Taking a page from the coal industry's playbook, the Sierra Club will sponsor a University of Kentucky men's basketball game next week.
The environmental group, which wants the nation to move away from using coal in favor of renewable forms of energy such as solar, will sponsor UK's Jan. 17 match-up against Arkansas.
The sponsorship will cost the Sierra Club $17,500, said Kim Teplitzky, a Sierra Club staffer in Pittsburgh who helped arrange the deal.
Linking iconic UK basketball with a clean-energy message is turnabout after the coal industry sponsored three UK athletic events this school year to get out its message.
Friends of Coal was the signature sponsor of the UK-University of Louisville football and men's basketball games, and also helped sponsor Big Blue Madness, said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association.
The total cost was $85,000.
The Sierra Club, which says it is the largest grass-roots environmental group in the nation, also will sponsor an Indiana University men's basketball game Thursday.
For its money, the Sierra Club will be featured on the cover of the UK-Arkansas game program and will get an advertisement during the radio broadcast. The package also includes mentions on the radio and at the game and the right to give students materials and put on the halftime show, Teplitzky said.
The message at the game will be positive, not anti-coal, Sierra Club staffers said, such as "let's score one for clean air," and that just as its basketball team is a leader, UK can be a leader in clean energy.
"This is just a fun, creative way to say we support a healthy future," said Lauren McGrath, a Sierra Club representative in Kentucky.
The Sierra Club and other groups argue that coal is a dirty form of energy that causes serious environmental and health problems when it is mined and burned.
The industry, however, says it provides thousands of jobs and helps keep Kentucky's electricity prices low.
"Sponsoring a University of Kentucky athletic event is a great way to reach Kentuckians, but it will take much more than one game to convince the vast majority of us that there is a better source for electricity than coal," Bissett said after hearing of the Sierra Club sponsorship.
The UK and IU games are the first time the Sierra Club has sponsored college sporting events to get out its message, Teplitzky said.
The idea grew out of a discussion involving Teplitzky and Patrick Johnson, a UK senior active in an environmental advocacy group called UK Greenthumb, at a conference in Pittsburgh last year, Johnson said.
Johnson said he was frustrated about the coal industry's sponsorship of the UK-U of L football game.
Johnson said he grew up a diehard UK basketball fan and did not think it was proper to have UK sports "infiltrated" by a pro-coal message, which he likened to letting the tobacco industry sponsor a game.
The coal industry makes it seem as though there is no downside to coal and no alternative, he said.
Johnson said he respects that coal has been important economically to many people, but thinks it's important to show a counterpoint to the industry's view.
"I want the citizens of the state of Kentucky to be educated on what options there are," said Johnson, who is majoring in natural resources and environmental science.
The controversy over coal has ratcheted up in Kentucky and the nation in recent years, and has burned hotter at UK as well.
After UK trustees voted in 2009 to accept $8 million from donors — many tied to the coal industry — for a new basketball dorm with the stipulation that it be called the Wildcat Coal Lodge and include a shrine to coal, professors and students protested the decision and acclaimed Kentucky author Wendell Berry removed his personal papers from the UK library.
UK students also have called on the school to replace two coal-fired boilers it uses for heating.
That is one immediate target of the move to sponsor the UK and IU games, the Sierra Club said in a news release.
The games, which it calls the Sierra Club Clean Energy Match-Ups, "are meant to connect sports to the idea that dirty and dangerous on-campus coal plants need to be replaced by clean and affordable solutions for the health of the players and the students," the group said.
More than 60 universities burn coal on campus, but 19 others have committed to stop doing so since the Sierra Club launched a campaign against the practice, the group said in its news release.
Johnson said he hopes the Sierra Club involvement with the UK-Arkansas game will bring more students into the push against UK's coal plants.
UK spokesman Jay Blanton said UK has already put in place or plans a number of initiatives to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.
For instance, a new child-care center under construction on campus and a planned residence hall will use geothermal for heating and cooling, and UK hopes to make wide use of the same source during renovation and construction of 6,000 to 9,000 new dorm beds in coming years, Blanton said.
The university also has an energy-management center that works to cut electricity use, and is investing more than $20 million in campus improvements that will cut energy use. Several UK officials and students recently went to Ball State University to look at its use of geothermal energy, he said.