At a cursory glance, the winner-take-all world of competitive sports might not seem like a hotbed of progressive thinking. However, when it comes to protecting the environment, a number of teams, leagues and agencies are working hard to change the game. Coordinated efforts to "green the games" have been going on for more than a decade and show no signs of slowing down.

A team effort to make the playing field greener

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) cites the milestone moment in 2004 when it advised the Philadelphia Eagles franchise on its "Go Green" campaign. Since then, more and more sports executives, players and coaches have made the choice to promote environmental responsibility. This trend inspired the creation of the Green Sports Alliance, a coalition that unites environmental advocates with nearly two dozen sports leagues and more than 240 professional and college teams.

Even NASCAR — yes, the high-octane, gas-guzzling NASCAR — has gotten into the act. The auto racing association has a director of green innovation on staff and showcased some of its conservation initiatives at the recent Coca-Cola 600.

Game plans for reducing carbon footprints

The sports-sustainability connection is so extensive that a complete accounting would go into double or triple overtime. So we'll take a page from the sportscaster playbook and offer up a few highlights.

Baseball

  • Major League Baseball has participated in a league-wide collaboration with NRDC since 2005, the first initiative of its kind.
  • Several MLB teams and stadium operators have been involved in the purchase of renewable energy certificates and water restoration credits. In 2009, for example, Yankee Stadium purchased more than 33 million kilowatt-hours in renewable energy certificates.

Soccer

  • Major League Soccer's Seattle Sounders Football Club devised a plan to use reclaimed water for field irrigation at the team's Starfire training facility, receiving a Green Globe Award. The Sounders are also a founding member of the Green Sports Alliance.

Football

  • The Philadelphia Eagles' recycling programs have resulted in the interception of well over 550 tons of plastic, paper, mixed metals and other materials originally headed to the landfill. The Eagles have also reduced water use at Lincoln Financial Field by 21 percent.
  • Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears, became the NFL's first LEED-certified stadium in 2012. Several team members have taken part in tree-planting events around the city and loaned their star power to environmental awareness PSAs.

Hockey

  • The Montreal Canadiens use environmentally friendly team equipment and cleaning products. Their home arena, Bell Centre, features reserved and priority parking for hybrid vehicles.

Basketball

  • Energy-efficiency initiatives have resulted in the home of the NBA's Miami Heat, American Airlines Arena, consuming 53 percent less energy than similar facilities.
  • The Portland Trail Blazers have reduced water use at Rose Garden Arena by 17 percent.

Tennis

  • The United States Tennis Association (USTA) reuses tennis balls used in U.S. Open matches and practices or donates them to community and youth organizations – that's 70,000 tennis balls.

NASCAR

  • NASCAR has used ethanol-blend gasoline since 2011, reducing emissions by 20 percent. Other initiatives include the installation of solar panels at several speedways and planting more than 370,000 trees.

A win-win for competition and conservation

A 2012 NRDC report titled Game Changer: How the Sports Industry Is Saving the Environment praises sports sustainability campaigns like these as a hugely positive influence on the environmental movement.

All the same, we would be remiss if we didn't add a grain of salt.

Many sports executives openly acknowledge the financial appeal of saving money through conservation, not to mention the good PR they engender by going green. Almost no one is naive enough to assume that self-interest doesn't play a role.

Then again, one thing that environmental advocates can learn from the sports world is that results matter. If teams and leagues continue to shrink their respective carbon footprints, those results could help ensure that everybody wins.

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