Amazon, NHL Seattle and Oak View Group surprised the sports world with the landmark naming rights deal – now they’re preparing to walk the talk
It was a roof that was built to symbolise America’s growing influence in the world. A roof under which a young Bill Gates and Paul Allen were inspired to dedicate their lives to technological progress. Now, almost 60 years after it was constructed, there’s an ambition that it could play a significant role in the planet’s collective and urgent move towards decarbonisation and avoid the very worst predictions around climate change.
The roof in question can be found in Seattle, in the Pacific northwest, and was originally built for the 1962 World’s Fair – a landmark event in which the US threw down a marker in the fields of science, technology and maths to flex its muscles amid the might of the Soviet Union.
Of course, it’s what happened underneath and around the iconic roof that mattered most. The innovation showcased in the fields of space exploration, telecommunications and computing had a hand in transforming the US into the global superpower it is now, and the city of Seattle into one of its major technological hubs.
Gates founded Microsoft in the city alongside Allen decades after becoming fascinated with the exhibits showcased during the six-month extravaganza. However, it’s his Amazon counterpart (and one-time rival for the ‘world’s richest person’ accolade) Jeff Bezos who plans to leverage the iconic status of the roof and its exciting new future to bring climate change to the top of the agenda.
And sport is very much at the heart of these plans.
Last week, the sports industry took a collective step back when it was revealed that the e-commerce giant had purchased the naming rights to the venue being developed under that roof for the newly-established National Hockey League franchise in Seattle, and called it the Climate Pledge Arena.
In an Instagram post unveiling the move, Bezos said the name was designed to be a “regular reminder of the urgent need for climate action”, showcasing the movement his company founded alongside Global Optimism (created by former UNFCCC executive secretary Christiana Figueres) calling on global business community to meet the Paris Agreement’s objective of net zero carbon emissions by 2040.
That’s 10 years earlier than originally billed, and urgency is very much the watchword for Bezos and the Climate Pledge. During his maiden speech introducing the movement, Bezos stressed that the scientists were in fact wrong: catastrophic climate change is accelerating at an even faster rate than they’d previously anticipated. Oceans are warming 40% faster than predicted. The Antarctic ice sheet is melting 70% quicker than anticipated.
All of these factors convinced Bezos – and the other key stakeholders in the form of NHL Seattle and the Oak View Group (the venue’s owner and operator) – that naming the facility the Climate Pledge Arena was the right course of action.
And so it came to pass – Bezos (below) purchased one of the most valuable and sought-after rights in the sports market and made a statement.
Early conversations between Amazon and the Oak View Group related to integrating technology within the arena that would take fan engagement to another level. But according to Daniel Griffis, the president of global partnerships for Oak View Group, it quickly became evident that both stakeholders and NHL Seattle were aligned on taking a leadership position around the biggest challenge of our generation.
There were three major factors that helped that facilitated the partnership, Griffis explains. The first was the influence of Andy Jassy, the chief executive of Amazon Web Services and NHL Seattle investor. The second was the sharp focus of Tod Leiweke (chief executive of NHL Seattle) on fan engagement and realising that sustainability issues and environment are important issues to the people of Seattle. And the third was the decision made by Leiweke’s brother Tim, chief executive of Oak View Group, to keep the old World’s Fair roof and develop an arena under it.
“To be able to recycle the roof and dig down underneath it to rebuild from the ground up was a really unique idea,” Griffis tells The Sustainability Report. “I think it really started this whole sustainability piece for us. Don’t throw away what still works – I think that’s really part of the ethos.”
He adds: “Before it happens you always wonder how you’re going to pull it off, and you try to understand the fan reaction to it. You open yourself up to a lot of potential criticism from multiple groups who may see this as disingenuous or a stunt. But as fans – and environmentalists – start to peel back the layers they’ll see that this is an effort to take a beautiful architectural building, merge it with a unique fan experience, and merge it further with meaningful impact.”
The commitments made alongside the naming rights announcement suggests that all parties are prepared to ‘walk the talk’.
A promise to be carbon neutral – as you’d expect from a facility named Climate Pledge Arena – was one of the most important commitments to articulate. To achieve that, the facility will source refrigerants for the ice that produce zero greenhouse gas emissions and will offset all indirect carbon emissions related to transportation by fans, teams and entertainers.
Most significantly, the Oak View Group took the unprecedented measure of removing the natural gas infrastructure that had already been planned and replaced it with electricity powered by 100% renewable energy.
“The changes that needed to be made had a pretty significant financial impact,” Griffis explains. “This wasn’t making a decision to change the paint colour, we’re talking about some fundamental changes that had a profound impact. For Tim and Tod it was a pretty significant investment that could have gone towards other things, but you don’t get too many opportunities in your lifetime to stand for something.
“They took a risk and I believe it will pay off in spades.”
Everything is geared up for the arena to achieve Zero Carbon Certification from the International Living Future Institute, with its progress being overseen by Jason McLennan, the renowned architect and founder of the Living Building Challenge.
“This is now a globally-leading project,” he tells The Sustainability Report. “Not only because of its size and scale, but also what it’s demonstrating. If you can do this with an arena, there’s no excuse for not doing it in an office building or a house. It’s about as tough a building type there is to do this on.”
Part of the project’s ambition is to develop the “largest coordinated effort of fan engagement with climate issues of any NHL team.” More than engaging with sports fans, McLennan is quick to point out that several concert-goers will also be attending the venue and interacting with its message. And the advocacy is due to go further than that, with an advisory council (co-chaired by McLennan and sponsored by the arena and Amazon) established, and an annual conference scheduled.
“We want the arena to be a new platform for the environmental community to meet about climate change,” McLennan articulates succinctly and purposefully.
The move is not without risk; climate change is still very much a political issue in the US, with a proportion of the population sceptical of climate science and the motives behind moving to more sustainable innovation and technology. In a 2019 poll, the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project, only Saudi Arabia and Indonesia had a higher proportion of doubters than the US.
All of the stakeholders are hopeful that the landmark partnership can help to “change mindsets” in this area, but much will depend on how the messages are crafted and communicated to the various stakeholder groups. A study conducted by Tim Kellison and Beth Cianfrone of Georgia State University discovered that while fans who identify themselves as environmentalists wear their team’s eco-credentials as a source of pride, those on the opposite end of the scale can become hostile to efforts.
To address this, carbon reductions and sustainability initiatives can be reframed as economic policies (efficiency and cost savings) or related heavily to challenges the local community is facing. In the Seattle area, for example, climate change rears its head in the form of declining ocean health as well as increasing forest fires during the summer months.
However, the scale of this project – by virtue of sport’s global reach and the involvement of Amazon (one of the largest companies in the world) – means that this the message of climate action will likely be spread around the world, well beyond its base of hardcore Seattle-located fans.
According to Dr. Madeleine Orr, the co-founder of the Sport Ecology Group, the partnership between Amazon, Oak View Group and NHL Seattle is what has been “missing” in sport which, previously, has demonstrated a “lack of leadership on climate action”.
“This partnership really checks all the boxes,” she adds. “A multi-party sponsorship that includes visible branding and marketing, through the name of the building, and pragmatic steps that have been laid out to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to an absolute minimum, right from the start.”
Ryan Brach, senior vice-president of global partnerships at Oak View Group, is hopeful that the commitment to climate action will make NHL Seattle and the venue a more attractive proposition for other partners, particularly those that haven’t traditionally been involved in sports and entertainment sponsorship.
“We’ve shifted our strategy a little bit as to who we’re approaching and doing research on,” Brach explains. “We’re looking at the largest companies in the world focused on sustainability and climate. Companies like Unilever, for example, who, from a sustainability perspective, are one of the best in the world in terms of taking a leadership position. That’s the kind of company we’d love to foster a relationship with as we move forward.”
The partnership raises two major questions: how significant will it be in terms of (a) the business world scrambling to take the Climate Pledge, and (b) changing the fundamental constructs of the sports marketing and sponsorship model?
Answering the former is almost impossible at this stage, although Amazon’s weight combined with the high-profile nature of sport and the arena may capture the imagination and place the Climate Pledge in the public consciousness over a consistent period of time, particularly when NHL Seattle begins to compete on the ice.
Gauging its influence on the sports marketing scene is equally difficult at this early stage, but there are examples to suggest that this type of cause or ‘purposeful’ sponsorship of major sporting or entertainment properties may be here to stay.
During the 2008 UEFA European Championships, premium Swiss watchmaker Hublot passed on all the advertising space it purchased during the event to anti-racism messaging, so this type of partnership is not unprecedented. Whether that translates into similar stadium naming rights deals in the future remains to be seen, but T. Bettina Cornwell, sponsorship expert and the head of the marketing department at the University of Oregon, explains that many brands are already “lining up on the right side of history”.
One of the more interesting aspects, she says, will be how this impacts the public’s perception of Amazon as a brand, as well as Bezos.
“We know what the product and service is, but we are now seeing a movement towards Amazon expressing its brand values,” she explains. “This kind of statement and the amount of money it’s spending on this means we can start to imagine Amazon might do other things like this in the future.”
Cornwell adds: “They’re going to have communication with customers around issues like single-use plastic, and it would be great if that came with ideas about reducing that material in the products distributed by Amazon. But my big wish is that this is an exemplar for other big brands; if you’re so well-known that you don’t need any more awareness, take the platform you have and do something with it.”
The notion that this partnership can inspire fans, brands, businesses and other sports properties to take climate action in their respective spheres of influence is by a long way its most exciting element, and represents the area in which it has the ability to create the most positive impact.
“Just as Bill Gates and Paul Allen were inspired by the World’s Fair walking hand in hand with their parents in 1962, maybe there will be small kids coming into our arena inspired to do something in sustainability, and to be part of that in some small way is kind of noble,” says Griffis.
“Not only do we have the chance to see the team become a championship level organisation, and under Tod’s guidance I have no doubt they will, but this arena has the opportunity to be meaningful and inspiring for people for a number of generations.”
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