Suns managing partner Robert Sarver announced a partnership Friday with an Arizona-based, environmentally friendly packaging company. Footprint will not only begin a long-term deal for naming rights, but it will fulfill its own mission by eradicating single-use plastic products from the nearly 30-year-old downtown building.
Sarver declined to disclose the length or value of the deal in an interview Wednesday from Milwaukee, where his Suns lost Game 4, 109-101.
On the court, the Suns are trying to win their first NBA title in their 53-season history. The best-of-seven series is tied at two games apiece after Phoenix blew a 2-0 lead.
“Off the court this is a really important announcement for us,” Sarver said. “It’s a global partnership with an Arizona-based company founded by some Arizonians. Their goal is to create a healthier planet by removing plastic use. This is going to be a very unique sports partnership. It’s not just a name on a building.”
As part of that partnership, Footprint will turn the arena into a carbon-neutral environment it hopes will be the blueprint for sports and entertainments centers well beyond Phoenix. Footprint creates bio-based compostable containers as an alternative to plastics.
Aside from a change in disposable product, Footprint will also take on an educational process for fans inside the arena, Troy Swope, Footprint’s chief executive, said during the interview session.
“We are a material science company,” Swope added. “And phase one of our mission is to get plastic away from food. According to RollingStone, humans ingest a credit card’s worth of plastic a week through plastic being used as storage for our food.”
Swope was director of engineering for years at Intel, the computer chip manufacturer that has a campus located in nearby Chandler, Ariz., just south of the Legends Entertainment District, which comprises the arena and Chase Field. The ballpark is the home of MLB’s Arizona Diamondbacks, and the two buildings are separated by a multi-tiered parking garage that’s owned by both clubs.
During his time at Intel, Swope tackled the problem of discovering how much plastic was in food and became alarmed about the acute nature of the issue. In 2008, he and partner Yoke Chung left Intel and decided to start their own company to attack the situation. They opened their new venture in the neighboring town of Gilbert, virtually down the street.
“We saw it as an opportunity to develop a technology to take plastic out of food,” Swope said.
Much more recently, Sarver oversaw a $230 million retrofit of the arena, which opened in 1992 at a cost of $89 million, amid partnership with the City of Phoenix on the two-phased project. The Suns funded $100 million and the city $130 million of the cost. In addition, Sarver paid out of pocket for a new $50 million practice facility he recently called “the best in sports, the best in the U.S.”
During the past year, he spent a lot of time analyzing numerous companies in all sorts of businesses to sell the naming rights for the building, which had been called Phoenix Suns Arena since their last contract expired this past November.
The Suns commonly partnered with airlines such as America West and USAir and a local tribal organization called Talking Stick, which runs casinos and a resort. Talking Stick also built a $100 million spring training facility in Scottsdale that is shared by the Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies after debuting ten years ago.
But this time it was different. Sarver was looking for a partner that would have an impact on the coming Phase 2 development of the arena.
“We started with a list of about a dozen national and international companies. And local companies. We thought that was important,” Sarver said. “Footprint was on the list of local companies that we thought was doing some interesting things.”
In the end, Sarver became enthralled by the work Footprint is doing and decided to take a step himself into changing the environment.
“We thought we could be helpful for them in their growth and their progress,” Sarver said. “And they could be a good fit for us.”
When fans arrive at the arena Saturday, they’ll see the first signs of the name change, Sarver said—some name recognition in the front of the building, virtual logos on the court.
“Obviously it will take more time than that to get up permanent signage,” Sarver said. “That should be up in time for the start of next season. It will be done in conjunction with Phase 2 of arena renovation.”
By the end of next season, Swope promises to replace all plastic cups, utensils, plates and anything touching food or drink with Footprint’s biodegradable products.
The question is whether the Suns by then will be the defending NBA champions. They are coming home Saturday to their newly renamed arena to give it their best shot.
“I would say I’m more than a little nervous about that,” Sarver said about what is now a best-of-three series.
(This story has corrected the arena’s original construction cost in the 12th paragraph.)