A Greener Game

SoFi Stadium has been long anticipated for not only football lovers but Los Angeles natives as a whole. The sleek, silver complex features overhanging electronic displays, a glowing roof with color changing hues, and an equally captivating interior filled with modern design. Though the new stadium attracts awe and excitement, the state-of-the-art structure also produces something not as visible to the public eye — environmental consequences.

Joining approximately 140 other sports stadiums in the United States, the NFL’s largest stadium, SoFi Stadium, opened in Inglewood, California Sep. 8, 2020. But is bigger necessarily better? While Angelenos have largely welcomed the return of professional football to the city, there are hidden costs to America’s love of sports. Stadiums can have serious environmental impacts. From the concrete construction to pregame tailgates, venues such as SoFi adversely contribute to our earth via air pollution, energy overconsumption, and waste disposal.

 “If you put a stadium in the middle of a city and you have 80,000 people converge on the space for a day, the impacts on the environment are going to be very negative,” said Kyle Bunds, an associate professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at North Carolina State’s College of Natural Resources, in a Zoom interview. SoFi Stadium did not respond to repeated request for information for this article.

Sofi Stadium was constructed from 2017 to 2021 and is now the largest NFl stadium at 3.1 million square feet. The environmental impact of erecting complex sports structures is often overlooked, as the construction of stadiums and arenas exerts significant conservational costs. Cement and steel are essential components when building stadiums. Both elements are harmful to the planet in different ways.

Cement has to be heated to 1,450°C, and because the chemical process itself releases carbon dioxide, every tonne of cement produces one tonne of climate-changing gas, according to Science Direct. Approximately 40,000 cubic yards of concrete went into the stadium’s slab-on-metal decks, according to the website of Arcosa Lightweight’s Frazier Park Plant, who supplied all concrete materials for SoFi Stadium.

In addition to the destructive impacts of cement, steel is also used in sports stadiums and can be even more polluting. SoFi Stadium was built with a 20,000-ton arching steel truss compression ring supporting a double grid cable net roof, according to Pfeifer Structures. The massive roof consists of more than 1400 tons of double orthogonal grid steel, and approximately 67,000 tons of secondary steel, gutters, cross clamps, cable struts, and retractable vents.

“Steel production requires large inputs of coke, a sort of coal, which is extremely damaging to the environment. Coke ovens emit air pollution such as naphthalene that is highly toxic and can cause cancer,” said Bunds.

As far as greenhouse emission, on average, 1.83 tons of carbon dioxide is emitted for every ton of steel produced, making steel production a major contributor to global warming, adding over 3.3 million tons annually to global emissions.

Another contributing factor to a sports stadium’s environmental impact is its energy overconsumption. For Sofi Stadium, the facility famously features the Oculus, a TV projection that is surfaced on the roof of the stadium. Sofi teamed up with Samsung to create this 120-yard-long video board. The translucent roof spans 1 million square feet and a network of LED lights assist in projecting images onto it, which causes it to look similar to a vast movie screen. The screen is big enough to be seen by both visitors in their seats and LAX passengers that may fly above the stadium. According to Samsung, the roof was the largest of its kind ever built— a 70,000 square foot, 4K, dual-sided LED video board with nearly 80 million pixels and weighing 2.2 million pounds. 

Those large numbers result in just as large impacts. To put Sofi Stadium’s energy consumption into perspective, their stadium can be compared to the AT&T Stadium, home to the Dallas Cowboys. A study conducted by The Wall Street Journal’s Ben Lefebvre proved that on game days, the AT&T stadium is illuminated with 30 million LED light bulbs, using up more electricity than the entire country of Liberia in one day. The 80,000-seat stadium consumes up to 10 megawatts of electricity on average in one day. That is a more than three times as much power as Liberia. The country is able to pump less than a third as much power into its national grid during a similar time frame. As Sofi holds the most LED lights ever used in a sports or entertainment venue, has immense energy consumption consequences. 

Game Changers 

Though stadiums have damaging impacts, some are trying to be more eco-friendly elements. Among many changes that can be made to stadiums, solar panels have been the most popular. “A solar panel display helps with electrical usage; it comes from a suitable source and it also is a way to demonstrate a commitment to sustainability and energy savings,” Bunds said.

SoFi stadium does not have solar panels, but the roof canopy has been built with similar energy savings in mind. The roof of the stadium has been built with a fluorine-based plastic called ETFE – ethylene tetrafluoroethylene. ETFE makes a significant contribution towards green construction and sustainability. The roof comprises 302 ETFE panels, including 46 mechanized vents that allow the heat generated by more than 70,000 spectators to dissipate, according to Pfeifer Structures

The properties of ETFE include its ability to remain unaffected by UV light, atmospheric pollution and adverse weathering, thus resulting in a long life expectancy. The manufacturing process itself is also environmentally friendly. ETFE is a very lightweight material which translates into the overall weight of the supporting structure. Using fewer materials saves fabrication and transportation needs; thus, a reduced carbon footprint.

Another green approach the Inglewood behemoth has incorporated is the use of recycled water. The West Basin Municipal Water District announced in November 2020 their first delivery of recycled water to SoFi Stadium. 

The West Basin Municipal Water District is a wholesale water agency that provides imported drinking water to 17 cities of Los Angeles County throughout the 185-square-mile service area. According to West Basin, they will produce and distribute recycled water for landscape irrigation, maintenance, and aesthetic purposes. 

Reclaimed or recycled water is the process of converting wastewater into water that can be used for other purposes. The project will provide 26 million gallons of recycled water per year, which saves an equal amount of drinking water for the region. 

Lake Park is SoFi Stadium’s main water source— a 5.5-acre upper and lower lake with cascading waterfalls— with a total of approximately 16 million gallons. The lake will use 11.4 million gallons of recycled water each year. Recycled water is important for overall sustainability, for the lake will serve as an irrigation reservoir for more than 20 areas of surrounding areas and public parks. 

Environmental Footprint(s)

With such beautiful features like its lake and roof canopy, SoFi Stadium anticipates the arena will attract spectators for years. SoFi Stadium holds 70,240 spectators but can be maxed out with additional seating up of to 100,000 for bigger events such as concerts. However, physical traffic from fans and concert goers can also contribute to environmental harm.

“Most of the serious harm is before and after the games when everybody goes to their cars [and] turns on their cars,” Bunds said. “The pollution from vehicles is pretty bad and lingers for a while.” 

In 2017, Bunds and Johnathan Casper, an associate professor in the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Management at North Carolina State University, conducted a study on air pollution at NC State’s Carter-Finley Stadium. Three hours prior to the game, around the time fans began to show up, spikes in air pollution were captured. The spikes were caused primarily from charcoal grills, older generators and idling cars. These pre-game pollutants caused spikes that were more than 20 times worse than the levels considered as moderate air quality. 

“After the games, everybody leaves at the same time, so sometimes it would be 12 hours before the air pollution went back to normal low levels as it was before the event,” Casper said.

Consumption of food and drink makes up the next largest part of the footprint with the effects of improper waste disposal. For convenience, most fans do not take reusable plates or plastic, making it easier to toss food and drink in the trash, while disregarding the importance of recycling or composting properly. 

A 2007 study conducted by Collins, Flynn, Munday, and Roberts at Cardiff University looked at different models to assess the environmental impacts at one major sporting event in particular — the Football Association Challenge Cup Final in England. The results included effects of travel, food and water, and waste. The study found that the average attendee generates a footprint seven times greater than someone going about normal, everyday activity. 

 “Waste management is one large impact that stadiums have,” Bunds said. “The sporting venues need to work towards making everything in the facility compostable, recyclable, or reusable, then this negates a massive part of the problem.”

Ahead of the Game

More professional and collegiate sports departments are beginning to implement sustainable practices to reduce their environmental footprint.

Over the years, there has been slow progression and changes made with sports teams and their commitment to sustainability. In 2012, the Superbowl game in Indiana was wind-powered, which helped to offset all greenhouse gas emissions generated by the game’s venues. 

Moreover, the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles were the first team capable of generating all its own energy from installing 2,500 solar panels, 80 wind turbines and a generator that runs on natural gas. More stadiums can be part of changing the game. From the NFL, MLB, and NBA, tangible change can be made in various initiatives from utilizing renewable energy sources to overall arena policies like composting organic waste.

As more advanced stadiums like SoFi emerge in cities, sports teams can set a new standard with stadiums to combat negative environmental footprints, ultimately resulting in a green victory for both the world of sports and the environment.