Sustainability, sports, and entrepreneurship. What’s the connection? Some might say there is none. But at Davidson College in North Carolina, the eco-friendly-hyper-athletic student body – with the help of Sustainability Director Jeff Mittelstadt – combined all three. Their innovative national sustainability initiative culminated as the annual student-led The Next Play program, which uses sports to address sustainability issues.
This year’s Next Play initiative was a venture pitch tournament that invited Division I colleges and universities that qualified for the NCAA basketball tournament to send teams of undergraduate and graduate students to Davidson College. The teams then pitched business plans focused on incorporating athletics into sustainability and competed for more then $28,000 in prize money and financial incentives. More than 30 judges and representatives from over 30 organizations in the sustainability field oversaw the event.
Equally as impressive as the on-campus sustainability initiatives at Davidson are student initiatives that induce change in the “real world.” The winners of the 2014 Next Play program developed an array of sustainable projects in the athletics industry, including a business that locally sells and resells sports equipment, a venture exploring the use of llama wool in organic sleeping bags, and the building of a green sports facility.
And it’s evident that the strong spirit of sustainability and athleticism at Davidson College stays with students long after graduation. Mittelstadt discussed a sustainability initiative developed by a 2009 Davidson College alumni, Andrew Lovedale. A former member of the Davidson Men’s basketball team, Lovedale started an organization in Nigeria called Access to Success which aims to “empower youth and their communities to achieve positive change through Christian-based athletic and educational programs in Nigeria.” This past year, for the first time since its conception, the organization helped one of their students attain a scholarship to a university in the United States. As Mittelstadt said, “What they’re doing is using sports to address social issues.”
In addition to the tournament, Davidson also fostered on-campus sustainability initiatives as part of a five-month, first-year program of sustainability and sports at the college, including four zero-waste football games. The last zero-waste football game diverted more than 90 percent of all waste from landfills through intensive recycling and composting efforts.
Despite how progressive these sustainability efforts might seem, the link between sustainability and athletics at Davidson is nothing new. Last year, students started a Student Athletes Sustainability Council that featured representatives from many sports teams. The Council’s goal was to collaborate among different sports teams in order to come up new projects for the Council as well as Davidson’s Sustainability Office to work on. Together, they have organized shoe recycling collections, clothing and T-shirt drives, and awareness initiatives such as reducing the number of disposable cups used during sporting events by providing athletes with water bottles.
Mittelstadt said, “Students were a huge part of [the sustainability effort],” whether it was by volunteering at the Next Play event, or being “trash goalies” (as the sustainability and waste industry calls them). In fact, not only was the Next Play initiative largely student-run, but Mittelstadt said that “the idea for this program, as a whole, came from the students.” He went on to say, “I came out about a year and a half ago as the first Director for Sustainability, and within the first few months almost half the students that came to talk to me about sustainability were Division I athletes from Davidson College. And so it sort of made sense that we concentrate on sports in some way as the lens through which to view sustainability.”
From facility management, to nutrition and food consumption for athletes and audiences, to technology like swimming pools, lighting, building materials, energy management, sports and sustainability go hand in hand. “Everything that we talk about in sustainability can be related to sports in some way,” Mittelstadt said. Sports also relate to the social aspect of sustainability, and work closely with social sustainability in terms of connecting to a surrounding community, creating access to events, and using ports to address social issues like Access to Success.
Ultimately, The Next Play venture pitch tournament at Davidson University is a unique blend of athletics, sustainability, and entrepreneurship, and while it’s not the first of its kind, it is certainly rare and paving the way for a new perspective on sustainability. Going forward, Mittelstadt hopes to open the program up to a wider range and number of student athletes, and involve more schools and organizations. The idea, he says, is to get people to think outside the box and challenge the way that society limits the areas in which sustainability can be applied.