Rising Risks

Climate change is threatening sports stadiums and arenas, and teams like the Yankees and Dolphins are battling back

Key Points
  • Teams are already dealing with flooding, extreme storms, excessive heat and smoke from wildfires.
  • In Florida alone, the sports industry contributes $57.4 billion and 580,000 jobs to the local economy annually, according to a 2017 survey by the Florida Sports Foundation. It is home to 10 professional sports teams, 26 minor league teams and 60 college sports programs.
  • "The last three years in September, we've had climate issues, whether they're hurricane threats. We had to actually move a game," said Tom Garfinkel, CEO of the Miami Dolphins football team.
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Rising Risks: Climate change is threatening sports stadiums—Major players are battling back

Miami's Hard Rock Stadium will host about 65,000 fans on Super Bowl Sunday. While the biggest battle in football will last just one evening, the fight that stadium faces from the effects of climate change will go on indefinitely.

It is not alone. Teams and stadiums across country are dealing with flooding, extreme storms, excessive heat and smoke from wildfires.

"The last three years in September, we've had climate issues, whether they're hurricane threats. We had to actually move a game," said Tom Garfinkel, CEO of the Miami Dolphins football team. "We've had lightning strikes that we've never had in 30 years here, where we had to delay a game. It was the longest game in the history of the NFL."

The Dolphins paid $500 million to renovate the open-air stadium, just in time for Hurricane Irma in 2017. Then in 2018, a random rainfall caused the field to flood during a college game at the stadium.

And that's just one stadium. In Florida, the sports industry contributes $57.4 billion and 580,000 jobs to the state economy annually, according to a 2017 survey by the Florida Sports Foundation. It is home to 10 professional sports teams, 26 minor league teams and 60 college sports programs.

American Airlines Arena, where the Miami Heat basketball franchise plays, sits right on the edge of Miami's Biscayne Bay.

"The Arena will begin to flood with only two feet of sea level rise. I'm talking 20 years or less," said Henry Briceno, a professor at Florida International University who studies the impact of climate change on water. He expects a similar fate for the Hard Rock Stadium at a three feet rise, and said he was appalled to hear that a Major League Soccer expansion team, backed by soccer icon David Beckham, is proposing a new stadium be built near the Miami airport.

"I don't know if those guys know that they are building in the future Atlantis," said Briceno.

The risks extend far beyond Florida. In San Diego, the Padres' Petco Park flooded in 2017, while Western Michigan University's football stadium was overwhelmed last June, when record rainfall turned it into a massive swimming pool. At Davenport, Iowa's minor league stadium — Modern Woodmen Park — overflowing rivers last May turned it from a field of dreams into an island.

Miami Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Fla.
Diana Olick | CNBC

"Every community that hosts a professional sports venue, a sports stadium or arena, is going to be affected by global climate disruption, by climate change, whether through storm surges, more precipitation, stronger hurricanes, wildfires, droughts," said Allen Hershkowitz, environmental science advisor to the New York Yankees, the first and only such known position in professional sports.

Hershkowitz also advises Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, the U.S. Tennis Association and Major League Soccer. Formerly at the National Resources Defense Council, he worked with former Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig to create the Commissioner's Initiative on Sustainable Ballpark Operations in 2005.

The program promoted responsible environmental stewardship for MLB, helping teams reduce their carbon footprints in ballparks. This was then followed by every other professional sports league in the U.S. and others around the world.

"What Commissioner Selig and Major League Baseball recognized years ago is that environmental constraints, economic constraints cause by environmental issues, are going to increasingly affect the economics and the operations of sporting events," said Hershkowitz. "We're dealing with very large real estate infrastructure investments. Regardless of who owns them, they are going to be affected."

As a result, the sports industry is actually one of the most aggressive in going green and that sends a powerful message because, while very few people follow climate science, the vast majority of Americans follow sports.

"I mean, no one looks at the New York Yankees and thinks that they're some kind of a left-wing radical organization," added Hershkowitz.

The Yankees, among others, are investing in carbon compensation projects, and most teams are now reducing their carbon footprints in their stadiums. This year the Dolphins are eliminating all single-use plastics. Cups will now be aluminum.

Miami Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Fla.
Diana Olick | CNBC

The initiative is especially imperative to the Dolphins' owner, Stephen Ross, who is also chairman of The Related Cos., the developer behind Manhattan's massive new Hudson Yards project, a retail, office and residential complex which sits on the edge of the Hudson River.

"There's risk for everything. It's not just sports," said Ross. "That's why I'm very active now in dealing with the climate, being upfront and doing things. You can't wait to say, 'Oh my God,' and do it too late. If we don't do something now, we are looking at extinction."

Ross said he sees growing risks to his investments in both real estate and in the Dolphins. He also said he believes sports can be a great unifier in overcoming the brutal politics surrounding climate change.

"When sports can pick something up, you're really hitting and talking to an audience that's very broad. If it impacts sports, it really just makes it that much more important," said Ross.