Guest Column - May 2007
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Grounds Decisions

Investing in a synthetic athletic field

By Jim Dobmeier

ave you found yourself on a decision-making committee that's responsible for delivering the best possible synthetic athletic field for your school or community? If so, a bit of anxiety is par for the course.

The easy part of the decision is recognizing the many benefits of synthetics. Synthetic fields can be used virtually 24x7 with minimal, low-cost maintenance. To keep a natural grass field in excellent condition requires substantial maintenance. Synthetic fields are known for outstanding playability even in the most extreme weather conditions, while even the best-cared-for natural grass surfaces can be ruined by just one bad weather pattern at the wrong time.

Any reasonable analysis considers the impressive utility of synthetic fields. There are documented cases of a single field getting over 500 uses annually. By spreading the initial investment over the expected life of a synthetic surfacing system, often projected at 10 to 12 years, the rationale for the investment becomes crystal clear.

Combine synthetic fields' consistent playability over time with the number of uses and the long expected life of the investment, and it's easy to see why so many fields are being converted from natural to manmade.

Many of us have heard the saying, "the devil is in the details." This concept really applies to the evaluation of the products and the companies that compete in the synthetic athletic field industry.

There's a common misconception that all new-generation infilled grass systems are alike. Even more daunting is the task of differentiating companies. The details—about product components and the company that builds them into a finished field—are critically important.

How familiar are you with the product?

While there is nothing in and of itself that's difficult to understand about product components and finished systems, the challenge is a lack of familiarity, an unusually high number of factors to consider and only one emerging central source of unbiased information—The Synthetic Turf Council. And most of what you'll learn about varying attributes and company capabilities will come from those competing for the project, where there is a natural bias.

When you shop for a vehicle, much of what you know and like is based on firsthand experience. You drive, you ride as a passenger, and you look at other vehicles every day. The result is a reservoir of information to rely on and help refine your decision.

This contrasts sharply with "shopping" for a synthetic athletic field. The typical decision-maker, while likely very capable, probably knows little about the competing companies or the legitimacy of what they say. Even if you or someone on your committee is a former athlete who competed on a synthetic field, the odds are great that this generation of synthetic fields wasn't around in those playing days.

Personal evaluation through use of the product is unrealistic, and the source of information—the industry participants—all too often deliver conflicting information. One company says rubber infill is better, while another says a rubber and sand mix is superior. One company pushes a monofilament fiber type while their competitor says slit film fiber is best. Some say a resilient underpad that delivers stability and shock absorption is a tremendous choice, while others say a resilient underpad adds to the cost of the project and slows the athlete. Glued seams versus sewn. A dense matrix of fibers with less infill weight or more space between fibers and therefore more infill weight. A four-part carpet backing versus a one-part, three-component backing. On and on the discussion goes.

An athletic field is a major financial investment. In addition, it's a high-profile investment. The amount of interest in any new field is huge. From the wet-behind-the-ears athlete to the senior committee member, the field gets noticed, talked about, read about in the local papers, walked on and played on. When things go well, there is a great sense of community pride. When they don't, there is frustration and often embarrassment that really puts a damper on what should be an exciting culmination of much effort invested and money spent.

Whether or not the project goes well is very much a function of the company behind the product components. Field building is specialized construction. Anyone who has been around the construction world, from home additions to high-rise construction projects, realizes what a demanding process it can be. Schedules. Cooperation with other trades. Delivering what's ordered. Quality craftsmanship. Communicating throughout the process. Challenges will arise on every project. It's a matter of how those challenges are dealt with that matters most.

In the history of the field-building industry, some companies have not remained viable, with warranties outliving the companies. This concern should be heavily weighed when evaluating which company you want to partner with on your project. And "partner" is the right word. A field that lasts 10 or more years requires a partner, not just a supplier.