Keep Your Eye on the Ball
Know Your Goals to Design Effective Sports Fields
Finding the best way to design your sports field really depends on what your goals are and what particular sports will be played on the field throughout the year.
Being flexible with design is important "so you have the capabilities to rotate fields and move fields around to spread wear," said Noel Brusius, sports park and athletic field maintenance supervisor, Waukegan Sports Park, and member of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA).
It's equally important to have a design professional working in conjunction with a certified builder as part of the design process, noted James D. Catella, CFB, CTB, Clark Companies, and fields division president for the American Sports Builders Association (ASBA).
Designing the Field
When designing a sports field, you need to consider what your main purpose will be for your field.
"Our fields are rectangular. There's no baseball or softball. [You have to ask], what are your uses going to be? We have multiple uses—soccer, lacrosse, rugby, anything that can be played on a rectangular field," said Ryan Bjorn, director of grounds and environmental management for the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Md., and a member of the STMA.
"We just started construction on two new fields here. We created a playable surface larger than a regulation soccer field. That allows us to move and shift those fields around," Bjorn explained, adding that they are natural grass.
During the eight-week spring season, the SoccerPlex has tournaments mixed in. "We paint it weekly. The grass is always growing," he said. Also, it's advantageous to be able to move the fields so the middle of the fields isn't always in the same spot.
Whether your field is natural or synthetic turf, you need to have enough space to do multiple sports in the same area, Brusius said.
For natural grass, for example, you have to look at what kind of soil type you need—either sand-based or native soil. Sand costs more. Native soil is what you have on site. For sand-based, you are bringing in sand, which also means higher maintenance, in addition to the cost of fertilizer and irrigation. However, sand does drain better, which means your team can get back on the field more quickly following a rain event.
Brusius recommended making sure fields have proper irrigation and drainage for optimal playability. Other factors to consider include ensuring that you provide ample parking, restrooms and a budget.
"Make sure you have a budget that is in line with your expectations and users, and the amount of play. Have a sports turf manager to help with the design process," he said.
Sydney Stahlbaum, director of sales support for a Dalton, Ga.-based synthetic turf manufacturer, said design plans for multi-use synthetic turf fields should be done on two parallel paths.
"You'll need to plan for the turf carpet as well as the drainage system underneath the turf," she said. "The drainage and planarity are typically achieved by stripping the organics and using two different sieves of stone that interlock."
She explained that the depth of the drainage layer will depend on local conditions and should be designed by an engineer or architect, whether employed by an outside firm or by the turf provider.
"They'll evaluate your soil conditions with borings and other measurements," Stahlbaum said.
"When designing the turf system, you'll want to take a survey of the various user groups that are interested in using the field to determine how often they'll use the field, what lines they will need, and whether or not they want to paint the field or have the markings for their sport inlaid," she explained.
"With that information, your synthetic turf manufacturer can develop a rendering for your field. The rendering can help with fundraising efforts as well," she added.
Another suggestion is to make a list of all of the sports the field will host, and at what level they will be played (high school, college, etc.).
"You will need to be aware of the field dimensions required by each sport as written in the current rules from the national governing body," noted Mary Helen Sprecher, a technical writer for the ASBA.
The Ideal Turf
When it comes to turf, experts concurred that there really is no ideal type because the best type depends on your location.
Brusius said he believes that both natural and synthetic turf have their place.
When it comes to turf, experts concurred that there really is no ideal type because the best type depends on your location.
"I'm talking from the perspective of a sports turf manager. A coach will want the natural grass, but if you talk to a recreation department, they will want more synthetic [turf], [for] more revenue, and [the ability to] schedule a lot more frequently," he said. "Initial cost is more to build a synthetic field, but there is a need for both."
The time of year plays a role, too.
"Warm season vs. cool season; and there are different varieties of grasses," Brusius said. "[In the] warm season Bermuda is the typical athletic field variety; and, in the cool season Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrass. And the reason for Bermuda and Kentucky is that they have aggressive growth and recover better than other types of grasses. We use perennial rye because it germinates quickly."
At the SoccerPlex, there are 19 natural grass fields, 11 being cool season and eight being Bermuda (which are seen more in the summer). "There is really no perfect answer. You have to plan for that," Bjorn said, adding that different use types have different advantages.
Stahlbaum added that when it comes to synthetic fields, a blend of various fiber types is integral to balancing the playability and usage requirements of various user groups.
"Monofilament face fibers are extruded through a spinneret like spaghetti as single strands," she said. "Mono fibers provide excellent aesthetics and a slower, more realistic ball roll for soccer. On the other hand, slit film fibers are extruded in a sheet and literally slit in a parallel fashion, creating bundles of fibers that break up or 'fibrillate' into smaller fibers during installation and with use. Slit film fibers are highly durable and, therefore, a good investment for facilities with multiple uses."
By incorporating both monofilament and slit film fibers, blended fields deliver a variety of benefits that serve all user groups, which is why more than 60 percent of Stahlbaum's company's 2015 fields were comprised of blended fibers.
A newer development in synthetic turf fields is a system that provides a "thatch layer" to the turf system. Essentially, Stahlbaum said, this is "… a system of crimped fibers that pulls down below the face fibers." This system helps stabilize the infill, acting "… like a net to help keep the infill in place, preventing its migration and compaction," she added. "By keeping infill in place, players of all sports benefit from more consistent footing, optimal traction, more predictable shock absorption, and even wear patterns."
Getting the Most Out of Your Fields
How do you get the most out of your sports fields?
"For me, as a grounds director, I'm trying to find that balance on maximizing revenue and keeping up quality, whether shifting fields is a huge part of that, using the entire surface and not beating down the same areas over and over," Bjorn said.
He also suggested that you not overfertilize, either. You have to balance everything out correctly with irrigation. "It's a whole package that you really need to focus on to get the most out of your fields," he said.
For Brusius, field rotation is one of the number-one priorities.
"On any given week, we have 14 fields, and not all of them are always used. So, we always take out the worst field and put another field in, and that helps us," Brusius said. "We have an aggressive cultural practice program, a strong overseeding practice, a sound nutrient schedule, fertilizing appropriately, a budget that is in line with expectations and field usage, and a staff that abides by a maintenance plan."
Both Catella and Sprecher said regular maintenance is essential to getting the most out of your field.
"In order to get the most out of your fields, regular maintenance, targeted maintenance, is essential to get the most out of your field," Catella said.
Sprecher suggested walking the field routinely (at least once a week, but more often if the field is seeing the use that multiple sports will bring), and looking for irregularities, damage and litter.
Catella noted, too, that when you have football, lacrosse, soccer and field hockey, you will have different areas for goal creases and high-wear areas, things that are going to have more abuse.
"Is synthetic better with all those sports? We build both. Most build both. Certainly, each has its strong and weak points. The key with a multi-use, natural grass field is can it get recuperation time?" he said.
When it comes to synthetic turf, a common misperception is that it's maintenance-free.
"This erroneous belief can diminish the lifecycle of a synthetic turf field. Just like cars, artificial turf fields need maintenance," Stahlbaum said.
Fields should be kept as clean as possible. Sweeping the field (usually once a week) with a turf sweeper helps pick up leaves, trash and other debris.
"As you use the field more, you should groom more deeply and more frequently. To prolong the life of the field, you'll want to keep infill levels as even as possible and turf fibers as upright as possible," she said. "Drag-behind attachments with brushes help to redistribute infill and lightly massage fibers."
For very high-use fields, Stahlbaum's company recommends deep cleaning once or twice per year.
"This involves a more thorough regimen with more aggressive machinery capable of cycling and filtering infill, as well as infill decompaction if necessary to provide superior shock absorption," she said.
"You should ensure that your turf provider trains staff on routine maintenance practices," she added. "Hiring professionals to perform the deeper grooming activities is a great idea, too."
Removing and Remaking Markings
By and large most field owners elect to have their field markings permanently inlaid during installation of synthetic turf fields.
"This makes maintenance much easier over the life of the field, as it eliminates the need to constantly paint lines. Contrasting colors distinguish one sport from another. We've even installed Quidditch lines," Stahlbaum said.
"In certain instances, though, field users wish to have only their sport's lines visible. In those cases, they install an all-green field and paint markings for each application," she said. "We can also inlay tick marks to help make painting lines easier. We recommend paints that are designed specifically for synthetic turf applications."
Because the Maryland SoccerPlex has so many fields, a ride-on paint striper is used to make paint markings. "But we're lucky in that we have one of the better crews in the country, very well trained. Once you get the basics of marking a field, the rest comes in time … removing and remaking markings," Bjorn said.
"The biggest challenge as far as markings is time of year," Bjorn said. "Bermudagrass starts to go dormant in the fall, and there isn't much growth in mid-October and mid-November. Those times we will green out and use different colors if we do shift fields. The last time we paint a white field might be in mid-October. It gets busy, but as long as your colors are distinct, most teams and refs are used to being on multi-use fields."
Catella added that if you are on a synthetic field and painting the markings, make sure you have the right type of paint.
"They have permanent stuff and semi-permanent, and very temporary paint," he said.
Having the right type of paint and doing the removal is not difficult. But it's something that has to be budgeted for, and requires time.
Brusius said for Waukegan Sports Park's natural grass fields, different colors are used.
"We paint every week. We want good crisp lines for upcoming games on the weekend," he said, adding that sometimes during the following week, you want the lines to fade, in case a different sport is going to be played.
"If it's going to be a soccer game, we just repaint soccer fields again," he said.
Brusius explained, too, that the paints used are designed to give high levels of performance while having the minimum impact on the environment.
"The raw materials we employ are also chosen not only on their technical merits but on their environmental friendliness. All of our raw materials are guaranteed APEO-free and wherever possible are biodegradable," he said.
Brusius said typical pH levels of the paints used are lower than many manufacturers (circa 7.0 rather than 8.0 to 9.0).
"Fleet products being close to the pH of water, even when the paint is in concentrated form, minimize leaching effects and ensure negligible impact on the biosphere," he said.
Paint manufacturers use the term "Zero VOC" to describe paint products that contain little to no volatile organic compounds (VOC).
"These paints are marketed as being non-toxic, odor-free and safer for the environment than paints with a higher content of volatile organic compounds," he added.