Sports Fields: One Field, One Season
Keeping the Natural Turf
It's Saturday morning in Chapel Hill, N.C. Both UNC and California are warming up for their first football game at Kenan Stadium on a beautiful natural grass playing surface that's three-days-old. Yes, you read that correctly … three-days-old. It sounds a bit odd, but during this football season, the grounds crew at UNC is managing a unique and challenging situation at Kenan.
In May, the athletic department, with the help of the Ram's Club, broke ground on a brand-new practice facility. It will include a full-size indoor field, outdoor natural grass pitch and additional synthetic playing surface. Due to a lack of space, it sits atop the current practice area, leaving the Tar Heels football team no place to practice until August 2018.
After considering multiple practice-area options during the 2017 season, we decided Kenan Stadium was the only real option.
Initially, installing an artificial playing surface was discussed; this would allow the team to practice and play games during the construction. But, that came with a hefty $1.4 million price tag. We explored the benefits of natural grass and the cost of maintenance and replacing worn areas throughout the year. Preserving the natural grass playing surface would result in cost-saving. In the worst-case scenario, replacing the entire field with new sod prior to every home game would cost $1 million.
After meeting with the coaching and training staff to receive their feedback, all parties preferred natural grass, if possible.
We now had the ability to provide players and coaches with their desired playing surface, and save the university a considerable amount of money. It was the best of both worlds.
Our next step was to work with a field contractor to figure out the details, such as how much sod we'd need, how we plant it and logistics associated with removing a weathered field and installing new turf. This was a five-month process with many phone calls, meetings and trips to the sod farm.
Shortly after the decision was made to stick with a natural grass playing surface, the tremendous challenge of undertaking this task really started to sink in. Although it was not an easy feat, we would make this work—we had no choice.
After consulting with fellow sports turf managers at the Sports Turf Managers Association, I received valuable input and insights. The support we received from people all over the country in our industry was surreal; everyone wanted to see this project succeed.
Our judgment to keep Kenan natural grass worked, allowing us to keep a safe and playable surface for the entire season. If at any point we felt that a synthetic field would have been a better choice, we would have chosen that.
After completing the pre-season and 25 practices, it was finally game week, and time to replace the field.
You can't ever be too prepared. The value of constant communication between all groups involved is understated and imperative.
The weather forced us to adjust our plans, but because of extensive preparation, the re-sod was installed without a hiccup. Carolina Green arrived on Wednesday after practice ended and began removing the turf. Working through the night, we laid the last roll on Thursday around 8 a.m. The grounds crew then began laying out stencils and painting. By 12:30 p.m. the field was ready. It rained 1.25 inches on Friday, and the field played perfect on Saturday.
After five home games, we've only needed to sod 88,000 square feet, well under the 335,000 square feet we'd budgeted for after five games.
The weather has been unseasonably warm through October in Chapel Hill, and that played a huge factor in recovery time after practices and games. With two home games left, the sports turf crew works with the football staff each week to decide how the field is holding up and what areas of the field require attention.
When this season is over, I hope we serve as an example for anyone in a similar situation.
I've learned that you can't ever be too prepared. The value of constant communication between all groups involved is understated and imperative. We've received help from a lot of different groups within the university, including public safety, parking and grounds, which have helped make this project a success.
It's vital to survey all possibilities and options. It may have been easier and less stressful to install an artificial field. But, by not taking the easy way out, we provided our student-athletes with a safe and playable surface, and we did it at a third of the cost.