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Meet the couple behind one of the Super Bowl's biggest secrets: 'We want people to know that they do have power to make change'

"The average fan won't notice too much out in the open areas because so much of what we do goes on in the back of the house."

Super Bowl sustainability

Jack and Susan Groh are the husband and wife team behind one of the Super Bowl's biggest secrets.

Unknown to even the most diehard football fans are the massive efforts behind the scenes by the NFL to attempt to leave its host city better than it found it.

Jack and Susan are the director and associate director, respectively, of NFL Green, the league's sustainability program, which has focused on reducing the environmental impact of the NFL's events for over 30 years.

"Is our community better because we hosted this event? Or did they just create a bunch of trash, clean it up, and then leave?" Jack Groh told The Cool Down. "We know people pay attention to what's going on at the Super Bowl, and we hope that we are leading by example."

This year, that means running more than 14 community projects in and around Las Vegas, including planting hundreds of trees and pollinator gardens, doing habitat restoration, and running a large-scale sports equipment donation program.

At the stadium, it includes recycling, composting, and diverting excess food and drink to local food banks; donating or reusing extra production materials; and using renewable energy offsets.

"The average fan won't notice too much out in the open areas because so much of what we do goes on in the back of the house," Jack told TCD. "So much happens behind the scenes. We kind of have it down to a science now."

Months before the big game, they come to town to evaluate the stadium's diversion process, interview local community leaders about their needs, and develop a plan to help the NFL offset the massive impact of bringing the event to town. 

The Grohs connect with local food banks and talk to event managers about what kind of food will be served and what leftovers they anticipate so they can recover food for soup kitchens, churches, and other destinations. 

"We may end up at an event like the Super Bowl with 20 pallets of soda or beverages from somebody like Pepsi. We're able to donate that to the local food bank or to other folks," Jack said.

After the NFL Draft in Kansas City last year, Jack and Susan said they had over fifty truckloads of materials from the event. Thirty-five truckloads of lumber, turf, carpeting, metal supports, and other materials went to Habitat for Humanity.

This season, their community projects started in October when they planted 58 trees in honor of Super Bowl LVIII in a park in Henderson, Nevada. Then they went to Warm Springs, north of Vegas, and restored two acres of land. 

"Heat is rising in the desert southwest. Las Vegas is heavily impacted by that," Susan told TCD. "So the biggest request we're getting from community greening organizations is trees. 'We need trees, we need shade, we need cooling.'"

Their projects support low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and areas where there are food deserts or a need for shade trees and community gardens. They also must have guaranteed maintenance of at least two years. "We want to make sure when we come back in ten years for another Super Bowl in that community, those trees are still thriving," Susan said. 

Then there's the "Super Kids, Super Sharing" program, a way to engage kids through sports equipment and school supplies donations. Together with 70 local public and private schools, recreation centers, and YMCAs, they collected over 30,000 gently used items like sports equipment and school supplies for local kids in need. On Jan. 26, the 25th anniversary of the program, they invited hundreds of local youth to help distribute tens of thousands of items and play with the Raiders.

"Sustainability is three things: it's economic, it's environmental, and it's social," Jack said. "It keeps tens of thousands of items out of the landfill, but also economically, we've literally had teachers come up in tears as they're leaving with bags with hundreds of books for their kids and sports equipment that their schools can't afford."

All of this was on display during their Super Bowl Green Week, which "shines the spotlight of the Super Bowl on environmental issues and what good work can be done around those issues," said Susan. Green Week kicked off with a revitalization program at the Las Vegas Indian Center and culminated with 200 volunteers planting 90 trees around sports fields in Las Vegas, Susan said.

"If we can have that kind of grassroots impact, that's what we're looking for," Susan said. "We want people to know that they do have power to make change. They can make a difference in their own community. And by coming together, they can do even more."

So what's the biggest sustainability challenge for sports leagues like the NFL? 

"It's the same thing that we're all trying to do — we've got to reduce the carbon footprint, and we've got to find ways to do it in ways that make sense, both economically and environmentally. I would love to tell you that we're having a howling success at it, but we're still in the early stages of trying to figure out where are the real choke points. We do know that travel and transportation are the number one source of greenhouse gas emissions that sports leagues produce," Jack said.  

On this issue, Jack said they're looking closely at what the Olympics is doing. "Each department within the Olympics now is given a carbon budget for transportation, not a financial budget, but a carbon budget. So if your carbon budget is getting too tight and you need to get from Geneva over to Madrid for meetings with the Olympic Committee, you can't fly. You have to take the train."

He believes sports leagues need to lead the way. "Whether you're doing a community project or fan engagement, the more people you can bring into this universe and start showing people what can be done, how you can address it, I think the more power you have."

The NFL also partners with sponsors like Verizon on their sustainability initiatives — and Jack thinks it's time to engage corporate partners in more meaningful ways. 

"Too often in the world of sports and entertainment, we do engage sponsors, but we engage them in a meaningless marketing, eco-marketing sort of way," he said. "The reason we like working with Verizon is that from our perspective when it comes to sustainability, they're the real deal. ... They put the resources into it. They're there to roll up their sleeves and get some work done."

So what's their dream for a 2030 Super Bowl?

"A zero-waste Super Bowl," Susan responded quickly. "Don't bring in the things that are going to create the waste, right? I don't know how far we'll get with that, but I'd love to see more of that."

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