Tim Kellison, director of the Center for Sport & Urban Policy, researches the intersection of sport management and environmental responsibility.
BY RAY GLIER | PHOTOS BY MEG BUSCEMA
It’s colossal, but it’s no typical energy hog, says Tim Kellison, an assistant professor in the College of Education & Human Development and an international authority on urban policy and sport management. As Kellison tells it, the home of the Falcons and the Atlanta United Football Club is one of the most sustainable stadiums in the world.
It sits right in the middle of a mass transit grid (MARTA), which significantly lessens car traffic and emissions. There are solar panels on the parking garages. There is a water tank underneath the stadium, which mitigates runoff and flood hazards caused by all the concrete and reuses that water for irrigation. All the lights are energy-efficient LED.
Kellison, director of CEHD’s Center for Sport & Urban Policy, has been working to make professional sports more environmentally sustainable for nearly a decade.
He makes the case that environmental policies are good for a team’s bottom line. Besides saving on power, water, maintenance and a host of other costs, teams that employ sustainable design can also strengthen their brand identity and give fans another reason to support them.
“There is a return on investment. It takes time, and there is a higher up-front cost, but there is a return,” said Kellison. “If the team is doing good things in the environment, it can deepen that fan identity so fans are still sticking around when a team doesn’t have as many wins.”
Even more vital, Kellison says, sports teams can influence their fans to be more responsible themselves. As fans see the value of sustainability, the team can attract advertising for, of all things, compost companies, businesses that sell energy-efficient lighting, transit alternatives and more.
Kellison is part of a worldwide effort to address the design of sporting venues, particularly in urban areas, and his work is attracting international attention. He’s part of a United Nations (UN) policy team called the Sport for Climate Action Initiative, which spurs collective efforts to fight climate change by recognizing teams, leagues and federations that focus on sustainability and by determining how much these environmental initiatives are worth.
He’s also working with a team aligned with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to study the environmental impact of the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The mission is to find out how important environmental issues are to communities so the IOC can plan with future host cities.
CLOSER TO HOME, Kellison is on the sustainable initiatives advisory committee for Super Bowl LIII, which will be played in Mercedes-Benz Stadium Feb. 3, 2019.
Kellison is ideal for this work — not just because of his academic training but his background playing sports. Kellison grew up in Lisbon, Ohio, and one of his joys was playing hockey on iced-over ponds with his friends. A fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins of the National Hockey League (NHL) and its superstar Mario Lemieux, he says he wasn’t very talented, but he had fun.
Kellison now sees the threat to the ice that made his childhood possible. Hockey enthusiasts are worried that ponds in Ohio, New York, Ontario and Quebec are losing that winter chill needed to freeze over. Climate change is a real threat, Kellison said, one he is taking seriously. Here is where Kellison and his colleagues get the attention of professional sport franchises.
“What will hockey be without people playing on ponds in Canada?” he said. “Is everything going to be indoors with climate change? From a business perspective, what happens to a sport when kids lose the ability to play for fun and for cheap outside? How do they grow up to be fans or stars of the NHL? You lose consumers if people don’t grow up playing the game. You are less likely to follow the game later in life if you never played it.”
An environment in flux can impinge on sports, but sports can also harm the environment. Kellison works both sides of the problem. To create golf courses, for example, trees are cut down. Chemical herbicides kill weeds but run off into streams. Fertilizers create lush, green landscapes but require a lot of water to activate. If the sport allows this kind of activity to continue damaging the environment, the sport itself could be in danger, too.
Thanks to these compelling arguments, scholars like Kellison have become trusted consultants in the world of professional sports — not annoyances. Owners’ bottom lines are no longer limited to tickets, concessions and sponsorships, but include environmental and social responsibilities as well.
KELLISON ACKNOWLEDGES not all franchises really want input from the community. Some owners still vie for no-vote subsidies that allow them to haul in millions of dollars in taxpayer money for their new stadiums while voters are shut out of the discussion — all predicated on the promise of an economic boom to follow.
“I am not against stadiums,” Kellison said. “I’m a sports fan. I see the benefit. But I don’t know that they result in the economic impact they tout. Communities have been told for 60 or 70 years these stadiums are going to be the answer, but that often fails to materialize. We need to see plans that go beyond magical predictions.”
For example, Turner Field made little positive impact on the neighborhoods around it and may have even discouraged revitalization because it made vacant parking lots — in use only 81 days a year — more profitable and viable than year-round businesses. But even if a stadium does cause trendy pubs and hotels to sprout, Kellison says urban planners have to look at the other side of new development, too — gentrification, rising taxes and higher rent.
For the last four years, he’s had a research partner in Brian McCullough, an associate professor at Seattle University. It was McCullough who brought Kellison into the UN working group.
“Tim is a strong academic with a strong pedigree in this field,” McCullough said. “There are few people exclusively focused in this area of research, and we’re a good team.”
McCullough said Kellison’s research is relevant and practicable, and he can communicate it to the people who make big decisions and get results.
Two of Kellison’s more significant research projects were published in the Journal of Sport Management in 2014. Along with co-author Michael J. Mondello, Kellison described the issue of “civic paternalism” as the driving influence behind building new stadiums and arenas. The study examined the view that cities needed to build new venues to remain a vibrant community. No-vote stadium subsidies depend on this notion of civic paternalism.
His other study, co-authored with Yu Kyoum Kim, looked at a theory called the “triple bottom line.” As professional sport organizations have become more aware of how environmental, social and economic issues are intertwined, they’ve started emphasizing these components to attract new fans.
Increasing environmental awareness is an effective strategy, and research like Kellison’s has helped pushed sports leagues and teams toward that realization.