SPECIAL SUPPLEMENT
A Complete Guide to Sports Surfaces and Flooring

Sure Footing

By Kyle Ryan

In the city of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, temperatures average above 90 degrees for 213 days a year. From May to August, high temperatures average above 100 degrees. Cloud cover? Negligible—the city only gets about 20 days or so with rain annually.

The climate, obviously, is punishing for anything that has to bear the elements. When the city decided to build Comiche Park, a new area with recreational facilities and a cycling and walking path, it needed a strong surface to use on the trail, not something that would deteriorate when faced with UV rays. Planners eventually settled on a nonabrasive, reinforced acrylic coating designed to withstand the elements and numerous types of activities.

Will it work? As summer continues on in the Middle East, park managers should find out pretty quickly. While not all environments are as extreme as Abu Dhabi's, that doesn't mean managers of a climate-controlled indoor track in San Diego should do any less research before resurfacing. Choose the wrong type of

surface, and people will stay away from it, and that means less revenue. Choose the right surface but have the wrong installation or maintenance methods—same scenario.

There are a number of factors that determine what type of surface will work for each part of a facility. Not surprisingly, the process has grown more complex as technology has advanced—but that also means more opportunities to create the perfect fit.

D.J. Bosse, owner of Bosse Sports, a health club in Sudbury, Mass., saw the potential when he opened his club two years ago.

"The whole key was to differentiate my club from other clubs, and [I thought] I could differentiate my club through surfaces," he says. "The philosophy across the board is to really have a high-end finish throughout the club, and you bring that in through surfaces."

FIRST PRINCIPLES

Track designer Don Paige has a simple motto: safety first, functionality second, maintenance third. Although he's referring to his personal guiding principles when it comes to track-and-field design, the advice works for anything—who wouldn't want a safe, functional, low-maintenance surface?

"If it's not safe, nobody will ever use it," says Paige, who's president of the Paige Design Group in Bahama, N.C. "After we know it's safe, the next thing we look at from our sports side is the functionality of it, which makes sure it's as functional as possible. The third thing we always try to look at is making sure it's maintenance-friendly. We try to make sure the facilities don't require a lot of maintenance because maintenance can become very costly, and schools don't have the proper maintenance personnel to maintain a facility."

A really nice surfacing system will fall into disrepair if a facility is ill-equipped to handle it. Luckily, though, as technology creates more durable and versatile materials, it's also creating more hassle-free ways to keep them in good condition.

Using those three rules as guidelines for new surface systems will help you find the right one—and it has to be unanimous. A surface that's functional and safe but requires too much maintenance won't work. Neither will a somewhat functional, low-maintenance surface that's unsafe. If it's not all three, it wasn't meant to be.


SPORTS SURFACES GUIDING PRINCIPLES

1. SAFETY: Unsafe facilities don't get used.

2. FUNCTIONAL: Make sure the surface will do the job it needs to do.

3. LOW MAINTENANCE: The less maintenance involved, the better.


COURTS IN SESSION
TENNIS

Dick Gould has worked for Stanford University's tennis program for nearly four decades, so he has witnessed the evolution of court surfacing over the years. His tenure is comparatively brief compared to the concrete foundations of most of his courts, which have been there since 1926 and still are used today. When Gould went to Stanford in the 1950s, he played on concrete, which probably sounds barbaric to people accustomed to today's comfy surfaces.

"The concrete would wear smooth," he says. "They'd get like glass, and we'd have to sandblast them to get a little roughness on them so that you wouldn't be slipping and sliding around, especially when the courts got a little dirty."

In the 1960s, with the advent of acrylic finishes, the courts became more forgiving and less of a pain to maintain. The acrylics could be mixed with sand for gripping power and painted onto the courts. By adjusting the size of the sand granules, facility operators could vary the speed of the court: The bigger and more plentiful granules per square inch, the slower the court.

With the development of full synthetic systems, Gould finally found what he considered the perfect surface. It played better, and it looked better.

"We could color the courts," he says. "They were green and red, and now they're green and lighter green. But that's aesthetically been very pleasing because our backdrops and windscreens are all green as well, and the seats are all green. It's a nice aesthetic feeling on the court."

More important, though, were the seemingly endless options for playing. The courts could be personalized to a facility operator's exact specifications.

"You had the ability to make it a rather slow court or even a medium slow court or a fast slow court or a slow fast court as you wish by controlling the mixture," Gould says. "They've gotten pretty scientific about this."

No kidding. When D.J. Bosse opened his health club, the former tennis pro wanted his nine indoor courts to feel just like the ones he played on at the Australian Open in 1990 and 1992.

"I wanted our speed to be the exact same speed as the Australian Open center court," Bosse says. "So that's the actual speed that my courts are, but you can adjust it by taking some sand out of the mix."

Some elite players use his courts, but so do a lot of people who just enjoy playing tennis. He wanted durable courts that played like professional ones but were comfortable and forgiving. He found what he needed.

"The cushioning and the give, it makes members feel like they are playing on clay," Bosse says. "But you know, it really plays like a hard court, which makes it very nice. It isn't for everyone because it's an expensive court, but in the long run, it's a no-brainer to put in a system like this."

Hard courts play well with people who don't have to spend all day on them, but for instructors, they can be unforgiving.

"It's actually making a big difference on my instructors and my teachers," Bosse says. "I used to teach 40, 50 hours a week, and on the hard court, I could feel it when I get home, where as on [this one], you really don't."

Bosse's courts are protected from the elements, so he expects to get about seven to 10 years out of his surface. The rubber mat that provides some of the cushioning underneath the top surface layer has a 30-year life. Out in Palo Alto, Gould expects to get about five years out of his court surfaces.

"I try to do it budget-wise every five years," he says. "At the end of the five years, if they're still playing pretty well, or if sometimes it's a tough budget crunch, we'll go six or seven years. They still play pretty well. But after seven or eight years, they start showing their wear pretty definitively."

"As the dust gets in the surface as you play on it, gradually any kind of artificial surface that's on a base will give way," he says. "It gets a little slick as the sand wears smoother over the years. It'll get a little slick, a little slippery especially if the courts aren't kept reasonably clean."

The process is a gradual one, of course, but Gould keeps a close eye on how well the courts play.

His cleaning method is as about as low-tech as it gets: a water hose. The cleaning staff comes in once a week and hoses the courts down. In Sudbury, Bosse keeps the courts free from debris and gives them a pressure wash once a year.

Perhaps most surprising about Gould's courts, specifically their concrete foundations, is that they've somehow made it for 80 years. Although the concrete has rebar reinforcement, it sits on top of adobe soil, which has a habit of expanding and contracting that leads to cracks in the concrete and on the playing surface itself. Gould just accepts their inevitability.

"We have cracks in the court, and no matter how much you do resurfacing, you're going to have those cracks," he says. "They're not bad cracks; they don't affect play. You resurface them, and for a while at least the cracks don't crack the surface. But you'll see little spider marks where the cracks appear over time. But that's not a playing problem."

Gould suspects soil caused problems with some of the school's asphalt-foundation courts as well. Long ago, a farm stood on the land now used by Stanford. Mixed in with the soil was a lot of manure, which Gould thinks caused methane gas to bubble up through the asphalt. Fixing it required a pretty involved process.

"I think the point is any time you have courts, you have to be pretty careful about where you put them down," he says. "We haven't had any problems with them after the first couple of years."

Gould avoided asphalt altogether on some newer courts at Stanford that use post-tension concrete and are basically crack-proof, he says. Even though the courts can take a lot of abuse, Gould doesn't take any chances. Only tennis is allowed on the courts. The same goes for the ones at the Bosse Sports Club.


SURFACE SPEAK

Studying your vocabulary can take you far in the hunt for the right surface. If you understand these terms, you can better understand what a manufacturer is trying to tell you—or sell you—and communicate more effectively with your building team.

POINT ELASTIC SURFACE   A surface that bends at the point of pressure and absorbs energy. Most synthetic surfaces belong to this category.

AREA ELASTIC SURFACE   A rigid, nonbending surface that yields gradually to pressure and can return energy, such as wood floors

COMPOSITE SURFACE   A surface with characteristics of both point and area elasticity, often a synthetic surface over wood

RESILIENCE   A floor's ability to bend or give. Synthetic surfaces often have greater resiliency than wood.

MOISTURE CONTENT   The weight of water contained in wood flooring, as a percentage of a kiln-dried sample

SLEEPER SYSTEM   Wood flooring system where the wood strips are installed atop strips of wood studs

PANEL SYSTEM   Wood flooring system where the wood strips are installed atop sheets of other material, often plywood

ANCHORED SYSTEM   Wood flooring system where the wood strips are installed atop sheets of other materials, often plywood, with 2-by-3 "sleepers" under the plywood, then mechanically attached to the subsurface

ACCLIMATIZATION   The process where wood flooring materials must sit in the facility for a number of days to adjust to moisture levels

FORCE REDUCTION   The ability of a sports floor to absorb the shock of impact, compared to a nonresilient floor

BALL REBOUND   The percentage to which a ball bounces back to the height from where it is dropped, compared to a nonresilient floor such as concrete. Ball rebound, or bounce, should be at least 90 percent on a basketball surface.

STANDARD DEFORMATION   The depth to which a floor indents under a load of weight

DEFORMATION CONTROL   The spread of a deformation, or the area it covers, when a floor indents under a load of weight

DUROMETER   This measures surface hardness. Its value is expressed as "Shore A." A synthetic floor may have a durometer of 55 Shore A, the higher the number, the softer the floor.

SLIDING BEHAVIOR   The distance a floor can permit an athlete's foot to turn or purposely slide, while preventing uncontrolled sliding. DIN standards require floors to have a sliding distance of 0.4 to 0.6 meters.

EPDM    Ethylene propylene diene monomer, a type of synthetic rubber flooring that comes in granule form

SBR   Styrene butadiene rubber, another granulized form of synthetic rubber

PVC   Polyvinyl chloride, a common form of synthetic flooring that, yes, is the same stuff that is used for plumbing pipes

POLYPROPYLENE   Another form of plastic, often used for flooring squares or tiles

PREFABRICATED SHEET SYSTEMS OR SHEET GOODS   Synthetic flooring manufactured off-site and delivered in rolls or sheets

CAST-IN-PLACE SYSTEMS   Also known as poured-in-place or full-pour systems, these are synthetic flooring systems created on site by covering the floor in a liquid that hardens into a seam-free surface.

VULCANIZED RUBBER   This can be the real thing: natural rubber used for point-elastic surfaces. Technically, rubber is not a synthetic, but this type of flooring falls under the synthetic category since it's not wood. Synthetic vulcanized rubber also exists.


BACKGROUND PHOTO: When owner D.J. Bosse opened his health club in Sudbury, Mass., two years ago, he wanted the tennis courts to look and play just like the ones he played on in the Australian open in the early 1990s. The club features nine indoor courts.

PHOTO COURTESY OF BOSSE SPORTS


BASKETBALL

According to the National Sporting Goods Association, 9.6 million people played tennis more than once in 2003; that's down from 14.2 million in 1993. But basketball has more or less held steady over the past decade; 29.6 million played in 1993, and 27.9 million played last year.

Especially on campuses, basketball remains both a popular participatory sport and spectator sport. For indoor basketball surfaces, wood (generally maple) reigns as the standard—and for good reason. Wood looks good, can outlive its building (it generally has a life span of 40 years), is durable and has a long, extensive history with sports.

Of course, wood has its own drawbacks. For one, it's relatively high maintenance. Water can destroy it, and not just through leaks or pooling; humidity can warp wood just as well. Installing it takes skill and time, too. Wood also can be more pricey, from $10 to $14 per square foot, depending on the system. An NBA/NCAA-regulation court, at 94 feet long by 50 feet wide, creates 4,700 square feet of space, so even a third-tier wood surface could cost about $47,000. (Smaller high-school courts do not save much; they're only 10 feet shorter.) A good synthetic system only may cost half that.

The subsystem—what goes beneath the surface—makes or breaks a wood floor. Without a good one, wood absorbs impact poorly and is susceptible to moisture from below. Subsystems generally consist of wood or synthetic layering that may or may not be anchored to synthetic studs or the concrete base. Free-floating (that is, unanchored) systems generally cost less, with anchored systems being the most expensive.

What lurks underneath the wooden strips of flooring plays a critical role, but people don't see that part. They see the wood, and that wood's quality depends on its grade: one, two or three. When people watch NCAA or NBA games on TV, they see grade one, the best-looking, palest and most expensive of the grades. Cost and quality drop, and color darkens, as grade numbers increase. A basketball court need not be the same grade everywhere, though. It makes sense (and saves money) to use lower grade wood in the out-of-bounds areas because no one plays there.

Wood also needs protection, both when in use and during off-hours. Just like a wooden patio deck needs treatment to keep moisture out, wood floors need a finish to do the same and resist stains and scuffing. Floors can be coated with a special urethane/acrylic finish (usually a couple times), sometimes with a catalyst to ensure the necessary chemical reactions take place. It can take several hours between coats, and it usually needs at least a day before the court is ready for traffic.

After all of this happens, wood still needs a lot of TLC. Humidity must be monitored at all times, and the court has to stay clean. Considering water is wood's arch enemy, a simple mop and bucket of water aren't good options. Some damp-mop (that is, low-moisture) cleaning solutions seem to work pretty well, though. Regular cleaning will extend a court's life and protect its finish.

Keeping people off between games and practices will help, too, which is why there are numerous court covers on the market. They're generally big tarps stored on rollers. After an event, a few people simply pull the tarps off the rollers. A complete system can cost a few thousand dollars, and storing the rollers can be a hassle—but, of course, replacing a floor is an even bigger, more expensive hassle.


PLAYGROUND SURFACES

The young'uns have their own surfacing needs, especially when it comes to playgrounds. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 200,000 kids ages 14 and younger are treated for playground-related injuries in emergency rooms every year. About 45 percent of those injuries are severe, such as fractures, internal injuries, concussions, dislocations and even amputations.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has a mind-numbing set of rules specifying shock-absorbency, height restrictions, surfacing materials and more. But they are critical to follow—and not just out of human kindness. These injuries cost about a billion dollars annually.

The CPSC breaks surfacing materials into two groups: unitary and loose-fill. Unitary materials are rubber mats or poured in place surfacing. Loose-fill materials absorb shock when deep enough, and they include sand, gravel, shredded wood and recycled-rubber nuggets.


ORGANIC LOOSE MATERIAL: wood chips, mulch, bark

  • INSTALLATION/MAINTENANCE: It needs a barrier, and it needs to have good drainage beneath it. It also will require periodic addition of more of the material and constant supervision to remove foreign materials.
  • ADVANTAGES: Less expensive, easy to install, drains relatively easily, not abrasive and readily available
  • DISADVANTAGES: Environmental/weather factors can decrease its cushioning ability. Kids and weather will displace the material, which means it will need to be replaced. It also decomposes and compacts over time, and it conceals trash and animal excrement. Youngsters also can swallow the stuff, and when it's wet, microbial growth can be a problem.

INORGANIC LOOSE MATERIAL: sand, gravel

  • INSTALLATION/MAINTENANCE: It shouldn't be installed over existing hard surfaces, and it also needs a good drainage system. Because it's loose material, it also needs a containment system. It requires constant maintenance (leveling, grading, sifting, raking) to make sure it stays at the appropriate depth and to remove foreign matter.
  • ADVANTAGES: Cheap, easy to install, doesn't pulverize. Microbial growth isn't really an issue, and it's readily available.
  • DISADVANTAGES: Same as organic loose material. Also, when sand is wet, its cushioning ability suffers. Animals love to use it as their personal bathrooms.

UNITARY SYNTHETIC MATERIAL: rubber mats, tiles, poured-in-place polyurethane

  • INSTALLATION/MAINTENANCE: Fairly easy on all accounts. Loose material, such as rubber nuggets, needs some kind of containment, though.
  • ADVANTAGES: Easily cleaned, consistent shock-absorbency. If it's a mat or tile, it won't easily be displaced or hide foreign objects. Flat surfaces also are more universally accessible.
  • DISADVANTAGES: The initial cost is more expensive than other options. If the materials are thin, they will need some shock-absorbing material underneath them. Some are susceptible to damage from frost.

Information provided by Consumer Product Safety Commission


STAYING ON TRACK

For most people, track meets aren't particularly exciting events. They can be difficult to follow, tedious and exhausting—and that's just for the athletes. But track and field, with its numerous sports occurring simultaneously, requires a complex playing arena, especially at the collegiate level. Perhaps no element is more critical than the playing surfaces. Don Paige has experienced it from both sides. A member of the 1980 Olympic Team that boycotted the games in Moscow and a six-time NCAA champion, Paige knows track and field inside and out.

"It's a very technical sport," Paige says. "Track and field is a very complex sport because it does have running, jumping and throwing. It's a lot of events, boys and girls—most sports are not co-ed like that."

Start with the track surface. It essentially needs to have three characteristics: resiliency (soft and not causing injury), good return of energy (that is, send back the energy it absorbs when a foot hits it) and a certain coefficient of friction (a good grip).

"We don't want the track material to be as hard as a concrete sidewalk, and we don't want it to be as soft as a sandy beach," Paige says.

Finding that perfect balance is literally a science. There are essentially four types of surfaces: asphalt, latex, rubber and polyurethane. The last two are the most prevalent, and Paige avoids asphalt and latex altogether. Asphalt may work for many things, but not running, he says, and latex has its own problems.

"The material changes resilience with temperature, and that's not good for an athlete," Paige says. "So on a cold day, the track is firm. On a warm day, the track is very soft or mushy."

In the polyurethane world, there are basically three levels of products, according to Paige (lowest to highest quality): basemat with structural spray, a sandwich system and a full-depth polyurethane system.

A basemat system consists of a layer of rubber granules (up to a half-inch or 13 millimeters deep) bound together by polyurethane, with a top coating of colored polyurethane for stripes or graphics that leaves the surface porous. In a sandwich system, three layers come together to create a cushier surface: a base layer of rubber granules, a sealant layer of polyurethane and top level of colored specially formulated polyurethane. The full-pour system uses two bigger layers of rubber granules in addition to a polyurethane top coat.

Sound redundant? Just think of them as gradually nicer versions of the same thing.

"A good analogy is you can look at the different price breaks between the Ford automobiles," Paige says. "You could probably buy a $15,000 Ford, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40. They're all based on different quality and different levels for different owners. Not everybody wants to buy a high-end Ford product—not everybody drives an SUV for $40,000. Some people drive the Ford Escort, and so that's just what the polyurethane wanted to do."

Installing a track surface is mostly a low-tech, labor-intensive process. For all the science behind it, installation more or less comes down to a guy with a cement mixer and a squeegee. Polyol and isocyanate are mixed to create a viscous solution that is applied with a brush or squeegee across the surface. The liquid is moisture-cured, meaning it reacts with temperature and humidity to harden into its usable form.

"People look at that and say, 'Boy, I wouldn't have thought that's how they do that,'" Paige says. "They dump it into a wheelbarrow…and he goes out and he dumps it onto the track. Then a guy with a squeegee on a pole goes back and forth and squeegees it down on the asphalt surface."

That's where it can get really complicated. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and the NCAA have incredibly strict guidelines for the sloping and setup of track-and-field areas. For example, the outside running lane to the inside running lane cannot have a slope that exceeds one in 100, or 1 percent. In field events, the surfaces cannot be downhill more than one in 1,000.

"I have a good idea that maybe the desk that you're sitting at may not meet the one in 1,000 tolerance," Paige says. "These are stricter than airport runways, and so the synthetic-surfacing vendors put these products down by hand because they're trying to make sure they match the elevations that are required for the NCAA and IAAF. It's a very demanding, technical sport, and that's what a lot of people don't understand."

Getting those settings correct involves some high-tech gear like sensitive laser levels, but contractors also should be familiar with their materials—the exact specs of any base stone or asphalt, the exact depth of any polyurethane.

Not surprisingly, it's a time-intensive process, and facility managers often underestimate just how long it will take. Schools mostly try to finish during the summer, when it won't make a difference to have the track closed off for a couple of months. But managers routinely fail to give themselves enough time.

"Say I was going to a track in Chicago, and the coach or the athletic director says, 'Hey, I need it done for spring track season 2006,'" Paige says. "A lot of people think, 'Well, we've got plenty of time.' Well, you don't. I have to be done with that project in Chicago probably no later than October 15th or October 30th because winter's coming. So now you talk to the owner. You say, 'Hey, the schedule is October 15th, and it's going to take six months to build the track,' and immediately you can see the athletic director say, 'Geez, I need a general contractor on board here by June 15th, you know?' And now all of a sudden all these bells and whistles go off—'Whoa, we're behind the eight ball.'"

Starting late can be an expensive proposition as well because vendors often price their work according to season. Here's a hint: It doesn't get cheaper as the weather gets colder. Reprising his Chicago example, Paige points out that a project that begins in September only has through October to work—then it's a long break as November, December, January, February and March pass. And April's no guarantee, either. That's a long time for a work hiatus, and a number of things can go wrong during it.

Protecting the track once installed can be a tough proposition. After all, outdoor tracks get no breaks from the elements. But maintaining them isn't terribly complicated; Paige recommends keeping the surface free from debris and power-washing it a couple of times a year. Taking simple steps like removing grass clippings from an outdoor track after the field has been mowed can go a long way to extend its longevity.

Speaking of longevity, just how long do these tracks have? The standard industry warranty is five years, though Paige says some full-pour polyurethane tracks can last up to three times that long. Really, though, it's anyone's guess.

"It's hard to put a number of years to a product based on two factors: climate and usage," Paige says. "You know, some facilities, they're only open for the track team during practice, say from 2 o'clock in the afternoon to 6 o'clock in the evening. Some facilities are open 24-7, and the local communities use them…so as usage increases, the product's going to wear quicker. It's only common sense."

So is the climate factor. Tracks in sunny, temperate and dry San Diego don't have the vicious freeze/thaw cycles of a midwestern winter or the scorching heat of a Nevada summer. An outdoor surface's two biggest enemies are the sun and water, especially when water changes from liquid to solid during a day.

Ultraviolet rays from the sun break surfaces down by gradually weakening the polyurethane. UV-stable formulas have become more common, though, which also help tracks maintain their colors. In the past, you could have any color of track you wanted, so long as it was red or black. But these days, schools can match their colors or try other eye-catching things with their surfaces, creating aesthetic options that were previously impossible.


AS FAST AS MERCURY

How one sports surfacing system developed half a century ago still lurks

Synthetic track surfaces now usually have a five-year warranty, though if well-maintained, they can last many years beyond that. Still, in a weird reversal of technological evolution, they don't compare to one of their predecessors.

In the 1950s, 3M and a company called MCP Industries created an athletic surface called Tartan, which was originally designed for horse tracks and stalls (the running boom wouldn't arrive for another 25 years). Tartan became the standard for polyurethane athletic surfacing; it was durable, long-lasting and high-performance.

And loaded with mercury. Those were heady days, back when the EPA didn't exist yet. Everyone knows how mercury's story ends, though, and those mercury-filled tracks eventually became hazardous material. Not only was there a health risk, but Tartan tracks also had a tendency to return to their initial liquid stage, a process called reversion.

"A good analogy is it starts to turn to bubble gum," says Don Paige of Paige Design Group in Bahama, N.C.

Most of the old Tartan surfaces have been removed, and a mercury-free version is now on the market. The old ones still pop up every now and then, Paige says, like when a 200-meter indoor Tartan track at Syracuse University had to be removed two years ago.

Once removed, the material is disposed into a special haz-mat landfill or burned in a special incinerator.

"One of the things we point out [to owners] is don't expect this product to last 25 years like your last product did because it's not as durable," says Paige of modern synthetic systems. "It doesn't hold up as well as the Tartan product—those heavy metals, they were truly helping the product last longer."


Top Left: Golf surfacing at play in Santa Barbara, Calif.

PHOTO COURTESY OF VERSASPORT INTERNATIONAL

Middle Right: The University of Illinois Armory in Champaign, Ill.

PHOTO COURTESY OF BEYNON SPORTS SURFACES, INC.

Middle Left: Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, installed a rubber and sand infill system with a 10 mm underpad. The 102,000-square-foot field includes inlaid game markings for football and white end zones with lettering.

PHOTO COURTESY OF SURFACE AMERICA

Bottom: Forget green or red, now even purple has its place on the tennis court.

PHOTO COURTESY OF SPORTMASTER

HOME TURF

AstroTurf, so named because its first large-scale installation occurred with the opening of the AstroDome in Houston in 1966, generally was not a popular product among athletes. The Astros baseball team had it easy compared to their football-playing dome-mates, the Oilers. Some players described the experience as getting tackled on carpeted concrete.

During its heyday in the '70s and '80s, AstroTurf was so successful that more than 20 other companies developed competing products. Today, none of them remains. AstroTurf itself has limited use; the company that owns it now markets it as a grass-replacement system for homeowners who don't want the hassle of yard maintenance.

But synthetic turf hasn't gone away; it's just become even more high-tech. Where AstroTurf attempted to simulate grass in carpet form, new turf systems try to mimic grass and soil's structure and feel. A sea of synthetic grass blades rests on top of layers of sand and rubber granules, recreating a well-kept grass playing field without the problems that accompany a grass playing field. These systems have become incredibly popular. In fact, it's used just across the parking lot from the AstroDome at Reliant Stadium, home to the Texans NFL franchise.

Its use isn't limited to high-profile professional sports teams or universities, though. In the Centennial Common complex in University City, Mo., (a tiny suburb of St. Louis), Heman Park has incorporated high-tech synthetic turf on its indoor soccer field.

Park operators converted the soccer field from an outdoor, NHL-sized hockey rink in the 1980s. When they recently planned to add a new addition to the field, they began investigating surfacing possibilities.

"Some had shorter blades, some had more of a sand base than a rubber base, some just were hard as rock," says Nancy MacCartney, director of parks, recreation and forestry for University City. "You know, we've got thousands of kids playing all winter long; we wanted to make sure we had a safe surface."

They also needed turf with strong playability.

"Is it so deep that you can't use it for other applications?" MacCartney says. "If it's too deep, the ball gets bogged down; the players get bogged down. It's too thin, and the ball just scoots away. I played indoor soccer on hard gym floors—that was many years ago—but the ball was much faster."

Once MacCartney and park officials found what they wanted, subcontractors from the turf's manufacturer installed it themselves, a key benefit for a complex surfacing systems. Who knows how to install it better than the manufacturer's own people? They laid strips of the bladed, plastic turf and sewed or glued them together before adding the layers of fill material. The whole process, which MacCartney describes as "seamless," took about a week and cost less than she expected.

"I had heard of very expensive applications," she says. "I know the St. Louis Rams are looking at a system that comes on pallets, and they're looking at the million-dollar range because they have to move it on and off of the floor that's used by conventions. We did ours, including all the lighting and ventilation, for about $160,000."

With such a high-tech and complex turf system, people might expect maintaining it to be a hassle. So far, though, MacCartney has no complaints. The turf came with a special groomer that helps evenly distribute the rubber granules. In Heman Park's case, the area in front of the goals tends to lose its fillings the quickest. MacCartney expects to need to add granules to the field every couple of years.

"It goes home in the kids' shoes, so we have to go ahead and add some at some point," MacCartney says. "We haven't had to do it yet."

Considering people play one sport and only one sport on Heman Park's field, such periodic maintenance should be infrequent. Park managers allowed people to play broomball on the old field, but they stopped that with the installation of the new turf. They also keep food and drinks off the field.

"You can get to the point where it's multipurpose, and it's useless to everybody," MacCartney says. "So this is an indoor soccer field."

Being indoors also helps keep maintenance easy. Outside, the turf would face St. Louis' often-inhospitable climate: hot and humid in the summer and cold in the winter. UV rays degrade the turf's effectiveness and shorten its life span. Newer turfs have become more UV-resistant, but the sun remains surfaces' no. 1 enemy.

Weather conditions aren't as much of a problem as may be expected. Facility operators can plow snow on most synthetic turf systems, which was a problem on natural grass. As long as there's a proper drainage system, rain usually isn't an issue, either.

The Bosse Sports Club's 25,000-square-foot golf learning center is protected from both UV rays and inclement weather, which freed owner D.J. Bosse from a whole set of worries as he considered his surface options.

The golf center features a driving range, putting greens, bunkers (with sand from New England and Florida) and a golf simulator. The playing greens use a special golf turf.

"It's very realistic from a playing standpoint because you can make the fibers longer and add sand into it, so it's sand-filled, and it's fairly realistic," Bosse says. "It's really not far off from, you know, being on real grass."

But 25,000 square feet is a lot of space, and when specialty golf turf costs $8 to $10 per square foot, financial expenditures can quickly become unwieldy. However, the whole place didn't need to be wall-to-wall golf turf, so Bosse used asphalt with a specially treated top coat in walking areas.

"In the areas where people can walk, it's unnecessarily expensive," Bosse says. "That's when I used the filler and finish coat, and I spent my money on getting a really top-notch area for the golfers."

Maintaining the golf learning center isn't difficult, either. Usually it's just a matter of controlling the sand that gets tracked around it.

"We just vacuum it, and we're in business," Bosse says.


SEPARATE BUT EQUAL?

Last year, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill that requires state facilities to provide, among other things, similar playing surfaces for both young male and female athletes. The legislature mandated that parks and rec facilities make funds, staff and resources available for equal distribution to both genders.

So whatever the boys have needs to be available to the girls as well. The bill, also known as AB 2404, specified that courts should consider 12 factors in civil suits. Of particular relevance to sports surfaces are numbers six, eight and nine.

1.

   

Whether the selection of community youth athletics programs offered effectively accommodate the athletic interests and abilities of members of both genders.

2.

   

The provision of moneys, equipment, and supplies.

3.

   

Scheduling of games and practice times.

4.

   

Opportunity to receive coaching.

5.

   

Assignment and compensation of coaches.

6.

   

Access to lands and areas accessed through permitting, leasing, or other land use arrangements, or otherwise accessed through cities, counties, and special districts.

7.

   

Selection of the season for a sport.

8.

   

Location of the games and practices.

9.

   

Locker rooms.

10.

   

Practice and competitive facilities.

11.

   

Publicity.

12.

   

Officiation by umpires, referees, or judges who have met training and certification standards.


SURFACES THAT SHARE

Although professional sports arenas have moved away from multisport facilities—even pro soccer teams demand their own stadiums now—in the real world, people and sports have to share, especially when space is a premium.

"When you talk to a high school or a university or a college, it's very important to identify the users and the priority of those users," Paige says. "Because rarely are they treated as all equal, and they shouldn't be. If it's a varsity complex, well then varsity sports are going to take precedence."

A general student recreation center, such as the Center for Physical Education and Sports (CEPSUM) at the Université de Montréal, has a little bit of everything. Looking at the multicolored lines that crisscross the floor, it's a wonder that people can keep them straight. There's a big, solid blue rectangle bordered by a white stripe in the middle of the court for volleyball. There are black lines around the very outside of the court and forming basketball keys on both ends. Then there are red lines (volleyball again) and a patchwork of orange ones (badminton).

The school's students have no complaints, though, especially when comparing it to the 30-year-old surface it replaced in 2003. The 25,000-square-foot playing area (spread across a main gym and auxiliary gyms) hosts a number of activities—including Montréal Police Department recruit training—so its replacement needed to have a certain versatility with shock-absorption, coefficient of friction, maintenance and durability.

The school ended up choosing a newer product from the same company that manufactured its old floor. The new 0.3-inch synthetic system had a wood finish with fiberglass mesh and foam backing for shock-absorption, and it had a special surface treatment to prevent bacteria growth and resist stains.

Even with all the lines and curtains in the CEPSUM, there's one popular sports activity the center didn't address: running. That could be because a hard surface designed to make balls bounce well isn't an ideal running surface, though the two can live in harmony.

Multisport indoor complexes can accommodate both running and court sports by putting the courts inside the running oval. The surface for both the track and the courts can be made from the same material, but using different treatments.

"There are different textures you can put on these polyurethane surfaces," Paige says. "There is the smooth, which is really not made for track and field. It's more for the multisport. And then you start adding slight texture to it [for the track]."

The textural elements come from vinyl dust or EPDM (a type of rubber) dust/granules. The more granules, the more the coefficient of friction increases to create a more gripping surface—perfect for runners, but not for basketball players.

"The basketball sneaker will grip those granules very, very well," Paige says. "That could cause the athletes to stop quicker than they're used to, and that could cause injuries to ankles, knees, hips and lower back because it is that quick, jarring movement that causes injuries."

Runners, particularly sprinters, might use spikes on their shoes, which can tear up the synthetic surfacing. There are new spike-resistant polyurethane surfaces that can help reduce the damage caused by the shoes or at least slow it down.

AROUND THE GYM

D.J. Bosse wanted his floors to stand out from the cheapo carpets or generic rubber flooring found at some other heath clubs, so he installed dark Brazilian teak for his floors in his agility rooms and fitness floor. The teak rests above a layer of shock-absorbing material. In other areas, Bosse used high-end carpet (mildew-proof/hypo-allergenic) in places such as the locker rooms.

"I picked some darker colors in the rugs or in the carpet style because most people do spill and track in mud and stuff," he says. "By the time they got through certain areas in the club to where it was a little more high-end finishes, hopefully the mud and that muck had already been worn through."

Obviously not every facility can afford something so luxurious, but there are plenty of affordable and sustainable alternatives. In workout areas and locker rooms, rubber flooring is a popular choice because it's low-maintenance, slip-resistant, absorbs shock and sound, and is easy to clean. It doesn't have to be glued to the floor, either; many companies offer rubber flooring systems with interlocking (and sometimes reversible) tiles, which can cost about $5 to $6 per square foot.

The surface around aquatic areas is particularly demanding. Obviously slipping is a major problem, and with moisture, there are mildew issues. The deck around the pool at Bosse Sports uses a small standard tile, but the pool itself has special boards around it to absorb waves and minimize splashing. Bosse's staff pressure washes the pool deck every night to prevent any standing water from becoming mildew.

The rest of the club's flooring has a pretty basic maintenance schedule as well. The teak gets swept and mopped daily (and refinished every five years or so), and the carpets get steam-cleaned once a week.


WEB RESOURCES

These Web sites offer plenty of information on issues related to sports surfaces of all kinds. In addition, check out manufacturers' Web sites; many have extensive planning guides, facility profiles, specification information and handy links.

The U.S. Tennis Court and Track Builders Association, www.ustctba.com, offers a wealth of information, along with online ordering of its installation manuals, considered industry "bibles."

The International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA), www.ipema.org, features a list of certified products, among other things.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, www.spsc.gov, publishes playground surface standards and other safety guidelines.

FIFA, the International Soccer Federation, www.fifa.com/qualityconcept, provides background on synthetic turf and standards and testing through the group's Quality Concept program.

The Carpet and Rug Institute, www.carpet-rug.com, offers cleaning and maintenance advice, along with information on green building standards.

The Alliance for the Polyurethanes Industry, www.polyurethane.org, offers regulatory information as well as health and safety tips in several different languages.

The National Program for Playground Safety, www.uni.edu/playground, offers resources, statistics, safety tips and educational materials.

The Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association, Inc., www.maplefloor.org, has product quality, performance and installation guidelines; offers information on safety, performance and maintenance issues; and publishes grade standards, guide specifications, floor-care recommendations, and specifications for athletic flooring sealers and finishes. It also offers a complete game line and court markings guide.


Top Left: Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y.

PHOTO COURTESY OF BEYNON SPORTS SURFACES, INC.

Middle Right: A private putting green in Lamar, Mo.

PHOTO COURTESY OF VERSASPORT INTERNATIONAL

Middle Left: North Montgomery High School in Crawfordsville, Ind.

PHOTO COURTESY OF KIEFER SPECIALTY FLOORING

Bottom: CBC High School in St. Louis

PHOTO COURTESY OF KIEFER SPECIALTY FLOORING

GROUND RULES TO LIVE BY

With so many things to remember, keeping track of it all can be the biggest challenge. As you consider the options, Paige has a few guiding principles to help make the process a bit easier to handle:

1. Only work with reputable vendors. When Paige first started his company, he spent a year just researching the industry to find out who's good and who's sketchy. You'll need a company that will not only offer a good warranty but actually honor it.

"Mistakes do happen," Paige says. "Products do sometimes fail, and you want a company that's going to come back and honor their warranty."

2. Beware of untested new products. Everyone started somewhere, but for each breakthrough product out there, a few similar ones failed. The risk goes up when a product is relatively new.

"It's easy for a salesman that's only been in business two years to say, 'I've got this brand-new product. We've been using it for two years, and it's going to last 15 years,'" Paige says. "[But] nothing's better than looking at a 10-year-old product and saying, 'Yeah, that's a pretty good product.'"

Still, if something looks too good to pass up, a vendor should offer a price break if the product has yet to be tested extensively. Why should you pay full price for something that has yet to prove itself?

3. Only use skilled installers. A computer is a great tool, but without proper setup, it does nothing. Similarly, the best, most advanced sports-surface system in the world could be completely undone if installed improperly. Here, facility managers can take advantage of vertical corporate integration.

"What that means is I like to see a company that actually has their own installers on salary," Paige says. "They're not independent contractors; they actually install their own products. That vertical integration is important, and many of the top companies do have that."

4. Do your homework. Think it through from a business side. Know and prioritize your facility's needs. Give yourself plenty of time, even if it seems like too much time. Chances are you have less than you think.

SURFACE SOLUTIONS

The old days seem quaint by comparison, back when a manufacturer could use mercury and think nothing of it. Having limited options at least made the process of picking out a surface a lot easier. Outdoor track? Cinder, asphalt. Tennis court? Asphalt. Basketball court? Wood. Indoor football or baseball field? Fake grass.

No one misses getting slammed into the carpet at the AstroDome, though. The old days may have been simpler, but no one would choose simplicity over quality or comfort—so much for the good ol' days.



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