Get Ahead of the Game
Successful Sports Field Maintenance
No doubt about it, whether it's soccer, lacrosse or baseball, sports fields take a serious beating, and that's without the extra pounding that Mother Nature often provides. And when one game or practice is over, it's expected that they bounce right back for the next one. This predicament is made even more challenging if it's a municipal, parks and rec or local school field, since they are in near-constant use, often serving as multipurpose fields.
"Almost every field I have at the municipal parks level, regardless of what it's intended for or the shape of the field, is multi-use," said Nick Pappas, a Certified Sports Field Manager (CSFM) who oversees the sports field side of Green Source, a company specializing in landscaping and property management services based in Southwest Ranches, Fla. "We do maintenance and renovation, we do a lot of contracting out to municipalities, private schools, universities or anybody that's got a field that needs help," Pappas said.
As an example, Pappas points to the city of Weston, Fla., where they maintain a 104-acre park that houses 16 fields, including six full-size natural grass soccer fields, two full-size synthetic fields, and two quads for softball and baseball. "The athletic fields on the soccer side, they see non-stop play of soccer and anything else that they can put out there, from lacrosse to rugby to flag football," Pappas said, adding that this could include concerts, movie nights and yoga events. Pappas explained that while the baseball fields are more restricted due to their shape, they will sometimes paint soccer fields in the outfield for games if the soccer fields are too busy.
Another challenge at this level is tight budgets, according to Pappas, since fields require a lot of input to meet customers' high expectations. "Between fertilizing, cultivation, aeration, verticutting (vertical cutting), fraise mowing, topdressing—the list goes on and on."
Jim Biggers, CSFM, vice president of field maintenance for Carolina Green, a full-service athletic field construction company based in Fairview, N.C., said that when maintenance budgets are insufficient, tough decisions are required. "I believe a field turfgrass manager must make an effort to supply the turfgrass with proper nutrition. Take a soil sample and apply necessary fertilizers to achieve good healthy plant growth." Biggers suggested that if this can't be done on all fields, then prioritize the championship or game fields. "Proper weed control is secondary in importance, since weeds steal fertility and water," Biggers said, adding that aerification and mowing come third and fourth in priority.
In fact, Biggers suggests developing an aerification program and aerifying as often as schedule and budget allow, since compaction of the playing surface is the biggest challenge to keeping turfgrass cover and density. Pappas said their biggest challenge is managing wear traffic, and trying to see how far they can go without having to re-sod the fields, yet still keep them safe, playable and aesthetically pleasing. "We're not just talking about your typical wear areas from one sport," he said. "We're talking about multiple sports and multiple events that all come with their own traffic patterns."
Pappas described seeing three mini soccer fields on one full-size field, so now you have players and coaches and parents standing in the bench areas along each of the little fields, and you might have a couple hundred people standing on one field. "So wear is our biggest battle and obviously compaction goes along with it," he said.
Biggers suggested avoiding wear areas by rotating play between boundaries and redirecting heavy traffic areas. "Limit or stop play in frozen or saturated wet conditions," Biggers said, "and if possible, postpone events when field conditions are poor."
When repairs do have to be made, Pappas said that they do more sodding then seeding, specifically because the types of Bermudagrass they use aren't types that you can seed. "They have to be vegetatively planted, so either sod or sprigs, though a lot of municipalities won't give us a long enough window to sprig a field."
That's a hurdle in itself, according to Pappas, since sprigs will typically produce a stronger and longer-lasting field. "It's the idea of growing 'in' something, rather than growing 'on' something," he said. "Lay sod and now you have to grow grass into the dirt, versus once you've got a sprig down, it's growing out of the dirt."
And while the shutdown time is a bit longer, Pappas said it's amazing how fast the Bermudagrass can grow in.
Jody Gill, CSFM, grounds coordinator for Blue Valley school district in Overland Park, Kan., said that he and his team, which includes 15 full-time and 10 to 12 seasonal employees, oversee 38 schools on 1,300 acres spread over 91 square miles. Gill said they maintain well over 100 fields, which host many sports, including baseball, softball, soccer, football, lacrosse, track and field, and cross country. "PE classes and elementary recess use fields as well—sometimes recess is extremely competitive! Rugby and cricket are growing in popularity," he said.
General use of sports fields by the community causes the most excessive wear, and overuse is the greatest challenge that Gill's team faces, especially since most of their fields are unsecured and the only way to manage traffic is with signage and temporary fencing. "I have very supportive athletic directors and coaches," Gill said. "We try to educate them on ways to spread the wear and tear. Most of them buy in and do a good job of moving practices around."
Gill tries to educate user-groups and coaches whenever possible on the best ways to avoid excessive wear on fields through articles, newsletters or face-to-face meetings, explaining how it's in their best interests to take care of the fields. He also said that budgets and lack of manpower are frequent concerns. "We're dealing with labor budget issues by converting a few full-time, year-round positions to many more seasonal positions, to fill the need for more labor during busier times of the year."
As far as some proactive ways to combat overuse, Gill said they avoid excessive soccer wear around goal mouths and corner kick areas by designing over-sized playing field areas to allow for shifting the field around the space. "Using GPS to lay out fields allows a quick and less labor-intensive turnaround."
Gill said they use locally available materials when possible and select plant materials and turfgrass that perform well in their region. "We give careful thought to where we place drive-through and walk-through gates to secured facilities in an effort to spread wear from access and maintenance traffic."
Gill said they also maintain six synthetic turf fields—all located at high schools and all rectangular, used for football, soccer, lacrosse and rugby. "We take full advantage of the few carpet fields we have by painting lines for multiple sports for each one." And while Gill thinks that synthetic fields are great when used in the right situation, he feels that no matter how well you maintain them, they never looks as good or performs as well as they do in their first year.
Contrary to common perceptions, synthetic turf surfaces are not maintenance-free, according to Biggers, who added that the typical life of a synthetic turf field is eight to 10 years. Field usage will determine the frequency of maintenance, which should include an occasional cleaning with a vacuum sweeper. This removes foreign material from the turf, fluffs up carpet fibers and softens the infill material.
Gill also recommends light aerification of the infield material to reduce compaction, which can be measured with impact testing or a G-max meter.
"G-max testing registers shock-attenuation performance and is one measure of safety of sports surfaces," Biggers said, adding that carpet seams may need to be inspected and repaired using seam tape and proper adhesive. He added that some field managers choose to spray synthetic surfaces with a disinfectant to aid in surface cleanliness.
Down in South Florida, where heavy rainfall is common, Pappas said that the infill in synthetic fields tends to move a lot. "So you spend a lot of time dragging it, manicuring it and adding topdressing to make sure you've got a uniform surface."
Pappas also pointed out that synthetic fields radiate a lot of heat, so make sure you have a decent watering system to keep them cool. And he added that while they can become a bed for bacteria, he doesn't often see performing an anti-bacterial wash in maintenance contracts at the rec level, as budgets don't usually allow for this.
In St. Charles, Ill., Randy Dupuis is a sports turf manager at the East Side Sports Complex, which encompasses approximately 120 acres and is overseen by the St. Charles Park District. The park features many amenities, and includes four softball fields, a football field, three full-size soccer fields and seven multi-use fields, which are also available for rental events such as cancer walks. And there are four baseball fields, three of which have artificial infields. Dupuis said they maintain the crumb rubber on the synthetic turf fields, which is done weekly, and run the groomer over the infields about once a month. "The big problem with artificial fields is cleanup, and particularly sunflower seeds. We use brooms, backpack blowers, a large blower we pull behind a Club Car, and a shop vac. It takes two people about two hours each."
Dupuis cautioned that there's a lot of misinformation out there regarding synthetic fields, whether spread verbally or through the Internet. "We only get our information from experts in our industry, not just for this but for everything we do," he said.
When it comes to natural dirt (skinned) baseball or softball infields, Pappas said they're more labor-intensive than other sports fields to maintain, and clients often overlook this. "Anytime you're dealing with clay surfaces of any sort, there's a lot of management that goes into it. The pitching mounds need to be repaired, the holes that get dug need to get filled, packed, re-sloped and graded; same with home plate or your batters boxes."
Clay also requires a lot of moisture management. "If you've got it too wet or you get too much rain, you're looking at a possible rainout. And if it gets too dry, you're looking at a dusty, hard, cracking field possibly," Pappas said.
There are many types of clay surfaces, and in South Florida it's typically sandy clay, which is less beneficial. But there are engineered soils on the market, according to Pappas, which are pre-mixed profiles of silt, sand and clay at a specific ratio that gives you better playability depending if you're at the parks, collegiate or professional level, with each requiring a different level of maintenance.
Biggers agrees that infield surfaces are challenging to maintain. "Proper dragging under proper conditions is an acquired skill. Try to avoid moving an excessive amount of the skinned clay material, and keep a few inches from where the skinned area transitions to the grass area."
Biggers suggested that occasionally regrading an infield using a professional contractor with laser-guided equipment can be money well spent. "Additionally," Biggers said, "lips may develop in the transition area from clay to grass, and may require removing or adding material and re-sodding."
What about trends or new technologies with regard to sports field maintenance? Gill said their equipment vendors are constantly improving their products based on input from turf managers, making a huge difference in the quality of their work. For example, a central irrigation control system and weather station "… have made a huge difference in our ability to effectively manage water release and rootzone moisture. Using an RTK GPS rover and CAD to lay out fields for painting has saved countless labor hours," said Gill, who added that they're also using GPS drones for data collection on athletic fields for aerial mapping and surveying.
Pappas said that the biggest thing that's happened in recent years, especially with regard to Bermudagrass, is the arrival of fraise mowing. "It's essentially an extremely aggressive version of verticutting, where you're removing your thatch layer, any weed seed built up in that top profile, and we're seeing fields regenerate stronger and they're lasting longer." Pappas said this has led to less re-sodding and less weed pressure, resulting in less herbicide applications.
Data collection is another advancement that Pappas mentioned. "There are turf quality sensors out there now that allow us to scout a field and look at our stressed-out areas on graphs that show where we should be applying fertilizer more accurately." Pappas said this has resulted in less waste and more efficient moisture management, fertilizer management and understanding of stress patterns.
What about considerations during the planning stages of sports fields? Biggers said proper planning and field design can prevent many maintenance issues later, and having people involved with the right expertise is first and foremost. He said some factors to consider include location, since soil quality varies from site to site and good soil can affect costs during construction and down the road. Proper sloping will result in positive surface drainage, a basic requirement for good turfgrass performance. Field access is important—not only foot traffic but maintenance equipment, too. Consider maintenance budgets and maintenance equipment availability.
Pappas agrees that soil is extremely important, making sure you have the right profile for your site. "Sometimes we end up doing sub-surface drainage installation on jobs because they built it on native soil, and they just use the muck that they pulled out of the everglades, and suddenly it's saturated all the time and it doesn't drain."
Pappas said this can result in constantly spending money to topdress and install drainage or sand caps. "If they just built it right from the get-go, it would help down the road, providing cost savings, too."
There are many unpredictable scenarios when it comes to caring for sports fields, and input from colleagues can prove very helpful. "I think the biggest tool for networking and allowing you to think outside the box is Twitter and social media," Pappas said. He added that there's a huge following of turf managers, university professors and others in the industry sharing their issues and solutions. "It gives a platform for guys to comment and ask questions, or put forth a little insight."
Pappas has also been a member of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) for years, and he said it's also a good way to network and see what others are doing, and learn from each other.
Gill agrees, adding that networking has been a lifeline at times, and membership in the STMA allows for sharing information with peers, whether at local chapter events or at the national conference. He said it's also an outstanding source for technical information. "The website is packed with information for those who manage sports fields at any level," he said.
"Networking is a key to our success as a service provider in the athletic field industry," said Biggers, who belongs to the STMA as well as the American Sports Builders Association (ASBA). "These organizations bring together individuals involved in every aspect of the turf care industry—from research to construction to maintenance and everywhere in between—to share ideas and network."
The Professional Grounds Maintenance Society (PGMS) also has a strong membership of grounds professionals working for parks and rec facilities, municipalities and local schools. Associate Executive Director Stephanie Bruno explained that they have branches across the country that host local events and meetings, and they hold two national conferences annually. "Networking is one of the largest benefits our members have," she said. "PGMS offers online and in-person forums for members to discuss challenges, what solutions have worked to mitigate their challenges, and how they're adapting traditional grounds management practices to meet current and ever-changing demands."