The World of Sports: New NCAA president should focus on carbon footprint

The NCAA just got a new leader and the climate of college sports could be in store for some major changes.

From the debate over whether or not student athletes should receive full-time compensation for their work to cementing consistent name, image and likeness (NIL) rules across college sports by getting the House and Senate involved, former Massachusetts governor and now president of the NCAA Charlie Baker will have his work cut out for him. The future of college sports is at a crossroads like never before, and could evolve to more of a professional game than an amateur one over the next couple of years. 

There are plenty of conversations we could have about paying athletes, who work their tails off for their universities and deserve to get a slice of the pie just like all other employees of athletic departments. But instead of focusing on the primary interests of Baker and the NCAA, let’s talk about one that might fly under the radar in much of the early reporting of Baker’s takeover. 

What will it mean for the NCAA’s contributions to the fight against climate change? 

The former Republican governor, who left office with a high approval rating in the Democratic state of Massachusetts, has made efforts to curb climate change in the past. He should continue the fight while leading the $1 billion industry that is the NCAA.

Just a matter of months ago, Baker signed a major bill that won the approval of the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit “fighting for a safer and healthier world,” according to their website. With a goal to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the bill encouraged the development of offshore wind and solar energy and limited the usage of fossil fuels in construction, among other climate-friendly implementations.

When Baker first took over as governor of Massachusetts in 2015, the state was among the most eco-friendly states in the country. During his eight years in office, Massachusetts has remained in the forefront of combating climate change, now rated as the sixth-most environmentally friendly state in the U.S. and No. 2 in climate change contributions.

March Madness approaches, in turn likely bringing in a hefty majority of the NCAA’s yearly earnings (the basketball tournament accounted for a whopping 85% of the organizations’ record-breaking $1.16 billion 2021 earnings). Along with the tournament that features what I consider to be the greatest weekend in sports, comes a swarm of carbon emissions for which the NCAA must be held accountable.

A study from the Journal of Cleaner Production of the 2019 NCAA tournament found that the combination of team and fan travel, food, waste, lodging and stadium operations produced approximately 210,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents. 

The average American produces around 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide, meaning that the NCAA Tournament has the same carbon footprint as around 10,500 people. The sheer amount of travel required to put on the colossal clash accounted for nearly 80% of that number.

The study concluded by emphasizing the need for mega sports tourism events, like March Madness or the FIFA World Cup, to find ways to be more sustainable — while admitting that sustainability comes at a, quite literal, cost.

The 2023 Final Four was advertised as a “beacon of environmental wellness, equity and resiliency,” according to the Final Four in Houston website.

Their focus areas were recycling/repurposing signage effectively, donating reusable items such as basketballs and leftover food and waste reduction and proper disposal of garbage.

These actions seem performative and not nearly enough to offset the massive carbon footprint that the tournament produces. Recycling is a complicated process and isn’t nearly as effective or climate-friendly as it is made out to be. Donating basketballs and leftover food is great, but a pretty negligible contribution to the tourney’s carbon footprint.

Where the NCAA should focus its efforts is limiting travel — something that the move to the Big Ten by USC and UCLA will make difficult for the organization, as the schools’ carbon footprints are about to skyrocket with the long cross country flights. 

Should brackets be designed by region? Should the tournament take place in one or two locations instead of 14? Well, I wasn’t recently inducted as the sixth president of the NCAA, so it’s not my call.

Charlie Baker, you’re up. I’ll be on my couch, sweating out my “USC to make the Sweet Sixteen” future.

Patrick Warren is an associate managing editor and a senior writing about the relationship between sports and climate change. His column, “The World of Sports,” runs every other Friday.