment company Live Nation Entertainment as part of the organisation’s Green Nation Touring programme, which is developing new low-carbon touring methods.

The financing of stadia and arena projects is another key environmental drive. Whether through the issuing of green bonds, sustainability-linked loans and grants, or community financing or crowd-funding, a commitment to sustainable design and operation is now often crucial in securing finance for sporting infrastructure.

Ultimately, the way sports bodies, sports clubs and live event businesses position themselves in relation to the environment will define their brands, and engage fans and customers who passionately care about the planet. This in turn will attract sponsors and advertisers, who are increasingly turning to sport and entertainment to promote their own climate credentials.
Athletes and artists have an important role to play. Their influence on spectator behaviour can be enormous, particularly through social media, as well as in lobbying their clubs and leagues, the entertainment venues they play in, and governing bodies and governments.

In music, we are seeing globally popular artists such as Coldplay and Billie Eilish supporting sustainable practices. In sport, one great example is Australian rugby international David Pocock, who has established FrontRunners, an organisation for athletes addressing the environmental problems which threaten their sports. Its petition has been signed by over 500 Australian sports stars.

  • Coldplay’s Music of the Spheres 2022 World Tour pledges to use a host of green initiatives to reduce energy consumption, recycle extensively and cut CO2 emissions by 50% compared with its 2016-17 tour.

In the near future, part of the solution to reducing the carbon footprint of sport and entertainment will be found in virtual entertainment. If you can fit thousands of physical fans in a physical stadia, imagine how many millions of fans you can fit inside a virtual-reality stadium. Technologically, we are not that far away from a situation where 20,000 people will be watching the likes of Ed Sheeran or Lady Gaga perform a live show in a huge arena while, at the same time, millions of others will watch the same live show via headsets at home. The virtual audience will be able to keep a souvenir of their experience by purchasing a recording of the show through non-fungible tokens.

Logically, this is the only way to ensure that demand doesn’t outstrip supply. The world’s most popular sports franchises and musical entertainers are showing no signs of declining popularity, yet they can only perform a finite number of times. If teams such as Manchester United FC, New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers, or music artists such as Coldplay and Taylor Swift tried to satisfy all demand, they’d be working and travelling every day of the year, racking up gargantuan carbon footprints in the process. A more environmentally friendly alternative would be if they performed in their home ground or local city, broadcasting the event live to millions around the planet via an immersive virtual experience.

  • The living wall at the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle.

This business model is already happening, albeit in a nascent form. Technology company Sony is working with English soccer club Manchester City FC on creating a virtual stadium that fans will visit through virtual reality headsets using their own avatars. And Swedish pop giants Abba are soon to embark on a world tour – not in person, but by broadcasting computer-generated avatars of themselves.

“If this is the future, and we believe it is, then it will not only reduce the carbon footprint of touring bands, sports teams, and major events, but provide multiple platforms on which people can experience live entertainment,” Reynolds concludes. “The fusion between the physical and digital worlds provides the opportunity for us as designers to explore human experience in a way that has never been possible before. We are at a crossroads now. It’s a challenging but incredibly exciting time for the sport and entertainment industries.”


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