Feature Article - July/August 2004
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Special Supplement:
Recreation Management’s Complete Guide to Sports Surfaces and Flooring

By Margaret Ahrweiler

Tough turf

For outdoor sports fields, surfacing choices generally consisted of grass or mud. Today, more and more sports field managers with the budget to do so are considering synthetic turf. Born in the 1960s, the stuff once derided as destroying the knees of many a pro athlete has found new acceptance with new technologies and a new market. High-school and recreational facilities with busy sport field schedules and limited space are finding that synthetic turf can withstand nonstop pounding that would tear up natural grass. Instead of limiting usage to keep a field pristine for football, synthetic fields can withstand usage that starts with an 8 a.m. physical-education class and ends with Friday night varsity football. And in a society that is building environmental awareness, many users are glad to say goodbye to fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides.

Synthetic turf first made inroads as a solution in harsh climates where it is hard to grow and maintain natural grass but is gaining popularity in a variety of weather zones. The most sophisticated turf systems are designed to duplicate how grass reacts to players and balls, in the way its cushioning, slip resistance, "give," and ball bounce, roll and return.

Manufacturers now offer a number of different systems, with varying grass fibers and shock-absorption subsurfaces, to try and mimic the feel of natural grass. The two most common systems are conventional, or sandless systems, applied on a concrete base, and infill systems, applied atop sand or dirt.

Grass fibers, which can be made of polypropylene, nylon or a blend of the two, can be assembled in several ways. Some systems knit fibers together, while others feature fiber "tufts," similar to what carpeting looks like. Some products even feature shock-absorbing infill materials between each fiber to mimic the play of grass.

In addition to the turf fibers, several options are available for the underlayers. These shock-absorbing systems include closed-cell foam pads, SBR rubber sheets or cast-in-place elastic materials, called an e-layer. A turf system can even incorporate all these. More basic methods depend simply on the underlying infill to provide shock absorption.

The next consideration is installation methods. When installing the turf mats, the seams can be glued or sewn together. Glue requires less expertise and costs less, while sewn seams are more expensive but can provide a superior finish. Finally, the striping can consist of painted lines, which are less expensive and easier to change, or inlaid lines, which are more permanent and durable but can create additional seams in the turf.

For its ability to withstand nonstop play, synthetic turf is gaining a solid fan base. Mark Uyl has seen his share of synthetic turf installations as assistant director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, and he likes what he sees. The MHSAA hosted about 30 percent of its football tournament games on synthetic turf fields, and he expects that figure to grow. For state championship play, he likes the way synthetic turf evens the playing field.

"We want to know that the teams determine who is going to win or lose, not the playing surface," he says.

Synthetic turf also evens the playing field between sports, he adds. Before joining the MHSAA, Uyl served as athletic director at Thornapple Kellogg High School in Michigan and sold his community on synthetic turf to ensure that the soccer team got an improved playing field, after playing second fiddle to football. With the new turf, both sports could use the same surface that was previously restricted to football.

Drawbacks to synthetic turf do exist. While it requires no mowing, watering or fertilizing, it hates what real grass loves: sun. Ultraviolet rays can weaken the grass fibers, making them brittle and discolored. The turf's underlaying system can become compacted, reducing its cushioning. Seams can wear through and fiber loss can create bare spots, like an aging carpet.

While prices are dropping, a good synthetic football field can cost around $600,000. As with other systems, the best way to find the right surface is to break out the football or soccer ball and take a number of surfaces for a test play. Different manufacturers can suggest fields in your area; state athletic associations can also steer you toward synthetic fields. And these facilities' owners can also provide real-life advice on qualified installers—do it yourself or the local landscape crews are not and option with these sophisticated systems.

Those who cannot afford synthetic turf or prefer real grass can still reap its benefits: Ground crews frustrated with the thankless task of field striping can install line stripes and other markings made of synthetic turf, which can be embedded into fields.