Bringing sustainable business practices to the National Hockey League

Omar Mitchell, Director of Sustainability for the NHL, credits his MIT Sloan experience and the Sustainability Internship Program with getting him the job of his dreams.

Hockey is a sport that’s deeply connected to the environment. Athletes often learn to play the sport outside, on frozen ponds during the winter. If climate change negatively impacts those regions, fewer people will have the opportunity to play the game and become athletes or fans. The NHL’s environmental platform is an integral part of the league’s long-term future.

As Director of Sustainability, Omar is the go-to guy for promoting practices that improve the performance of NHL arenas throughout the league. His position is new but influential. The league is a $3.3 billion dollar revenue business, boasts 66 million fans across North America, has a loyal following of 410 million television viewers and approximately 21 million attendees who watch games in the 30 NHL arenas throughout the US and Canada. Omar leverages the skills he learned through his MIT Sloan experience to build the case for and implement cost savings via energy efficiency. 

Buildings are responsible for about 40% of all energy use in the United States.  

Omar worked in the architecture field for eight years before he decided diversify his skillset with a management degree from MIT Sloan. During his first year Omar took Sustainable Business Lab and a class at the MIT Media Lab called Living Labs, and he got involved with activities like the Sustainability Summit.

"All of these activities opened my mind to what sustainability is. It’s more than an environmental issue, it is an issue that every business needs to confront and embed into core business practices. MIT Sloan is about creating principled, innovative leaders that change the world – at MIT Sloan I learned not only about my responsibility to change the business I am in but also how to do this effectively.”

At MIT Sloan, Omar deepened his understanding of the business and financial mindset needed to advance the field of sustainable real estate. He applied for and received one of MIT Sloan’s Sustainability Internships, enabling him to spend the summer between his first and second year at the National Hockey League investigating sustainable business practices at clubhouses in the U.S. and Canada. His internship culminated with a presentation of best practices to the NHL’s leadership. The guide received considerable attention within the league and eventually led to his role.

“My job requires a lot of different skills and expertise, much of which I got directly from my time at MIT Sloan. In Organizational Processes for example, I learned all about how to engage stakeholders in making decisions. Strategies I learned in Marketing and Communications classes directly inform a lot of the fan engagement and reporting work I do. I used a class for the Sustainability Certificate to get a more academic understanding of how sustainability could be introduced in professional sports, and to learn about supply chains and foods for concessions. I used all of these classes to prepare me for my role in the NHL so I could go in ready to have an impact.”

 

Baselines are essential to creating change within the organization.

Omar and his team just rolled out the NHL’s Sustainability Report—the first such publication for any U.S. professional sports league, coordinating and reflecting the efforts of all member franchises. Unlike sustainability reports issued for major events like the Olympics, the voluntary report encompasses the ongoing activities of energy and water-intensive facilities throughout North America. Why volunteer the league’s results? The report demonstrates the rigorous approach the league takes to tracking and reducing their impacts. Showing the metrics is essential to backing up Omar’s work because quantifying the baseline environmental footprint of hosting a hockey game can motivate other operational changes.

Although the impact beyond the NHL’s reach will be hard to quantify, Omar’s work has the potential to ripple out across all levels of the sport. The NHL’s energy efficiency best practices can be promoted at community ice rinks, particularly those that are older and operate inefficiently. Lower facility operating costs translates to lower ice-time costs for kids with an interest in hockey. That, he thinks, will broaden participation in the sport and ultimately increase the sport’s fan base.

His work also includes corporate partnerships and sponsorships, and brand communications. Leveraging social media to get messaging out about the league’s sustainability efforts and engaging stakeholders is part of his plan to grow awareness of the League’s NHL Green platform.  He plans to establish corporate partnerships via the platform, and continues to pursue quantifiable metrics that support the league’s sustainability and ROI.