Athletic Flooring & Facility Success
2020 has been rough for many in the recreation industry. But there's good news. According to IBIS World Reports, growth in indoor sports facilities is predicted to continue through 2025 as the economy rebounds and consumer confidence post-COVID-19 translates into renewed sports participation.
Survival of the fittest facilities—including those that only just opened this past year—is credited in great part to savvy managers who keep their facility doors open every day (not just the weekends) and throughout the year (no gaps between off-season sports). Selecting the right flooring to maximize that continual use has been a critical component to their overall success.
When RADDSports Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County, Fla., opened its doors in August 2020, they hit the ground running. Boasting 27 different sports within the 98,000-square-foot indoor facility, they attribute a lot of their success (despite the pandemic) to overlapping seasons and events to keep doors open and generate the cash flow needed to pay the bills. The result? They are virtually booked solid through 2022.
Richard Blalock, president and CEO of the facility, credits this success to a number of factors, including one of the most foundational: selecting the right flooring for the right reasons.
"We looked at the market, determined what strongest floors we could go after and then designed a facility to be able to make sure programs are successful," Blalock explained about their flooring selection strategy.
The RADDSports project—the result of a combined public and private venture—is just one of many projects Blalock has completed over the years working on both sides of the partnership equation. What he has learned is the importance of doing your homework, and making it easy for procurement by writing very specific specs. Eliminate the guesswork, he recommends, and make it as easy as possible for the government to know exactly what you want.
"But when you go over budget (which so many often do), you can't let value engineering drop you down to a lesser floor," he warned. "If you do that, you're screwed. When we went over budget in Wiregrass, we locked down and said if you downgrade anything inside we can't be successful. We're out."
It's clear from the feedback they've been getting from their users that their commitment to quality playing surfaces is paying off. "When USA Volleyball Region 7 came in a few weeks ago," Blalock recalled, "an operations director came up to me and said 'Finally, a floor built that wasn't an afterthought to basketball.' There's not an afterthought in this building."
Who's On First?
Among the most critical questions to ask before making a flooring selection is first and foremost, who is using the space and for what? While it may seem like a basic question, it is surprising how often people get this part wrong.
"A common mistake or assumption we see made is how a floor will be used now versus in the future," said Zach Bisek, AIA, LEED AP, senior associate and quality assurance leader for Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture (BRS) out of Denver. "We always try to get our client to consider what could be."
According to Bisek, when a new facility is being designed and constructed, facility managers and operators often select flooring based on single use or limit their thinking to traditional sporting activities. "Trying to educate a client about new sports and recreation activities that are becoming more popular in the U.S. is always a challenge," Bisek said about a common mistake in the planning process. "But if a facility's flooring is going to last for years, adaptability is critical to ever-changing uses."
Hardwood flooring, for example, while the gold standard for basketball and often the traditional choice for many gymnasiums, has more limited applications, even though it is one of the longest-lasting options when well cared for. But because of its higher maintenance requirements (sanding, sealing) and vulnerability to heavier loads, it's not always the best candidate for many multi-use spaces. This is usually where synthetic choices shine.
From pour-and-pad systems to interlocking or seamless rolls of rubber mats or even vinyl and linoleum, synthetics are typically more durable, great with heavy loads, easier to maintain and often faster to install. Add padding for some applications and you have a great surface for lower-impact aerobics, yoga or spinning. Or pour-and-pad systems can be excellent for a variety of uses including track, weights and fitness areas. Many synthetics are seamless and have the added advantage of introducing pops of color and patterns that can incorporate branding or offer greater variety in design. Conversely, modular or interlocking systems, because of their many puzzle-like components, can make replacing a damaged section much more manageable and affordable.
For Jeff Stevens, the owner and manager of Montana Indoor Sports in Boseman, Mont., which opened in March, 2019, maximizing revenue per square foot meant finding a flooring system that could make multigenerational players of basketball, volleyball and pickleball happy without breaking the bank or sacrificing safety and performance. It was a pretty tall order.
"When a playing surface is used for many things, you have to process a lot more," Stevens said, citing the important role low-maintenance costs played in the decision to rule out hardwoods early on. "We didn't want to be worried about inappropriate footwear, scratching or Gatorade. These are huge challenges."
After researching various sport association recommendations, visiting other sporting facilities and taking into account their users' range in age from tykes to people in their 60s, one product rose to the top. "We looked at other synthetic products, but the durability and quality and how realistically it plays—the way the balls bounce—the noise dampening and maintenance were all considerations."
In the end, they went with a modular flooring product, a wood-grain simulated synthetic floor that sits atop a rubber underlayment. "People are very pleased with the product," Stevens said. "A number of people had never played on a synthetic floor and were surprised at how well it played. Another thing we hear a lot is it's a lot easier on players' joints of all ages (it's more forgiving than hardwood), and we've got people in their 60s playing multiple times a week."
For one of Bisek's more recent projects, the Center of Recreational Excellence (CORE), a $63.5 million, 158,000-square-foot facility that opened in Hobbs, N.M., last June, the gymnasium posed a particular challenge. In addition to the usual court sports, they also wanted to use the space to host graduations, trade shows and public events. "Knowing these types of uses," Bisek explained, "we selected a pour-n-pad system that could meet the shock absorption requirements for high-impact sports like basketball and volleyball, a puncture-proof surface that could handle running spikes and street shoes, and even the rolling load of heavy forklifts for loading and unloading pallets of equipment."
When a certain sport dominates (especially when it's the bread and butter of your business), it's time to level up. While there are some materials or flooring systems that will play nice with all the uses you have in mind, there comes a time when a floor must be sports-specific. Sometimes you have to choose. You have to prioritize.
When that priority is basketball, maple hardwood has long been the go-to favorite, as any good Hoosier will tell you. Durable, beautiful, long-lasting and with the right physics needed for the job, maple harvested properly has the added benefit of being a renewable resource. Essential basketball flooring features like shock absorption, vertical deflection, area of deflection, ball bounce and surface friction make maple flooring performance hard to beat.
While aesthetics may vary (such as the different grades of maple coloring ranging from grade 1 to 3 or light to dark), the variety of underlayment systems are where these floors begin to differentiate themselves. Deciding whether to choose a floating, fixed or anchored resilient system (a combination of both) depends on a number of important variables.
Vital considerations such as addressing humidity which can be a death knell to a subfloor, efficiency of HVAC systems, or whether a floor will be built below, at or above grade, are just some of the factors that can determine which kind of subfloor is best for any given facility.
The ideal flooring for basketball, however, if we're honest, is also a bit of a diva. Its resistance to heavy loads (portable backstops, bleacher wheels, dropped weights or point loads from tables and chairs) make it easier to damage. To that end, mounting as many features as possible to the ceiling and wall or providing floor coverings or mats to cover the floor when used for other purposes can prevent damage. Treat it correctly with regular cleaning (dusting/mopping) and sanding/resealing as needed, however, and it is among the longest lasting—up to 70 years. Initial outlay costs, as a result, are greatly reduced when longevity is factored into the equation.
Maple flooring, however, which deflects impact more widely across its surface (area elastic) that is so ideal for basketball, is often the bane of volleyball players whose preferred synthetic surfaces (typically point elastic) provide greater shock absorption and reduce injury.
But what about facilities who want to do both basketball and volleyball? Sometimes you can go with a hybrid system that mixes point and area elastic properties. But according to Chris Sgarzi, senior principal and lead architect with Sasaki Associates of Boston, the higher the level of competition a facility hosts, the more likely it's time to ditch the one-size-fits-all model.
Whether it's basketball, volleyball or any number of high-level sports, choosing the right flooring means looking at the floor's basic performance requirements: speed, resilience, friction. "Depending on the sport," Sgarzi said, "there are preferences for the floor's performance and playability that include issues of safety, such as force reduction on joint stress, grip that can cause falls or roughness that can create abrasion."
For Glenn Cerny, president of Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Mich., deciding which court floor to prioritize came down to asking what they were trying to accomplish. "The one thing is, do your homework. Make sure you know what the driver is. What are you trying to accomplish? We have a basketball facility, but that was not our driver. We are volleyball-centric. So while wood is preferred for basketball, that wasn't our driver."
In the end they put down 9 mm of rubber and then 2 mm of urethane on top of the court to provide the kind of bounce that allowed volleyball players to slide. "That was a big thing," Cerny underscored, "In volleyball you can't just stop. You need to also slide."
The Price Is Right
But what about cost? Often high-performing sports surfacing, while great for a particular sport or activity, can be pricey. Choosing between performance and cost, while a major consideration, doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. "Many flooring manufacturers make a dozen or so variations of similar flooring systems," Bisek said. "The price point for these flooring systems can increase exponentially, and many times the middle-of-the-road option is more than appropriate for the types of uses in a public recreation facility."
Then there's the issue of short-term versus long-term costs. It's important to factor in variables like maintenance costs over the life of the flooring system, durability and the longevity of the product, in addition to comparing the upfront costs of purchase and installation. But even the most financially sound choices become a money pit if a project fails to consider proper installation.
"A specific question we see commonly misinterpreted is what a floor's substrate or surface preparation requirements might be," Bisek said of yet another common mistake he sees in the industry. "With many products being applied over a concrete surface, understanding the slab moisture or adhesive requirements is critical." Contractors, he explained, sometimes rush their process and don't allow the time needed to properly prepare a slab. "Most floors are only as good as the surface they are applied to, so having to mitigate or add products or vapor control systems can be an unwelcoming cost at the tail end of a project."
Keep Good Company
Warranty and customer service and support are also a consideration when it comes to cost. Does the manufacturer stand by their product should it fail? Have you talked to other facilities that have used the product, and what has been their experience? Will there be customer support for the life of the product, or will repairs and maintenance be your responsibility? And how frequently will typical maintenance or repairs be, and how will those impact your budget?
How a manufacturer stands by its product has certainly been key for Paul Martinez, president and CEO of the 38 Boys and Girls Clubs of Northeast Florida he oversees in Jacksonville, Fla. For Martinez, vetting a company first and foremost means finding a company with great references from local facilities. He also recommends looking for companies that are fiscally sound and who have experience working in your region.
In the case of one recent flooring purchase, a $1.6 million renovation at the Baxter E. Luthor Boys and Girls Club, unexpected flood damage just one month after installation put his purchasing judgement to the test.
"You never know what a person is going to be like or a vendor until you've gotten into a foxhole with them," Martinez said about the experience. "They came out and took apart that section of the floor, dried the underlayment, replaced some of it and put it back good as new. We didn't have to buy new material or get insurance involved. It was easy and manageable. That's what I look for in a product. That to me, from a buyer's perspective, is amazing. If we install another, they'll be first on my list."
Apparently, the children at the Club have been happy with the new flooring too. According to Martinez, he has received more compliments from kids for their most recent floor installation than any other in his six years managing the many clubs in his area. "Funny thing about kids," Martinez concluded, "is they don't have filters. They tell you like it is." RM