Sports can uplift and empower. From the youngest ages, children learn the ideals of fair play and respect by participating in sports. Here, sports become an outlet for making the world a better place.

However, some fans think the feel-good era of sports is ending. The latest arrest or steroid scandal usually tops most tales of triumph in professional sports. Feel-good stories are disappearing from the world of sports along with the role models we once cherished.

But Forest Green Rovers are changing that.

Located in the small town of Nailsworth, England, Forest Green Rovers (FGR) play in the fifth-level of England’s professional soccer pyramid, the Blue Square Bet Premier league. Albeit, far below the English Premier League where world-famous Manchester United and Chelsea ply their trade, reaching the Blue Square is a remarkable accomplishment for a team of FGR’s size.

The club is known as a plucky underdog who rose through the ranks to surpass pundits’ expectations. It’s the story of a small town team competing against those of the biggest English cities. However, any resemblance to a Cinderella story ended there.

FGR struggled on the pitch, often sidestepping the devastation of demotion to a lower league on the final day of the season. Sadly, years of on-field setbacks translated into severe financial distress and the need for new ownership to stave off insolvency.

In August 2010, a savior appeared. Dale Vince, the wealthy founder of Ecotricity, a renewable energy company in Gloucestershire, embraced the challenge of resurrecting this small soccer club. But few would have predicted that he would transform the club into a delightfully unique entity: a professional sports team focused on making a difference in the community and world around it.

Dale vince with a solar panel from The New Lawn.
Dale Vince with a solar panel from The New Lawn.

Under Vince, FGR would no longer adhere to the status quo. From his first moments of ownership, Vince emerged as one of the more colorful chairmen in English soccer—green to be specific. Clad in a t-shirt and jeans, he embodies the hippy ethos of FGR’s eco-renaissance.

Vince’s vision for FGR was twofold: build the very best team of players possible and become the greenest sports club in the world. This ambition is far from quixotic but rests on an important truth: the incredible media exposure granted to professional sports should be leveraged to enact genuine social change. What better way to reach millions of potential environmental converts than by using the power of sports? 

Judging by FGR’s accomplishments, this has not been a rhetorical question.

The most obvious changes are to FGR’s infrastructure. More than one hundred photovoltaic solar panels now sit atop The New Lawn’s roof, which overlooks the fully organic playing field. The panels play an integral role in allowing the club to run completely on renewable energy. Like any professional sports organization, FGR requires quite a bit of energy to keep the floodlights on while catering to a crowd of thousands.

The absence of pesticides and chemicals means keeping the organic playing field in tip-top shape isn’t easy. Groundsman Stewart Ward and the Mow-Bot, an electric mower that requires no supervision, share this responsibility. Even though Mow-Bot runs twelve hours a day, keeping the field pristine, it amazingly uses just under two percent of the annual energy produced by the stadium’s solar panels. It even sends Ward a text message if it encounters a problem.

Stewart ward with his Mow-Bot
Stewart Ward with his Mow-Bot

Created by the UK-based company Etesia, Mow-Bot gives off zero emissions as it quietly rolls over The New Lawn’s field. During its first week on the job, Mow-Bot used its GPS capabilities to “learn” the exact dimensions of the playing surface and, from that moment on, mowing was fully automated.

The Institute of Groundsmanship honored Ward with the Innovation of the Year Award this past December for his pioneering use of Mow-Bot and the challenges of creating the UK’s first fully organic soccer field. These challenges might explain why FGR stands alone in greening up the sports world. The modern, win-at-all-costs mentality asks: Why spend money on improving a club’s environmental initiatives when it could be diverted to sign a new player? Others have taken fledgling steps—German powerhouse Bayern Munich uses Mow-Bot-like technology at their ground—but no other owner has Vince’s ecological pedigree.

Although the solar panels and organic pitch get the lion’s share of the publicity, Vince has left no stone unturned in his environmental quest. FGR only uses the most eco-friendly products, even down to the laundry detergent for cleaning the players’ uniforms.

The Eco-Management and Audit Scheme (EMAS), the gold standard for European environmental excellence, has recognized FGR’s commitment to sustainability. Recognition from EMAS, one of Vince’s first goals, validates the club’s success.

However, not all of the changes were initially met with excitement. In early 2011, Vince, who is a vegan, removed all red meat-based products from The New Lawn’s menu. By the end of the year, the transformation was completeForest Green Rovers were fully vegetarian. Vegetable curry and veggie burgers now reside where cottage pie once did.

A veggie burger from The New Lawn
A veggie burger from The New Lawn

This change didn’t receive nearly as much support as the infrastructure improvements. Many, for the first time, began questioning if this was still the same club they had grown up loving. Having a burger at a soccer match was a time-honored tradition akin to Americans enjoying a hot dog during a baseball game. The outcry was fierce and passionate but appears to be subsiding. Now most rave about The New Lawn’s signature dish, the badger pasty. Fear not, it doesn’t actually contain badger.

Sales figures appear to support the vegetarian shift at FGR as the club reported a thirty percent boost in food receipts after the removal of red meat. Although an ultimate financial success, the food debate was certainly the first dent in Vince’s armor of popularity.

Yet even the most ardent dissenters of FGR’s new policies are mollified by the universal salve of sports: winning. Vince smartly recognized that none of his green initiatives would ever be accepted as more than a gimmick if the club continued to languish at the bottom of the standings. 

Last place looked like a very real possibility at the time of Vince’s takeover in 2010. Before he arrived, the specter of bankruptcy had left FGR with a threadbare squad of players and no capital to add reinforcements. He immediately granted an infusion of cash to the playing budget, allowing manager David Hockaday to snatch up several young prospects, hoping to bolster his struggling team. Although the 2010/11 season ended as the previous ones had—escaping relegation at the very last moment—the foundation was laid for future triumph.

Most of the coaching staff and players were rewarded with new long-term contracts, finally allowing FGR to compete on the same level as the larger teams in their division. They did just that, finishing 2011/12 in 10th place and, as of publication time, they are fighting for a playoff spot in 2012/13. Mirroring the mission of the team, FGR players found sustainability on the field as the bedrock of their success.

With the entire organization revamped from top to bottom, on field and off, the world is taking notice. British newspapers and camera crews now jostle for the next opportunity to shine a light on FGR’s unusual mission. Accustomed to the shadows of the European sports scene, such attention is much appreciated because Vince, Ecotricity and Forest Green Rovers are not finished yet.

FGR has miles to go before they fully eliminate their carbon emissions and turn dreams of LED floodlights and electric transportation into a reality. The full story of FGR isn’t finished, but the results so far are highly encouraging. Rovers have traversed the high-wire balancing act of success on the scoreboard and making a true difference off the field.

Having achieved the rigorous EMAS standard and currently holding onto a coveted playoff spot in the Blue Square Bet Premier, perhaps FGR really can have it all. The future for Forest Green Rovers is undeniably brightand green.