Authors: Mark Mitchell1, Melissa Clark1, and Sara Nimmo2
1Wall College of Business, Coastal Carolina University, Conway, South Carolina, USA
2University of North Carolina, Charlotte, North Carolina, USA
Professor of Marketing
Associate Dean, Wall College of Business
NCAA Faculty Athletics Representative (FAR)
Coastal Carolina University
P. O. Box 261954
Conway, SC 29528
Mark Mitchell, DBA is Professor of Marketing at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC.
Melissa Clark, PhD isProfessor of Marketing at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC.
Sara Nimmo is a 2022 Honors Graduate of Coastal Carolina University. Nimmo currently works in Sports Marketing at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and previously served as a Fan Engagement Assistant with MiLB’s Myrtle Beach Pelicans.
Environmental Sustainability Practices in Minor League Sports
Recently, there has been heightened attention on what businesses are doing to sustain the environment. This trend has also impacted minor league sports. Many teams have developed and implemented strategies to lessen the environmental impact of their operations. Consultation with officials of a local minor league baseball team, in addition to extensive information search, identified the strategies used by teams and leagues to improve the environmental sustainability of their part of the sports industry. A cluster analysis was then performed to classify the strategies identified into categories of similar topics. To date, the main areas where minor league sport teams have focused their efforts on environmental sustainability are: (1) facility-related matters (i.e., sustainable certificates, renewable energy, and changes in water and fertilizer usage); and (2) waste reduction (i.e., recycling, paperless ticketing, digital publications). Many of these sustainability initiatives were introduced during the COVID global pandemic as teams and leagues sought to play games while concurrently lower costs and limiting contact among fans and staff. Since their introduction, many of these practices, particularly those dealing with waste reduction, have become standard operating procedures. As fans become more aware of the need to reduce the environmental impact of business operations, they will apply those expectations to minor league sports teams and leagues. Teams and leagues are responding driven by the concurrent desire to sustain their business and to lower the environmental impact of their operations.
Key words: minor league sports, environmental sustainability, facilities, waste reduction
In April 2022, Major League Baseball (MLB) partnered with the Green Sports Alliance to celebrate “Earth Day” by highlighting everyday environmental sustainability practices that can be applied in ballparks, offices, and homes. Some of these practices include the installation of LED lighting and on-site gardens, the removal of plastic straws, the use of solar and wind power, and others (20). Major League Baseball also partnered with the Council for Responsible Sport (CRS) to provide a third-party review of the environmental impact of select games. For example, both the 2021 MLB All Star Game (Denver, CO) and the 2019 MLB All Star Game (Cleveland, OH) were classified as “Certified Responsible Events.” This means these events were deemed to have met enhanced standards for social and environmental responsibility. They are not only creating more livable communities where they work and play, but showing the way for others to do the same (10).
The National Hockey League (NHL) launched its sustainability initiative, NHL Green, in 2010 and released league-wide sustainability reports in 2014 and 2018. NHL arenas have sometimes been called big refrigerators that use lots of energy to keep water frozen. In 2022, the NHL partnered with the enterprise-solutions firm SAP to track the environmental impact of its venues. SAP software allows teams to track energy, water, waste, and recycling across its various venues to better understand its environmental ‘footprint’ and to look for ways to lessen their impact (8).
Major League Soccer (MLS) developed its Greener Goals program to highlight the need for environmental sustainability among its teams and fans. Since its inception, MLS team and office staff members have been encouraged to volunteer their time to environmentally-friendly causes. The league has been involved in reforestation projects, waste reduction efforts, and efforts to promote recycling and composting (25).
Major league teams and leagues operate with significantly more financial resources than minor league teams due, in large part, to their larger fan bases, larger stadiums, higher ticket sales, broader geographic reach, large multi-media rights deals, local sponsorships, and other factors. This financial latitude means pro-active investments in sustainability initiatives represent a lower percentage of their operating budgets. Still, as major league leagues make visible commitments to monitor and lessen the environmental impact of their games and venues, these practices have become the norm of operations and filter down to their minor league teams and communities. The affiliated team approach used by MLB, NHL, and the NBA promotes information and practice sharing among the teams in their player development systems (i.e., the minor leagues).
Minor league systems without the affiliated structures, such as the MLS, Indoor Football, and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL), may follow the lead of other minor league teams and implement such initiatives without parent-organization leadership. It must be noted that many owners in the minor leagues own teams in a variety of leagues or sports. For example, the Endeavor Entertainment Group purchased nine minor league baseball teams in 2021. This purchase included all four affiliated teams of the Atlanta Braves (9). This type of shared ownership should foster information and practice sharing among teams under the same ownership groups.
The purpose of this study is to examine the environmental sustainability practices in minor league sports. First, an overview of the organization of minor league sports is provided. Second, the geographic distribution of minor league teams across the United States and Canada is presented. Next, a review of the actions taken by minor league teams and leagues to implement strategies to support environmental sustainability is provided. Finally, the lessens-learned from major and minor league sports are examined as these environmentally friendly practices continue their migration in minor league sports as well as college and high school athletics.
THE ORGANIZATION OF MINOR LEAGUE SPORTS
There are currently 30 Major League Baseball teams operating in the United States and Canada (24). Each of these teams has an affiliated Triple-A, Double-A, High-A, and Low-A team. Additionally, MLB operates two leagues for first-year players: Arizona Complex League (ACL) and the Florida Complex League (FCL) where games are played at the Spring Training sites of MLB teams. Additional teams bring the total to 179 teams across 17 leagues in 43 states and 4 provinces (27).
There are currently 30 NBA teams playing in the United States and Canada; 28 of these teams have an affiliate G-League (or, Minor League) team (32). Two teams (G League Ignite of Las Vegas, NV; Capitanes Ciudad De Mexico of Mexico City) operate independently and without NBA team affiliation. The G Ignite Team is a developmental team created by the NBA to provide top NBA prospects the opportunity to develop their skills and work toward being drafted into the NBA without participating in college sports (1).
There are currently 32 NHL teams playing in the United States and Canada (34). The American Hockey League (AHL) serves as the top development league for the National Hockey League (NHL). There are currently 32 AHL teams playing in the United States and Canada (3). The vast majority of AHL players were selected in the NHL draft and have been signed to player development contracts (23). One level below the AHL is the ECHL (formerly known as the East Coast Hockey League) with 28 teams, with each team affiliated with an AHL and NHL team (11).
There are currently 28 Major League Soccer (MLS) teams playing in the United States and Canada with a planned expansion team in St. Louis, MO (26). The USL Championship League is sanctioned by the U.S. Soccer Federation as a Division II professional league. The USL Championship League includes 24 teams located in the United States with four expansion teams planned (47). Unlike other sports, the affiliate-model (i.e., USL teams affiliated with MLS teams) is not as common in soccer compared to other professional sports. However, MLS introduced its MLS NEXT Pro league to begin play in 2022 thus creating an affiliate system for their league (38).
There are currently 12 National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) teams competing in the United States (36). The United Soccer League (USL) is planning for the introduction of USL Super League for women’s soccer with play beginning in August 2023 (48). The Women’s Premier Soccer League (WPSL) is a semi-pro league for player development. Currently, there are 141 WPSL teams in the United States and Canada (49).
There are currently 32 National Football League (NFL) teams competing in the United States (33). Over time, there have been competing and/or feeder leagues to the NFL, including the World Football League (WFL), United States Football League (USFL), the Extreme Football League (XFL), and the Spring League. Indoor or Arena Football has been played in various locations since the mid-1980s with the Indoor Football League (IFL) being the longest-running league. There will be 14 IFL teams playing in 2023. Currently, over 125 IFL players have signed NFL or CFL contracts (22).
There are currently 15 National Lacrosse League (NLL) teams competing in the United States and Canada (35). The league plays its games in indoor arenas, often the same arenas that host minor league hockey and basketball teams and leagues.
THE GEOGRAPHIC DISTRIBUTION OF MINOR LEAGUE SPORTS
In the United States and Canada, most major sports leagues have teams located in the largest cities, such as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, etc. In some cases, there is overlap in ownership, such as Arthur Blank (co-founder of Home Depot) who owns the NFL Atlanta Falcons and MLS Atlanta Dream (17). A city hosting a major league team allows that city to declare itself a ‘big league’ city and may help it to attract other sports teams. For example, Charlotte, North Carolina is home to the NBA Charlotte Hornets (founded in 1988), the NFL Carolina Panthers (founded in 1993), and the MLS Charlotte FC Soccer Club (founded in 2019). Before securing major league teams, Charlotte was already home to a minor league baseball team (MiLB Charlotte Knights) and a minor league hockey team (AHL Charlotte Checkers) (7).
The focus of this study is minor league sports. In December 2021, there were a total of 309 minor league teams active in the minor leagues listed above. Given that some cities host multiple minor league teams, there were 209 unique U.S. and Canadian cities hosting at least one minor league sport team. These 209 cities were distributed across 45 states, the District of Columbia, and 8 Canadian provinces. The fifteen states with the most minor league teams are listed below.
- California (26)
- Florida (24)
- Texas (23)
- New York (18)
- North Carolina (17)
- Pennsylvania (14)
- Ohio (10)
- Georgia (9)
- Iowa (8)
- Michigan (8)
- South Carolina (8)
- Arizona (7)
- Indiana (7)
- Virginia (7)
- Washington (7)
There are 62 communities, located in 29 states, the District of Columbia, and 2 Canadian provinces that host multiple minor league sports teams. Table 1 provides greater detail on the distribution of minor league teams across the United States and Canada. The large number of communities involved, and the broad geographic distribution of these communities, illustrates the magnified impact that successful environmental sustainability programs developed by minor leagues teams and leagues can have on their communities and fans/residents.
A variety of information sources were searched to identify the environmental sustainability practices implemented by minor league teams and leagues, including league press releases, media reports, team websites, supplier press releases, and others. Consultation with officials of a local minor league team was used to better understand the issues and motivations for integrating sustainability into the business model. A cluster analysis was performed to classify the sustainable activities identified in this information search into categories of similar topics, such as ‘facility design’ or ‘food packaging.’ This provided a framework to better understand how minor league sports teams are incorporating sustainability initiatives into their business models.
What emerged from the cluster analysis were patterns of sustainable activities across teams and leagues. The interviews and information search provided a broad view of current sustainability initiatives in minor league sports. The main activity types can be broken down into two groups:
- Facility design, enhancements, and maintenance – items such as seeking sustainable building certifications and inputs such as fertilizer, water usage, renewable energy, etc.
- Waste reduction – items such as recycling, food packaging, paperless ticketing, digital publication, etc.
The information gathering process explored the existence of these practices across all minor league sports and leagues. Differences were identified in the utilization of select strategies. For example, unlike most minor league baseball teams, minor league basketball and hockey teams generally do not own their own facilities. So, decisions regarding the implementation of enhanced sustainability practices fall on stadium owners, which are often the cities or municipalities where those stadiums are located. Still, the trend toward incorporating sustainability strategies and practices was clearly present in all the leagues reviewed. These strategies are listed in Table 2 and discussed in the sections that follow.
Facility Design, Enhancements, and Maintenance
One of the most widespread strategies to become more environmentally sustainable in minor league sports has been to update facilities. In fact, Major League Baseball introduced enhanced stadium expectations for its minor league affiliates in 2021 (27). With many stadiums using older generation technologies, these upgrades will occur over the next ten years or so. There are several strategies teams have used to update and maintain facilities while remaining environmentally sustainable, including actions towards achieving Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) facility certifications, upgrading lighting, the usage of more environmentally sustainable fertilizers, less water usage, and switching to renewable energy.
LEED Facility Design and Certification. LEED is the most widely used green building rating system globally and provides a framework for healthy, highly efficient, and cost-saving green buildings (46). LEED certification also works to reduce pollution, conserve water, reduce waste, and implement sustainable strategies in all facility areas. There are four levels of LEED certification: Certified (40–49 points), Silver (50–59 points), Gold (60–79 points), and Platinum (80+ points) (40). There are several stadiums across the country that have achieved some level of LEED certification such as Medlar Field, home of the State College Spikes of the New York-Penn Baseball League. It is equipped with low-flow sinks and showers, a system that allows the stadium to reuse gray water for irrigation, and automatic lights as well as 75% of the ballpark being made with recycled materials (50).
Many AHL and NBA G League teams play in arenas with the certification, such as Orleans Arena, home of the Henderson Silver Knights. The arena has achieved the LEED Gold Certification and SHARP Certification for commitments to safe venue operations (21). Additionally, Washington’s Entertainment & Sports Arena, home of the Capital City Go-Go NBA G League team, features green roof areas, onsite storm water retention systems, and energy-efficient systems (12). Achieving LEED certification will continue to be a goal for many sports facilities are stadium/arena updates are needed.
Stadium Lighting. Light-emitting diode (LED) screw-based bulbs are becoming increasingly widespread as an energy-efficient alternative to compact fluorescent (CFL) and incandescent lighting. LED lights use at least 75% less energy and last up to 25 times longer than incandescent lighting, proving to be the more cost-efficient option (45).
Several minor league sports facilities currently utilize LED lighting, spanning from minor league baseball to the AHL. Minor League Baseball facilities with LED lighting include North Augusta GreenJackets’ SRP Park, Round Rock Express Dell Diamond, Salt Lake Bees’ Smith Ballpark, Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp’s Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville, Lowell Spinners’ Edward A. LeLacheur Park, and Wilmington Blue Rocks’ Frawley Stadium (30).
At least ten of the AHL’s 31 arenas now use LED lighting solutions, including Webster Bank Arena in Bridgeport, Connecticut; the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Massachusetts; the Adirondack Bank Center at the Utica Memorial Auditorium in Utica, New York; the Floyd L. Maines Veterans Memorial Arena in Binghamton, New York; Coca-Cola Coliseum in Toronto; Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids, Michigan; and the BMO Harris Bank Center in Rockford, Illinois (4).
There is currently one reported instance of LED lighting in an NBA G League arena, that being the Sears Centre Arena, home to the Windy City Bulls in Chicago, Illinois (13). LED lighting has proven to be a successful strategy in energy conservation and will continue to be a widespread method to support environmental sustainability in the future.
Fertilizer Type and Usage. Organic fertilizers improve soil structure, supply a season-long supply of nutrients, and increase water holding capacity. By using organic fertilizers, many teams have decreased their water usage and minimized nutrient losses. Organic fertilizers also stimulate microbial activity, improve soil structure, and are valuable sources of micro-nutrients to plants (41). Lastly, organic fertilizers increase soil carbon, which reduces atmospheric carbon levels that lead to global warming, reduces soil erosion and runoff, and reduces nitrate leaching (2). Minor league baseball teams that utilize organic fertilizers include the New Hampshire Fisher Cats at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium and the Wilmington (DEL) Blue Rocks (18).
Water Use Reduction. Water usage is another increasingly popular tactic used to lessen the impact and conserve the earth’s resources. There is already a shortage of water, specifically freshwater, since 97% of water is saltwater, and only .5% of the freshwater on earth is safe for drinking, while the remaining 2.5% of freshwater is locked in ice caps, glaciers, the atmosphere, soil, or under the earth’s surface, or is too polluted for consumption (14). With growing population rates, sustaining the supply of drinkable freshwater has become a priority among environmental conservationists.
MiLB’s Lake Elsinore Storm has already released a resource to fans, informing them about the “installation of waterless urinals, reclaimed water irrigation pipes, a tankless water heater, and water-saving sprinkler heads and the implementation of the Evapotranspiration Technology Irrigation System, which provides an exact measurement of necessary water dispersion” (16). These changes have already conserved 25 million gallons of water and saved approximately $100,000 in costs in two year. The Trenton Thunder, also in the MiLB, has sponsored a Clean Water Pledge program providing local students with information about water pollution and rewards those who “pledge” to adopt environmentally sound practices (16).
Use of Renewable Energy. Renewable energy is energy collected from a renewable source, which is not depleted with the use of that energy. Renewable energy is one of the fastest-rising trends in environmental sustainability because nonrenewable energy sources are facing scarcity, especially with increasing energy usage. Some examples of renewable energy are wind and solar power. Examples of non-renewal energy sources are coal, oil, and gas.
The MiLB has noted in their “Green Team” resource that the Spokane Indians have already made this renewable energy tactic a reality, stating that “Avista Stadium will be powered entirely by renewable energy for the 2010 season with assistance from Avista Utilities Corporation and the Avista Buck-A-Block Program” (5). The Chattanooga Lookouts have since joined in the renewable energy trend, being the “first minor league baseball team in America to play a game that is 100 percent carbon-neutral.” This game was possible through energy sourced from EPB of Chattanooga partnered with Tennessee Valley Authority, offered locally-generated solar energy credits (43).
Waste reduction is one of the most popular topics in environmental sustainability because of the ease of implementing strategies to implement it. These strategies reduce the number of materials sent to landfills polluting the earth and atmosphere.
Enhanced In-Stadium Recycling Programs. Recycling is the most popular resource for waste reduction as it is the most straightforward strategy for many businesses and minor league sports teams to execute. Recycling is vital to environmental sustainability because materials such as plastic are not biodegradable, which means they take a very long time if ever to break down. Through recycling, non-biodegradable materials can be repurposed as other products, thus continuing their life cycle rather than polluting the earth. Many minor league teams have developed creative ways to incorporate recycling into their businesses. For example, the Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp minor league baseball team partnered with Advanced Disposal to add a set of recycling bins for ballpark guests to recycle aluminum and plastic, as well as to work with their ‘Clean Team’ to keep the ballpark clean at every game (29).
In the NBA G League (formerly known as the NBA Development League), the Rio Grande Valley Vipers launched G2 (G-squared, which is short for Go Green), during their last two home games of the 2010 season in which students from the University of Texas-Pan American educated fans on what is and what is not recyclable (31). The Idaho Stampede partnered with their local minor league team, the Boise Hawks, to offer a giveaway of recycling bags to the first 100 people in the door as well as “going dark” for the entire hour before the game to reduce energy usage (31). As for the AHL, The Rochester Americans renewed a partnership with Sunnking Electronics Recycling to celebrate Global Recycling Day. When the Americans hosted the Cleveland Monsters at The Blue Cross Arena in March of 2022, with the game featuring ticket deals and a recycling-themed giveaway to promote the importance of recycling and its positive impact worldwide (37).
Changes in Food Packaging. Food packaging is a majority of the waste found in minor league professional sports due to the large number of patrons visiting concessions stands and the large amounts of food obtained at any professional sporting event. Food is an important part of the fan experience for sports teams, so they must be mindful of the amount of waste that can accumulate from wasteful packaging. Reducing the food packaging from stadium concessions can have an immediate and long-lasting impact on the environment (28).
The MiLB Kannapolis Cannon Ballers have worked with Colorado-based Eco-Products to change the majority of their in-stadium food packaging to new items made out of compostable materials. This transformation includes food containers, beer and soda cups, straws and lids, utensils, napkins, and plastic bags. All of these items are now being diverted from the landfill to composting facilities. Further, the team has introduced in-stadium composting material receptacles located beside the existing trash and recycling bins (6).
Use of Paperless Ticketing Systems. Another increasingly popular strategy for waste reduction used across all professional sports is paperless ticketing. With the rapid advancement of technology, paper tickets have come close to being nonexistent for most sports attendees. In 2012, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans minor league baseball team became the first team to offer paperless ticketing, rapidly spreading throughout Minor League Baseball (42). Paperless ticketing is also the standard in the NBA G League, with all teams offering digital tickets to be downloaded to fans’ mobile devices and scanned upon entry. The same trend continues for the AHL; starting in 2012, all teams were able to utilize paperless ticketing to save money and support the environment. Paperless ticketing reduces waste and makes it much harder for fans to lose their tickets, as they are accessible on mobile devices with internet access and scanned upon entry.
Use of Digital Publications. Digital publications, like paperless ticketing, have become an industry standard, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. To reduce surfaces that many people touch, professional sports teams have transferred all their documents, such as schedules and programs, into online platforms. By switching documents that are traditionally paper into digital platforms, sports teams can decrease waste in large quantities (15).
Minor League Baseball uses its online platforms as a database for fans to stay up-to-date on news and events and release information quickly. In 2021, many teams developed digital schedules and programs that fans could find by scanning a QR code that would redirect them to the desired document. In the 2009-2010 season, the AHL became the first organization in professional hockey to make a complete transition to digital publications, reducing paper waste and saving thousands on printing. The AHL also encouraged teams to join the initiative by digitizing media guides and press notes to have “green” press boxes that reduce waste while also sustaining the operations of the sport Z944). The NBA G League has no reports of when they first began utilizing digital publications but, similarly to Minor League Baseball, they have utilized digital publications since the rise of technology. The NBA G League also has an online newsletter, similar to those of Minor League Baseball and the AHL, to keep fans updated on the news in the league and throughout fans’ favorite teams.
The sports industry has a history of contributing a large amount of waste to the environment, and in recent years, many in the sports industry have begun to take social responsibility and develop strategies that will sustain the environment. In addition, sports fans are beginning to take notice of the environmentally friendly practices that many teams are employing. The ability to appeal to sports fans in a value-based way is promising for the business of minor league sports. As the cultural trend toward sustainability increases, all businesses including sports, will need to take notice and adjust their practices accordingly. The previous discussion has shown that minor league sports are well on their way to being sustainable organizations through a variety of activities such as facility matters and waste reduction.
Major league sports teams and leagues have developed sustainability initiatives in response to growing public expectations that they do so. Some of these sustainability initiatives, such as LEED building design or changes in stadium lighting, are capital investments made today to lower the team’s operating costs in the future. Other strategies, such as most waste reduction strategies, require a change in fan and stadium employee behaviors to ensure their success. The most well-designed in-stadium recycling plan will only be successful if fans are purposeful in the recycling of food and drink containers and in-stadium employees facilitate the collection of recyclables. The Myrtle Beach Pelicans, a low-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs, use in-stadium ushers to separately collect trash and recyclables directly from fans while sitting in their seats. By lowering the effort requested of fans, more recyclable content is collected. Further, after-game stadium clean-up is streamlined by the in-game collection of trash and recyclables.
Major sports leagues have developed league-wide programs to guide their sustainability efforts. Many minor league teams and leagues are following their lead. The sustainability initiatives discussed above are widespread across different sports. The diffusion of such practices across teams and leagues suggests we will see their continued (and growing) utilization in the future.
APPLICATION TO SPORT
This study illustrates to decision-makers in minor league sports what their peers are currently doing to support the growing sustainability movement in the United States and Canada. Some strategies outlined above are lower cost items that can be quickly implemented, such as the waste reduction strategies of enhanced recycling programs, digital ticketing, or changes in food and beverage packaging. Other larger facilities-related changes will require leaders to lead and to focus on the longer-term cost reductions and lessened environmental impact such strategies offer.
The focus of this study is minor league sports teams and leagues. Intuitively, we should see the adoption of some of the sustainability strategies discussed here in college sports. Consider, for example, there are currently ten NBA stadiums that have achieved LEED certification (19). There are over 300 Division I basketball teams. To date, a select few college sports stadiums are LEED certified: notably, The Pit at the University of New Mexico; the CU Events Center at the University of Colorado; and the Alaska Airlines Field/Husky Stadium at the University of Washington (39). As universities contemplate replacing or updating older stadiums, some may make the pro-active commitment to LEED design and seek LEED certification of their sports facilities. Upgrades to stadiums may be done with LED lighting. Water and fertilizer usage needs of college athletic departments are likely similar to minor league teams, thus allowing for the adoption of more environmentally friendly alternatives.
Additionally, there are low-cost strategies identified here that high school athletic departments can consider, including all strategies outlined above dealing with waste reduction. For example, plastic straws can be eliminated or replaced by paper. Students can collect recyclables during mid-game stadium sweeps. Paperless ticketing systems can be used by high school students who tend to be very savvy operators of their smart phones.
In society today, athletes and sports teams are often held up as role models. This elevated position and amplified platform can be used to help convince others of the importance of adopting more environmentally-sustainable practices where possible. As fans see their favorite teams and leagues embrace more sustainable practices, it may challenge them to evaluate their own behaviors. Team kids’ programs can incorporate sustainability themes. In-stadium videos of athletes recycling waste or adding content to a compost pile may encourage children to ask their families to behave like their favorite players do. Effective leaders lead. They use their voice to advocate for change and social good. Leaders in sport organizations are encouraged to use their visibility to promote the wider adoption of sustainable strategies throughout the sports industry and broader society.
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