March Madness means 68 teams compete to be champions, Cinderella runs for some underdogs and big business for the NCAA, which earns 85% of its annual operating budget during the men’s basketball tournament.
But all this comes at a huge cost: it is estimated that during the three week event. That is comparable to all the emissions of a large university – such as champion of 2019 University of Virginia – for a whole year.
These greenhouse gas emissions warm the planet and contribute to heat waves, sea level rise and extreme weather. Carbon dioxide equivalent is a way to measure the impact of several greenhouse gases at the same time.
Crunching carbon for large-scale event
A colleague, Alex Cooperand I came up with this figure based on data for the 2019 NCAA tournament.
Previous research on the carbon footprint of sporting events has mainly focused on events in a single city, such as the Football Association Challenge Cup in the UK and centralized events like the Olympics. Little previous research has been done on the environmental impact of a large-scale sporting event such as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
In addition, when sports organizers calculate and report emissions for their events, they usually report on their own what is happening in their institution during the event. For example, they do not consider the environmental impact of traveling to and from the event.
So we wanted to know what the carbon content is for a huge and popular event like March Madness?
For our peer-reviewed study, which was published in October 2021 in the Journal of Cleaner Production, we wanted to estimate the carbon emissions of all the activities involved in organizing a huge basketball tournament that takes place in multiple cities across the country in a short period of time. While our estimates are based on 2019, we believe tournament-generated emissions are comparable to other years, including 2023.
We looked beyond the facilities to account for team and fan flights and car travel, facility activities, food consumption, waste production and accommodation for everyone based on each team’s progress through the 2019 tournament. We used attendance estimates to estimate the impact of determine hotel stays, fan and team air and car trip, waste production, food consumption And operation of sports facilities to form our carbon emissions model.
Based on our model, we found that this resulted in 463 million pounds of CO2 equivalent emissions. That’s about 1,100 pounds (499 kilograms) for every player, coach and fan in attendance. That amount is equal to more than 1,200 miles (1,930 kilometers) of driving in a typical sedan.
By far the biggest source of emissions, as you might expect, was fan and team travel, accounting for about 79.95% of the total. The second largest were hotel stays at 6.83%, followed by food at 6.37%, stadium operations at 5.9%, and general waste at 0.95%.
What surprised us most was that the share of travel category in the total was lower than in previous studies that analyzed the environmental footprint of sporting events. But that was mainly because, unlike in those other studies, we considered many other aspects of the event, such as shelter, food and waste.
Ways to reduce the impact
So what can the organizers of March Madness – or any tournament for that matter – do to reduce the carbon footprint?
Since travel is a large part of that footprint, addressing emissions from long-haul travel, such as flights, can be one of the most effective ways to reduce the overall impact of the event, as other researchers have noted.
While travel can’t be completely ruled out for a tournament like the NCAAs, organizers should consider more regional placements to reduce the distances fans and teams have to travel. For example, in 2019, Mississippi State, Liberty, Virginia Tech, Saint Louis, and Wisconsin all traveled to San Jose, California. The idea would be to have more games take place regionally to reduce travel distances. This would not only reduce carbon emissions, but could increase profits by making it easier for more fans to attend.
And when evaluating host cities and locations, the NCAA can consider local policies that promote sustainable hotel operations. For example, during the 2019 tournament, host sites in California had more energy efficient hotel operations, reducing the second largest contributor to total emissions. The same can be said about choosing arenas and sports facilities that are energy efficient.
March Madness brings tremendous value and fun to college basketball fans across the country. While the carbon footprint can never be eliminated, there are ways to reduce the overlooked environmental costs.