The Biden administration has repeatedly emphasized its commitment to environmental justice and climate change, generating some hope of increased momentum toward environmentally-minded legislation. For the sports world, this may mean more legislation encouraging or requiring the reduction of organizations’ impact on the environment. Specifically, these changes may occur in the infrastructure and maintenance of sports venues. Currently, there are several ballparks, arenas, and stadiums under construction across the United States. For example, David Beckham’s soccer-specific stadium Miami Freedom Park is scheduled to open in 2022 while the currently under construction multi-purpose Protective Stadium is set to become the UAB Blazers football program’s home later this summer.
The 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is foundational in environmental policy law. The act requires federal agencies to consider the environmental implications of their proposed actions. These actions may include: decisions on permit applications, adopting federal law management actions, and constructing highways or other publicly owned facilities. Throughout his presidency, the Trump administration conducted several environmental rollbacks that have made significant cuts in the NEPA and affected the building industry.
Last June, the Trump administration signed an executive order that weakened clean air and climate change regulations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The executive order waived parts of the NEPA to speed up infrastructure projects by citing economic arguments in light of the pandemic induced financial crisis. The New York Times highlighted that lawyers and activists questioned the legality of such an order and suggested that the administration used the pandemic to speed up slow-moving actions on their agenda through the regulatory process. These policies also violated the intent of the Clean Air Act of 1970, the goal of which is the regulation of hazardous air pollutant emissions.
Zoning back into the context of sports venues, a number of new arenas have opened over the last four years—the SoFi Stadium in L.A. and the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, to name a few. Notably, Irwin Kishner, attorney at Herrick, Feinstein LLP, told Construction Dive that environmentally-minded pushback against sports arena construction is not uncommon. For example, when the Chase Center (the new home of the Golden State Warriors) was still in the planning phase in 2016, the project was met with lawsuits from neighboring businesses accusing the developers of violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The case lasted over a year until the Warriors ultimately broke land.
Sometimes, the push back has less of a grassroots nature and comes from other major organizations. For example, last year, Madison Square Garden Group (MSG) filed a lawsuit against Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state’s Joint Legislative Budget Committee over the California Assembly Bill No. 987. The bill fast-tracks requirements for the construction of certain sports and entertainment venues. MSG’s side argued that the new arena would cause “substantial harm” through traffic and pollution and “lightens the burden” on the project developers to meet CEQA requirements. It’s important to note that the Los Angeles Clippers’ new Inglewood arena would have also been in direct competition with MSG-owned venue, the Forum. The dispute was settled when Clippers owner, Steve Ballmer, purchased the Forum from MSG for $400-million. Although it is difficult to assess whether the construction of any of the projects mentioned above has significantly benefited from Trump-era environmental rollbacks, the sports arena construction domain will be a worthwhile one to observe as the new administration rolls out environmental policies.
On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order on “protecting public health and the environment and restoring science to tackle the climate crisis.” Section 1 of the document lays out Biden’s overarching environmental policy. The policy includes, but is not limited to, ensuring access to clean air and water; limiting exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides; holding polluters accountable, including those who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities; and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Heads of all agencies must review all existing regulations and policies made between January 2017 and today to ensure compliance with Section 1. Additionally, Section 7 of the executive order revokes Trump’s two orders in 2017 that expedited procedures and deadlines for completion of environmental reviews for certain infrastructure projects.
These new regulations may not present much of a hurdle for some organizations, given the momentum that sports arenas have gained in environmentally-minded efforts. For example, 2020 was also the year during which Amazon joined forces with NHL expansion team Seattle Kraken and the OakView Group to rename Seattle’s Key Arena to “Climate Pledge Arena” and renovate it to be a leader in sustainability. The venture’s goal is to create the “most progressive, responsible, and sustainable arena in the world.” A move that Bloomberg Law highlighted as the “highest-profile pro sports venue naming rights deal to be centered so prominently around sustainability.” The Seattle Kraken’s new home is set to open in the Fall of 2021 and will have the “greenest ice” in the NHL while being a carbon-neutral facility and eliminating single-use plastic completely by 2024.
Not all sports organizations can partner with multinational tech companies such as Amazon; therefore, resources for plans unaffected by shifting legislation may vary. President of the Green Sports Alliance, Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, notes, “I know from first-hand experience that many environmental initiatives at ballparks and arenas are on hold due to COVID. Teams need revenue from fans in the seats to respond to environmental challenges.” Besides environmental-concerns pertaining to the infrastructure of sports venues, there will certainly be more changes to look out for as more policies roll out.