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Guest Column - January 2017

The State of the Sports Turf Management Industry

By Tim VanLoo


It's an exciting time to be a sports field manager. The sports turf industry is evolving as sports continue to be a focus in society. From youth to professional sports, our country spends a lot of time and money to be a part of the joy that competition brings.

A critical component of sports field safety is the role of a sports turf manager. The sports field manager is responsible for providing players with a playing surface that allows them to compete at the highest level, while also trying to help create a fan experience that keeps fans excited about coming to a game. The importance of a sports field manager continues to grow and is not going to pivot in the near future. As the sports turf industry evolves, it will lead to more career opportunities, advancements in turfgrass science and an increased understanding of how sports field managers can keep athletes safe.

The Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) recently surveyed its members on compensation and benefits. Surveys are just a snapshot at one particular time, but for the STMA a survey like this is a tool to track how the industry is progressing. The 2016 survey was compared to an STMA survey in 2012 with many of the same questions. The comparable data demonstrates that the sports turf profession is growing in many ways. In every category of membership (College/University, K-12 Schools, Parks and Recreation and Semi-Pro/Professional), salaries have increased in the past four years. The mean salary of all categories in 2016 increased by almost 10 percent. However, the professional category received the biggest increase at more than 15 percent. The highest compensated category is still Parks and Recreation.

The STMA has a great certification program for sports turf managers who are dedicated to the industry and want to continue to advance the sports turf industry by becoming certified. Attaining status as a Certified Sports Field Manager is also rewarding when it comes to compensation, with CSFMs averaging almost a 10 percent higher salary across the country in the 2016 survey.

The sports turf manager, as a profession, has changed significantly over the years. Turfgrass management is a science that can be studied at many land grant colleges and universities across the country and agriculturally based two-year colleges. What that means for our industry is that we are highly educated and specialized to do our jobs. The 2016 STMA survey showed that 80 percent of members are college-educated and 60 percent have a bachelor's degree or higher. The percentage of educated professionals in the sports turf industry will continue to grow as STMA members continue to advance the industry with the growth of turfgrass management.

Turfgrass science is the combination of soil and plant knowledge. In other words, it's a combination of agronomy and horticulture. Athletic field managers are being asked to do more on their fields than ever before. With increased game and practice usage, external events and other miscellaneous activities, maintaining athletic fields for athletes continues to be the highest priority. Turfgrass professionals continue to advance the industry by adapting new research ideas and specialized equipment.

Years ago when the sports turf profession was in its infancy, these high-level tools for sports fields weren't available. Many of the tools that were being used had been taken from the golf course industry. Today, we are far from that reality. The technical equipment that has been designed specifically for advancing the sports turf management industry is remarkable. Availability of this equipment combined with more educated sports turf professionals is one of the primary reasons that athletic fields are now being showcased everywhere. The high-quality fields are not just available for college and professional athletes anymore. Athletes at all levels are enjoying the benefits of highly maintained grass surfaces.

Safety is not just a buzzword in the sports turf industry. It is absolutely a priority for all athletic field managers. There is rarely something done to a field that doesn't have an impact on safety. Making sure that the fields are smooth, consistent and playable is always the goal. As our profession is advancing, with safety being such a huge part of our focus, it's only reasonable that we are gravitating toward being an extension of the medical staff in many of our organizations. Many athletic field managers work closely with their team's athletic trainers to make sure that field management practices are positively impacting the athletes. This relationship is also being used within different departments at major universities like kinesiology and horticulture. Scientists are combing their specialties to advance player safety during sports activities. This relationship is helping increase understanding of how inputs to athletic fields really affect things like traction and surface hardness on athletes in real-world situations, possibly preventing injuries in the future. The advancement of shared ideas across sciences will help keep athletes safer, which will continue to push the athletic field manager to prepare fields that are as safe as possible during field usage.

The athletic field manager is simply an important part of outdoor sports. S/he is tasked with many jobs and priorities that won't be going away anytime soon. Specialized professionals who are dedicated to safe playing surfaces for athletes will only be more important as sports continue to evolve. Sports fields are being constructed or maintained across the country for youth, college and professional athletes; these fields are highly specialized and it takes an expert to manage them for safety, consistency and playability.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tim VanLoo, Certified Sports Field Manager, is manager of Athletic Turf and Grounds at Iowa State University and president-elect of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA). He arrived at the Athletic Department in March 2010. VanLoo oversees Jack Trice Stadium, Johnny Majors Practice Facility, Cyclone Sports Complex (soccer/track/softball), Bergstrom Multi-purpose Indoor Facility and all other athletic department grounds.