Saving The Environment

Besides the sport played on the grass at Wimbledon, tennis is not typically considered a “green” sport.

Most matches are played on hard asphalt courts, leading to the short lifespan of tennis balls that are thrown away. Additionally, players drive to local courts, and often bring single-use water bottles for refreshment.

Most of these bottles and tennis-ball cans are deposited in courtside trash bins, ultimately taking their place next to 27 billion other non-recycled water bottles that ended up in landfills in 2010.

However, one local, non-profit, community tennis association is taking a creative approach to encourage tennis players to be more environmentally friendly.

In 2009, Virginia’s Arlington County Tennis Association (ACTA) created the Eco-Challenge to promote environmental awareness as an adjunct competition to its already-popular singles ladder.

The association’s website asks players to record environmental-impact behaviors after each match. The results are not only publicly displayed with the actual match score, but players who receive the most “eco” points receive prizes at the end of the season.

What’s A Singles Ladder?

A tennis ladder is an informal way for tennis enthusiasts to meet and play matches with other similarly skilled players at mutually convenient times and locations.

Players are ranked on a ladder based either on the previous year’s results, or simply in the order in which they register. Once ranked, players are allowed to “challenge” other players within a certain range of their own ranking. The players then agree upon a match time and location, and play the match.

If the winning player is the lower-ranked one, the winning player will then take the spot of the losing player and the latter will slide down in the rankings. If the winning player is already the higher-ranked player, then nothing changes. The winning player reports the score online, and rankings are updated automatically. All registered players have access to view the current rankings and results of the matches.

The Eco-Challenge Ladder

Urban Arlington County has approximately 26 square miles, and 200,000 residents. The county has a variety of public-transportation options and over 80 miles of bike trails. Arlington is also a leader in environmental issues, including the Fresh AIRE program, which began in 2007 with the goal of emissions reduction in the county.

In 2009, a conversation between Alex Robertson, President of ACTA, and a few other tennis players led to the creation of the Eco-Challenge ladder.

“We love tennis, and we are also concerned about the environment,” Robertson states.

“So, we started brainstorming ways we could use tennis to raise environmental awareness, and came up with the idea to use our very popular singles ladder to promote responsible environmental behaviors.”

Robertson, a technology enthusiast by trade, was able to modify the online reporting function of the singles ladder to include the Eco-Challenge results and standings. Now, when players report their scores, they also report on two other items:

• Did you resist using one-use plastic water bottles?

• Did you forgo driving a car to the courts?

When scoring, players simply click the buttons to signify a “Ghostbusters-like” slash across the bottle or car to signify they complied with the rules. Once a player tallies an eco-friendly match, he or she is automatically entered in the challenge.

Although scoring is optional, over half of the 120 ladder players participate in the challenge.

According to Robertson, the challenge has two goals: “First, we just want to raise awareness that there are choices you make that affect the environment--things as simple as using a re-usable water container, or biking instead of always driving the car. Second, we also want to change habits by encouraging people to make green choices.”

To get people excited about the new Eco-Challenge ladder, ACTA encouraged a local business to donate re-usable water bottles at an ACTA social, and provide awards for the eco-challenge winners.

Although tennis may not seem an obvious choice to promote environmental consciousness, to Robertson it was a perfect fit.

“Tennis has always been a good metaphor for life. Winning is important, but integrity and being courteous are even more important. Tennis etiquette is typically one of the first aspects of the game taught to young players, and encompasses everything from attire to waiting for approval before entering an active court.

"Being easy on the environment also fits into this etiquette, or the ‘how-you-play-the-game’ category. It’s time we think of eco-awareness as etiquette towards future generations of tennis players.”

A Match Made In Heaven

The creative approach used by ACTA demonstrates there are plenty of creative ways for sports organizations to promote environmental awareness. Any sports league, for example, can create a separate competition based on players’ environmental practices. The concepts of re-usable water bottles and alternative transportation are applicable to every sport.

What about taking it a step further: what if a flag-football league started each game awarding one point for each player who didn’t drive? What about teams that adopt a park, and by picking up trash, earn points?

Even if you did not want to manage the competition, the simple act of reporting your actions on a website raises awareness.

The simple act of encouraging alternative transportation and providing easy access to that information--bike routes or public transportation routes on a website, for example--is also an easy way for sports organizations to promote environmental awareness.

Athletes are a natural group to promote environmental awareness too--they are often the primary users of parks and other outdoor spaces.

Use a little creativity, like the ACTA Eco-Challenge tennis ladder!

Eric Legg, CPRP, is a Sports Programmer with Arlington County, Va., where he oversees a variety of sports, including tennis. The Arlington USTA Junior Team Tennis program recently received the Virginia Recreation and Park Society Award for Best New Program, and the agency was named Parks & Recreation Agency of the Year by the USTA Mid-Atlantic Section. Legg also serves on the USTA National Committee on Tennis in the Public Parks. He can be reached via e-mail at

Bryan BuchkoComment