Professional sports can fight climate change by keeping pandemic-era schedules, reducing travel

MONTREAL, Quebec — Pro sports across North America have been anything but normal over the past two years due to the pandemic. Fewer games and much less travel have been the hallmarks of pandemic-era sports. However, a new study suggests people should be looking at this as a positive. Researchers from Concordia University say the big four professional leagues (NBA, NHL, MLB, and NFL) should continue to cut back on travel long after the pandemic ends. Why? Reducing and optimizing team travel can greatly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help fight climate change.

Seth Wynes, a Concordia researcher and postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, reports all four major sports leagues saw huge declines in their carbon footprints since the beginning of the pandemic in 2020.

According to his calculations, the four leagues combined for an astounding 4.6 million miles of air travel across 5,655 flights, resulting in nearly 122,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2018 alone. However, if the four leagues were to stick with their pandemic-era lockdown schedules, overall travel would drop annually by 22 percent (over 25,000 tons).

Would these changes solve the climate crisis?

No, but it would certainly be a step in the right direction. Moreover, researchers argue that sports fans may be less inclined to step on an airplane if their favorite athletes are doing the same.

“Athletes are role models,” Wynes explains in a university release. “If they can show that they are serious about fighting climate change, fans will see it, and it might inspire other business communities to step up the plate, so to speak, and get things done.”

This idea may sound drastic to some, but study authors argue many of the pandemic travel changes put in place by the leagues weren’t all that major. For example, the NHL used a “baseball-style” approach to the 2020 season, meaning teams would travel to one city and play a handful of games there instead of just one game or series before heading back home. Major League Baseball has been using this schedule for years, which is why its emissions per game are significantly lower than other leagues — despite playing significantly more games.

The team based their calculations on a per-regular-season-game basis and data from the International Civil Aviation Organization, all which accounted for variables including how traffic and weather influence fight time and rate of fuel-burning. Wynes worked off of the assumption all travel takes place on a Boeing 737, which features relatively low emissions intensity. Using a formula stating each single kilogram of burned fuel produces 3.16 kilograms of CO2, Wynes estimated carbon dioxide levels emitted per team flight according to estimated fuel usage.

Will eco-friendly change really come to pro sports?

Even Wynes himself admits that it is unlikely any of the four leagues will choose to stick with their lockdown schedules, at least in the near future.

“Status quo bias represents a real obstacle — a lot of companies have an attitude that if it isn’t broken, why fix it?” Wynes comments. “And, depending on the league, these changes might require agreement from the owners and the players’ union. Those are competing stakeholders with different interests. Plus the short-term incentives to instituting these changes during COVID are no longer there.”

Beyond the climate implications, the study author adds there are plenty of other potential benefits to his idea.

“More rest between games would cut down on injuries. A couple of major injuries to star players could hurt ratings in the playoffs, and that might spur a league to address the rest issue,” he states.

It’s likely that some leagues may be somewhat resistant to changing their schedules over climate change, but Wynes says if fans are vocal enough, anything is possible.

“Perhaps a powerful social movement could spur them to act so that they can prove to their fans that they are dealing with this crisis.”

The study is published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. 

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