Playing the Field

Sports-Field Savvy to Make the Most of Your Investment

Whether youth, college or professional sports are being played, and whether the sport is football, baseball or soccer, having the right sports field is key.

That's why when building a new sports field, it's important to keep a few things in mind, experts say, such as the types of activities that will be played, how much usage the field likely will get and what the budget will be.

What to Know Before You Build

Some key questions need to be asked when planning to build a new sports field, said Darren Gill, vice president of a company in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, that manufactures artificial turf playing surfaces. Those questions are: "What's the purpose of the field? What sports are going to be played? How much usage will the field get? What's the budget? How will the field be built?"

"Some of the answers to the above questions will inform your decision on turf fiber preference," Gill said, "while other answers will give you a better idea of who to entrust with building the new field.



"It's best to look at a new field as a major construction project that encompasses everything from the design of the field, building the base, installing the lights, stands, turf and any other items that may be unique to this new field," he said. "Many companies can supply these various components, so one major decision to make is whether to work with multiple parties or have one company oversee the entire project for you."


Similarly, Tim Van Loo, CSFM from Iowa State University, and past president of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA), suggested some things to consider: "Who is going to play on the field? How many events do you plan on having annually, and what time of year? What are expectations for field quality? How the field is built will forever dictate the playability of the field. Make sure you construct it correctly. Get a contractor that specializes in athletic field construction."

Micah Gould, product manager for a global grass seed company in Tangent, Ore., noted some factors to take into consideration before building as well.

"Two overarching deciding factors that can influence all other components are the allocated budgets for such a project, and the desired quality level of playing conditions," Gould said. "Upfront installation costs and long-term maintenance budgets will be the biggest deciding factors in the final product, but with a clear sense of the desired field performance, the budgets can be used effectively to maximize the field's potential. If the correlation between field performance and subsequent cost is truly realized, there is a better chance for a successful field installation, and equally important, a prolonged lifespan."

Whether youth, college or professional sports are being played, and whether the sport is football, baseball or soccer, having the right sports field is key.

Besides budgetary concerns, field maintenance level requirements will need to be set, too, which are derived from the desired playing conditions of a sports field.

"For starters," Gould said, "deciding whether a field can be soil-based or if it should be constructed as sand-based will ride on the use expected of the field. A sand-based field would most assuredly also come with the need of an irrigation system. Depending on region and especially the specific needs the field needs to fulfill, there are cases when a soil-based field might not need sub-surface irrigation.

"Also, depending on soil type and possible precipitation during the time period of use, some fields might benefit from improved drainage to improve playability and safety. These are just a couple of factors that could have large budgetary implications, but should each be considered," he added.

Once the field substrate, irrigation and drainage are taken into consideration and planned for, the planning then can shift to turfgrass selection and management.

"The first step," he said, "would be to identify the type of grass for establishment and is directly influenced by regionality and local climate conditions. Selecting a turfgrass species that isn't adapted to certain climates can cause extra resources in its maintenance, or even worse, potentially fail."

Once a turfgrass, or blend of grass is chosen, the focus then can be shifted to its maintenance requirements.

"Field maintenance, and largely cultural turfgrass management practices, differs from species to species. Inputs such as mowing, fertilization and irrigation each have their effect on turfgrass health, and should be adjusted based on soil type, turfgrass species and field-use requirements," Gould explained. "A perennial ryegrass, sand-based field that supports heavy use (traffic) will require many more inputs than say a tall fescue, soil-based field that is very lightly used. These are just some of the factors that will influence the specific maintenance and care a field will receive throughout its lifespan."

Of course, natural turfgrass isn't the only option.


"Many municipalities or other organizations might use synthetic turf as a playing surface," he said. "Generally, it is easier to raise funds for the initial installation of a synthetic field versus the prolonged costs to maintain that of a natural field. There is often a misnomer that synthetic fields are more cost-effective in the long run."

He referenced a paper that was published in 2017 by Daviscourt and others out of Oregon State University comparing 20-year budgets of five natural and 10 synthetic fields. The results showed that over a 20-year period the average natural field cost $903,000, whereas the synthetic fields averaged $1,952,000.

"When considering cumulative player use hours, the average cost per individual player hour for synthetic fields was $2.15, with natural fields averaging $2.18. The only way synthetic fields ended up being comparable to natural fields in cost over a 20-year period was by allowing for over three times the amount of player use hours," Gould said.

"When deciding between these two types of fields, it should be quantified and/or estimated how much the field will be used," he added. "Unless the field can support over 3 times the amount [that] the natural grass field can, it might be wise to establish a natural turfgrass sports field. Keep in mind this is strictly comparing field costs and not taking into account player safety and other benefits provided through turfgrass plants."

Avery Gallaher, director of operations for a company in Dayton, Tenn., that manufactures synthetic turf, said that the two most important factors to consider when building a sports field are what sport or sports the field will be used for and the amount of use the field will be getting.

And, depending on the answers to these questions, one artificial turf might be the optimal solution over others.

"For example," Gallaher said, "if the field will be used for multiple sports, a blend of fibers would be the best option so you can get the playing characteristics of both slit film and monofilament. Additionally, if the field will be getting lots of use, a woven turf would be a more durable option over traditional tufted turf."

How to Keep Fields Safe

One of the best ways to keep a sports field safe and playable is to follow the original management plan, but allow a buffer for improvement or occasional unplanned maintenance.

"Oftentimes, budgets are reduced and carried out in such a way that detracts from the primary cultural practices of mowing, fertilization and irrigation," Gould said. "If any of these practices falls below recommended levels, playability issues may arise and possibly safety concerns."

On a more basic level, playability and safety issues occur when turfgrass health declines and reduces in cover or when turfgrass is outcompeted by weeds.

"Staying within recommended maintenance levels for the primary cultural practices will prevent turfgrass decline in most cases, but depending on level of traffic, more practices might be warranted. Increased and repeated traffic will surely compact soil and eventually reduce turfgrass cover," he explained. "Depending on the sport, different areas of the field will eventually become safety hazards. Soccer goal mouths and between the hash marks in football are notorious for being areas where decline is first seen."

One of the many methods used to correct these affected areas is to alleviate compaction through core cultivation, topdressing application and seeding to repair the damage.

"These practices, or other varying methods, are performed as much as once per month during the peak playing seasons. This level of maintenance can add up quick, but managing high-priority areas that pose the most threat to player safety can do a lot for a field over the course of its lifespan," he said.


"Historically speaking," Gill said, "you need to have proper maintenance equipment and use it based on the manufacturer's recommendations. This will likely include brushing, aerating, raking and sweeping. Additionally, annual G-max testing is recommended to get data on the state of your field and view the results of your diligent maintenance throughout the year."

However, to truly ensure the safety and playability of your field, you need to be able to track the amount of hours per day, week and month that your field is used.

"Even more specifically, you should track what areas of the field are used more than others and, consequently, need more time dedicated to proper maintenance," Gill said, noting that one company has introduced the "first and only solution in the industry to track a field's usage and have the system's artificial intelligence technology recommend ideal maintenance guidelines for the field."

Performing regular maintenance is "the best way to keep your field safe and playable for your team," Gallaher said.

"Artificial turf requires much less maintenance than grass, but it is still important to maintain consistent infill levels throughout the turf," he said. "Consistent infill levels provide an even playing surface, which makes the field safer and better for the players in terms of traction and ball performance."

What's more, Van Loo said to "Plan to have an athletic field manager that knows how to manage the type of field you are building. Ideally, they would be hired and involved in the planning, construction and growing of the field."

Get the Most Out of It

In order to optimize the lifetime value of a field, you must invest in the product that is going to last the longest and ensure maintenance is done properly to maximize field longevity, Gill said.

"You also want to make sure proper due diligence is done during the initial planning phase to design a field that is best suited for all potential users and sports," he said.

In addition, Gould suggested that the management level and budget should match the amount of play that will take place on the field.

"Major increases in level in play should also increase the level of inputs a field receives, if playability and safety are a concern," he said. "If budgets can't be increased to maintain fields at a certain level, a solution might be to limit the amount of play put on them.

"A natural grass field will let you know when play exceeds the amount it can handle under the given input level, so scouting for turfgrass health can be used as a tool to judge whether the two factors are matching up," he said. "Often, the scenario involves a field that isn't getting the necessary inputs (mowing, fertility and irrigation) for optimal turfgrass growth, with traffic only amplifying the resulting quality."

Make sure proper due diligence is done during the initial planning phase to design a field that is best suited for all potential users and sports.

Investing in inexpensive soil tests, observing mulched clippings, and performing simple soil moisture testing techniques can go a long way in determining a field's needs.

"For this reason, investing in the grounds manager and/or crew can help improve not only turfgrass quality, but field playability. In many cases the solution can be as simple as local training often carried out by universities or involvement in groups, such as the Sports Turf Managers Association," he added.

Regardless of the type of field that's installed, data or information should be collected to measure not only field performance, but field use.

"Initial estimates might prove to be inaccurate, and fields likely can be adjusted to perform more in line with the actual play they are receiving," Gould said.

"One way to improve a field's chance of success is to set goals early, track progress of turfgrass health, be aware of player safety concerns when they come about and adjust when necessary to match the level of traffic being applied. In the end, keeping an eye out for these factors can help maximize the impact a sports field can have by tailoring a safe and enjoyable environment to the athlete and the community alike," he said.

Gallaher noted that "Artificial turf is an incredibly long-lasting, durable solution for sports fields. But maintaining the field isn't just important for keeping your players safe, maintenance is also important to keep your field healthy in the long run.

"Maintaining consistent infill levels supports the fibers that make up the field which reduces fiber loss, which keeps your field looking and playing great for years to come," he said.

Van Loo added that "A hired professional with the necessary budget will be able to deliver an athletic field that is safe, playable, and fiscally beneficial to the community. Make sure there is a plan to properly maintain the investment that has been made."