Sports teams should strive to be world champions…of SAFs

Alternative fuels
Fuels GHG emissions

We know that the ultimate goal of every team is to be champions of their respective sport. But athletes, clubs, and even leagues are also striving to be leaders on social issues, including sustainability. Each of the five major North American sports leagues has its own environmental initiatives:

To start addressing low adoption rates of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), which currently make up less than 0.05% of global jet fuel supply, airlines have recently announced partnerships where corporations will be purchasing sustainable SAFs to reduce the climate impact of their corporate travel, including Alaska Airlines and Microsoft, Delta Air Lines and Deloitte, and United Airlines’ Eco-Skies Alliance.

What if every North American sports team purchased SAFs for their air travel in order to reduce their climate impact? How much SAF would be needed? This can be estimated by looking at the type of aircraft traveled on, the total miles traveled each season, and the fuel burned and greenhouse gases emitted per mile.

Most teams charter aircraft from airlines, including Delta’s Boeing 757-200 with 72 seats or Air Canada’s Airbus A319 with 58 seats. American football teams need larger aircraft to accommodate a greater number of players. Combing through airline operations data reported to the U.S. Department of Transportation, it’s possible to identify charter flights taken by teams based on time frame and origin and destination airports.

The only sports league where charter flights aren’t prevalent is Major League Soccer, where the number of charter flights a team may take is limited by a collective bargaining agreement with the players. As a result, MLS teams typically traveled on commercial flights pre-pandemic. To estimate fuel burn for an average MLS team, I used the greenhouse gas inventory for the Seattle Sounders FC.

What about the total distance traveled? For a blog post comparing travel and team performance, airline Icelandair calculated the average distance of each sports team traveled during the 2017/18 regular season, as reproduced in Figure 1. Teams in the NFL traveled less than half as far as teams in the other four leagues, but also took significantly fewer trips due to having only eight away games.

Figure 1. Average distance traveled by each team in North America’s five largest sports leagues during the 2017/18 regular season.

Armed with the info above, I used the ICCT’s Global Aviation Carbon Assessment (GACA) model, to estimate fuel burn for an average team in each sports league, the results of which are shown in Table 1. Specifically, fuel burn per mile for a typical charter aircraft and the above average distance traveled per league was utilized.

Table 1. Estimated fuel burn for regular season travel of North America’s five major sports leagues.

For sports seasons ending in 2018, nearly 9.5 million gallons of fuel was consumed to transport players and staff between regular season games. This is approximately one-third of the current global SAF production of 100 million liters per year. And the total fuel consumed will only go up, as Major League Soccer plans to expand to 30 teams, and the National Hockey League will be welcoming the Seattle Kraken next season (who will be playing at Climate Pledge Arena).

Let’s put these numbers into some context. While stadium, arena, and ballpark operations are the largest source of emissions associated with national sports, travel is definitely a significant source. In their 2018 Sustainability Report, the NHL’s greenhouse gas (GHG) inventory indicated that nearly 30% of the league’s emissions are derived from team and NHL employee regular season air travel. The 9.5 million gallons of fuel from North American sports travel equates to nearly 93,000 metric tonnes of CO2. The ultimate impact of SAF usage largely depends on which types of feedstocks are to produce the fuels. The use of waste-based SAFs, such as those currently made from used cooking oil, could reduce GHG emissions by 80% on a well-to-wake (WtW) basis, though they are currently only certified to be blended at 50%. If teams were to implement a SAF procurement strategy, franchises should ensure that they are purchasing SAFs with strong sustainability bona fides and high GHG savings.

Sponsorships with sports teams are attractive for airlines, as they can encourage fans to fly with them to away games. Table 2, below, lists the official airline sponsors of North American sports teams compiled from the most recent sports team valuations by Forbes and team websites. It currently stands at 65 teams, which is more than 40% of the teams in the five leagues. And this list only covers sports teams in the United States and Canada. There are a number of other clubs around the world that have sponsorship deals with airlines, including Emirates, Qatar Airways, and Etihad Airways.

Table 2. List of current official airline sponsors to North American sports teams.

There is ample opportunity for airlines and sports teams to partner up to reduce the environmental impact of team travel. Sports teams should engage with their airline sponsors and charter providers to purchase SAF credits for travel. While I don’t expect them all to become like Forest Green Rovers F.C. (the world’s greenest football team) overnight, teams have all made some sort of public commitment to reduce their climate impact. In addition to showing good corporate citizenship, investment in SAFs can help scale up production to make them more widely available for the general flying public, a.k.a. the fans.