North American sports leagues have at best an inconsistent track record on sustainability; while they all offer some mix of elementary school environmentalism (tree planting, recycling, and preventing food waste), most bask in luxury on board hyperpolluting private planes traveling across the world. This behavior sends a mixed message.
Emissions from air travel are the most difficult to reduce in professional sports. It’s not like they can do what everyone else does, and videoconference. But reducing emissions is possible. I examined some of the changes that could be made for a research article in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. In 2020, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball and the National Football League adjusted their schedules to reduce the chance of players and staff catching COVID. I found that by doing this, they inadvertently slashed their carbon footprint from air travel by a collective 22 percent per game. Emissions went back up when they returned to normal schedules, but there are still lessons to be learned.
The National Basketball Association is about to break for the 2022 All-Star Game, marking the midway point of the season. While it is too late to change anything this year, the NBA is especially well positioned to make some commonsense improvements that would reduce its carbon footprint substantially.
For one, the league could adopt a schedule that looks more like what Major League Baseball does: fly somewhere, play several games, then fly somewhere else. This scheduling construct is why, despite playing twice as many games per year, baseball’s emissions were half that of basketball’s in 2018.
This would be the most effective change the league could make, even if it might be a shock for NBA fans used to seeing their teams in a different town every few days. But a softer version would still cut emissions. During the 2020 regular season, the NBA only played 10 percent of games against the same opponent in a back-to-back fashion. The National Hockey League played 42 percent of its games that way. Each one of those games resulted in fewer climate-polluting flights.
Another simple way to reduce emissions is to schedule more games between neighboring teams. In the NBA, teams are divided into the Western and an Eastern Conference, and teams within conferences play each more often. So schedules are already optimized more than in the NFL or MLB, though an ambitious league could always push things further. Imagine introducing regional rivalries: pairs of teams that are close by play each other many times each season. So the New York Knicks have more games against the Brooklyn Nets, and none of those games would require flying.
Other ways to cut carbon include dropping overseas exhibition games, shortening the regular season and flying in smaller aircraft (picture something closer to business class seating for players, instead of first class plus massage tables). Cutting the NBA season by 10 games would save over 5,000 tonnes, or metric tons, of carbon dioxide per year, which is equivalent to what 2,200 medium-size cars produce in a year. To make up for the lost revenue of those eliminated games, you could introduce a mid-season tournament, which wouldn’t add that much to flight emissions so long as you pick a central location like Chicago or Oklahoma City.
These changes wouldn’t just benefit the environment; reducing travel time for players could improve performance. In the case of shortened seasons or baseball-style series, players would save entire days that could be used for resting instead of travel. More local games avoid long flights and time zone changes that result in injuries and worse performance. For leagues like the NBA where stadium attendance is driven by superstars coming to town, cutting back on injuries is a big financial consideration.
So why didn’t the leagues adopt these policies a long time ago? Partially because of ratings; the leagues prioritize popular teams playing on days and times when they will draw in large viewership. This means that a California team might be in Utah one day, but in New York the next for a big matchup when both the league and broadcasters know people will watch. When it comes to scheduling, even player health and performance have been treated like a bench unit. If you’re an unlucky team in the NBA, you might be asked to play four games in five days, and each game could even be in a different time zone!
But it’s not just about ratings; status quo bias also plays a role. For instance, Jeanie Buss, owner of the storied Los Angeles Lakers franchise, says she is unwilling to consider shortening the NBA season, since this would make it harder to compare statistical records across years.
Given the competing goals of owners, players and league officials, change will be hard. As the leagues figure this out, there is one last important contribution that sports franchises could make: cut a deal with airlines to purchase credits for sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) for every flight. These are alternatives to normal jet fuel; they may be synthesized from carbon dioxide or derived from plants or used cooking oil, but either way they have smaller carbon footprints.
SAFs aren’t perfect, and they’re expensive, but they do reduce emissions and we need to scale up their production. A year’s worth of NBA air travel would require about five million gallons of SAFs, which is similar in size to a six million gallon deal just signed by Amazon Air. For companies that care about their green credentials and have the money to spare, why not be a part of catalyzing the growth of a critical climate technology?
In October 2019, Lebron James, one of the most recognizable faces of the NBA, had to evacuate his home in California, fleeing wildfires supercharged by an overheated planet. Climate change already affects players. Their leagues should start thinking about big changes now, because as the climate crisis worsens, doing only the little things just isn’t going to fly anymore.