Sustainability Beyond the Arena with Sacramento Kings’ Kunal Merchant

The NBA’s Sacramento Kings have a goal: Be the greenest team with the greenest arena in the greenest state. What are they doing to achieve this?

ohn Shegerian: Welcome to another edition of Green Is Good. This is the Green Sports Alliance edition of Green Is Good here in downtown Chicago, and we’re so honored to have with us today Kunal Merchant. He is the VP of Strategic Initiatives with the Sacramento Kings. Kunal Merchant: That’s right. Go Kings! John Shegerian: Go Kings! Welcome to Green Is Good, and welcome the Sacramento Kings to Green Is Good. Kunal, before we get talking about the great team that you represent – Sacramento Kings – can you share a little bit about your journey in sustainability and ecoconsciousness? Kunal Merchant: Of course. So I came of age when a book came out – if you remember – “50 Things You Can Do To Save the Earth.” John Shegerian: Yeah. Kunal Merchant: This came out when I was at a really young age, so I was transfixed by the book, and it was just so obviously – as a young person – that environmental sustainability and conservation were just no-brainers. So, to be honest, ever since an early age, it’s just always been a part of everything I’ve done. And in college, I was really active in environmental action committees, and then in every job I’ve had, we’re always trying to look at ways to promote the environment, to promote conservation and sustainable development and all those things. So, this is a dream come true that now as a core function of what I do on a day-to-day basis is the same stuff that I used to think about and want to really push forward as a kid, so it’s amazing. John Shegerian: And so you’re a speaker here at the GSA. Kunal Merchant: Yeah. John Shegerian: What do you talk about? What was your platform focus on here at this annual conference? Kunal Merchant: So I loved the topic I got to talk about, which was “Beyond the Four Walls of the Facility,” so it was about talking about these new sports facilities that are coming online. John Shegerian: Right. Kunal Merchant: The Kings are building a new arena. How are we creating an impact not only inside the arena but in the community as a whole? And it is such an integral piece of what we’re trying to do in Sacramento. We always talk about how the arena is bigger than basketball. It’s about job, economic development, civic pride, downtown revitalization, and we’ve put a lot of effort into designing the arena in a way that is going to be transit-oriented that induces more economic development in the vicinity and then also is a model of sustainability and innovation that we hope that our users – be they guests of the arena or our corporate partners – take into their own practice from a sustainability point of view. John Shegerian: And obviously, this is a subject that is near and dear to your heart, being that you were Mr. Sacramento as the Chief of Staff to Kevin Love, so no one knows the community- Kunal Merchant: Kevin Johnson. John Shegerian: Kevin Johnson. I’m sorry. I got the NBA Finals mixed up. You were the Chief of Staff to Kevin Johnson. Kunal Merchant: That’s right. John Shegerian: And so no one knows the community almost better than you, so being able to go outside the walls is somewhere that you’re very comfortable anyway. Kunal Merchant: Absolutely. John Shegerian: And so then being able to integrate the community into your new arena is really something that is near and dear to your heart, to use it as a reason for revitalization and growth. Kunal Merchant: Absolutely. This is a public/private partnership in the most pure way. So yeah, from my government background understanding the real tangible public benefits of moving forward this project while also knowing the benefits to the team, it’s an amazing thing and it’s really fun to be able to see all perspectives and move it all together. John Shegerian: And creating an arena that is not only an asset to the Kings but an asset to the community. Kunal Merchant: That’s right. Exactly right. John Shegerian: That’s awesome. So where is this going? Is this now a theme, Kunal, that you think is going to spread across the United States and across the world in terms of sports venues? Is the asset-based venue now something that all communities are looking for? Kunal Merchant: I don’t think – I’m optimistic, but I think we’ve got a lot more work to do. John Shegerian: OK. Kunal Merchant: I don’t want to rest on our laurels right now. I think certain teams, certain facilities and certain communities get it. John Shegerian: Right. Kunal Merchant: I think Sacramento is a very government-minded town. They understand public policy. They understand public benefit. John Shegerian: Great point. Kunal Merchant: So there is a higher level of sophistication and understanding of the need for these buildings to really work with their environments and to be sustainable. But I don’t think that’s the case everywhere and I think in every community there is still so much more to do. I think we are just scratching the surface and it’s really incumbent upon everybody – the public, the teams, the facilities, the politicians, the stakeholders and the community – to keep pushing us to make sure that it just becomes an expectation that every facility has a very strong and robust green agenda. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I think we can get there. John Shegerian: You’re the VP of Strategic Initiatives for the Sacramento Kings. Besides building this great arena, what else is in your vision plan for the next five years to help the Kings continue to go green and grow green? Kunal Merchant: The arena is just one piece, right? John Shegerian: Right. Kunal Merchant: We have the team. We have our players and our coaches on the basketball side. Then we have the corporate facility, which is all the staff of us. So beyond the arena ops, you just have the business ops. Right now, we’re focused on the arena, but we want to make sure our players are ambassadors for green – how they travel, how they play on the court, how they act in the community. They are also our pride builders and they are also our spokespeople on this. So really drilling down with the basketball operations to see what we can do on sustainability. As a business we’re a major employer in Sacramento. We employ 1,000 people. Let’s make sure that on a corporate piece – in addition to just the arena design and operations – we’re being really big stewards. Then the Kings have a really ambitious mixed-use development project that extends beyond the walls of the arena. It’s going to be 1 billion in investment around the arena and 1.5 million square feet of retail, office, hospitality, etc. that will provide another frontier for us to do some sustainability work, too. John Shegerian: So this is just really – the arena is just really the beginning. Kunal Merchant: It’s just the first domino, and there is a lot more fun after that so we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. John Shegerian: You know, there are a lot of our listeners and viewers not only here in the United States but around the world that want to be the next Kunal Merchant. How does that work? I mean is that something that you can tell the next gen millennials “go to college, go to grad school, do something special”? What would be your best advice backwards to the next gen? Kunal Merchant: I think if you’re passionate about green, it’s a beautiful time to be in this space. I think it’s young, it’s emerging. It’s volatile in a good way, so you just have to be committed. Look at this space, network, connect with people who are already in it. Talk to me. I would be happy to talk to anyone – Kmerchant@Kings.com. Send me an email. I’m good with that. John Shegerian: Wow. That’s nice Kunal Merchant: And if you’re passionate about this space, there are so many different angles. There are so many different opportunities from so many different facets. You could come at it from a public policy point-of-view. You could come at it from a business point-of-view. You could come at it from an advocacy point-of-view. And again, I think we’ve just scratched the surface in terms of the technology, in terms of data, in terms of civic engagement in sustainability, so I think the sky is the limit. You just have to be really passionate and then ideally find an angle that makes sense to you. Are you passionate about water or about air quality or about energy conservation or technology or waste diversion? There are so many different angles. Find something that you really care about and then just run with it and try to talk to as many Kunals as possible, and I’m sure you’ll do better than me. You’ll get far faster and further than me, if you’re really committed to it. John Shegerian: And the Kings website is www.Kings.com? Kunal Merchant: Yes. John Shegerian: Very simple. Kunal Merchant: Yeah, it’s www.Kings.com or www.NBA.com/Kings. Either one will take you to our website. John Shegerian: Wow. That’s awesome. Well, we thank you. Any last thoughts before we have to sign off today? Kunal Merchant: Our goal is to be the greenest team with the greenest arena in the greenest state in the country. And if anybody has been to California, they know that we care a lot about sustainability. So that’s our ambition. We’re going to do it, and you all should come visit Sacramento and see it for yourself. John Shegerian: If there is anyone that can drive that initiative and that goal, it’s you. Kunal Merchant: I appreciate that. John Shegerian: Thank you so much. And for our listeners and viewers – as Kunal said – to learn more about what he is doing with his colleagues at the Sacramento Kings, you can go to www.Kings.com or www.NBA.com/Kings. Kunal Merchant, VP of Strategic Initiatives at the Sacramento Kings, making the world a better place. You are truly living proof that Green Is Good, and we are so thankful that you came on Green Is Good today. Thank you very much. Kunal Merchant: Awesome. My pleasure. Thank you. John Shegerian: Thank you.