This is the first in a three-part series on Sustainability in Sports

Anyone who has recently been to a large-scale sporting event knows that sustainability hasn’t hit the mainstream sports world just yet. Several developments over the past few years, however, suggest that this trend may be changing.

Let’s start with professional sports. The National Basketball Association recently held its third annual Green Week, intended to “generate awareness and funds for protecting the environment,” with the help of the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Philadelphia Eagles of the National Football League recently announced an innovative partnership with NRG Energy to supply renewable energy at the Eagles’ stadium. And The Green Sports Alliance, a non-profit devoted to “helping sports teams, venues, and leagues enhance their environmental performance,” has put together an impressive list of teams, venues, and partners after just two years in existence.

A few college athletics programs are also paving the way for big changes in the future, which is particularly exciting to those of us who would love to see something similar at Michigan Stadium. The University of Colorado Boulder — and Ralphie’s Green Stampede, a sustainability-relayed play on the university’s mascot — was the first major college football program to go zero-waste, beginning a composting program at Folsom Field in 2008. Ohio State — yes, that’s right, Michigan’s biggest rival! — successfully implemented its own zero-waste program at Ohio Stadium in 2011 and shows no signs of slowing down. And UC Berkeley, slated to re-open its spectacular hilltop football stadium this fall after a multi-year renovation project, has stated its intentions of going zero-waste for all games during the 2012 football season as well.

But perhaps most impressive — and potentially impactful – move is the recent announcement by FIFA, the international governing body for soccer, to invest $20 million in a sustainability strategy for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Given the global presence of this event (FIFA estimated that each match during the 2010 event in South Africa attracted an average of 400 million television viewers), this will be an incredible opportunity to put sustainability front and center in a relatively new context. The next World Cup will serve as a showcase for everything from the obvious — improved waste and energy management practices — to more behind-the-scenes initiatives, including sustainable procurement policies and social measures such as community development.

Ensuring that stadium operations, teams, leagues, and sporting events follow sustainable practices is a daunting task. But as we will see in the next blog on Sustainability in Sports, these types of initiatives are becoming more and more plausible, while the business case can no longer be ignored.