Feature Article - October 2002
Find a printable version here

Field Guides

From brand-new or converted complexes to parent-proof fields, a look at the latest in sports field design

By Mitch Martin


Conversion Pointers

James Mueller, superintendent Golf/Athletic Division for Hall-Irwin Company and past president of the Colorado Sports Turf Managers Association, often lectures and consults on the safe way to convert passive-use fields to sports fields.

Mueller says such conversions are becoming increasingly common as park districts and other organizations search for practice and game space for soccer and other sports. He offers several tips for a safe conversion.

  1. Make a conscious decision on whether a passive field is appropriate for active use. Many are not. An appropriate grade is one of the major considerations. Also make sure there is adequate buffer space around the actual playing surface. Mueller usually recommends 25 feet of buffer space away from streets, holes, uneven surface or hard metal objects.

    "You'd be surprised where people try to put a soccer field these days," he says.

  2. Perform a safety audit before play and make sure personnel revisit the fields with a safety checklist after play begins.

  3. Be sure grass is mowed to an appropriate height. This is more important for ball-on-grass games such as soccer.

  4. Don't underestimate the increase in maintenance a conversion will engender.

    "It's very easy to underestimate how much activity is generated just by putting up a pair of soccer goals," Mueller says.

  5. Field layout should take into account the sun, so players aren't fighting the rays.

Parent-proof field

City of New Brunswick, N.J., Superintendent of Parks Mike Blackwell has been fielding a lot of calls lately. His park department's idea for a new park has garnered calls from CNN, NPR, ABC and several major newspapers. Karen Heller of the Philadelphia Inquirer says some people have been given MacArthur Fellowships for less.

PHOTO COURTESY OF CHRISTOPHER BERRY
A new "parent-proof" field in New Brunswick, N.J.,
has been receiving a lot of attention.

When the New Brunswick Youth Sports Complex opens Oct. 29, two of the softball/Little League fields will come with a built-in barrier between the game participants and the crowd. The idea is to keep parents out of haranguing-distance from kids, umpires and coaches during games.

For years, Blackwell has taught a state certification course for coaches at Rutgers where one of the biggest topics is how to handle out-of-control parents. At his own district, Blackwell says a few parents are so unaware of their poor behavior, he sometimes videotapes them in action and then shows them the tape.

When the city foreclosed on 15 acres of land in the center of the town, Blackwell and other city recreation workers saw an opportunity to improve the atmosphere of games.

"My motto is let the ump ump, let the coach coach, let the kids be kids, and let the parents cheer," Blackwell says.

The fields are being built with a six-foot high wall around the backstop; the prime hectoring area for upset parents. This gives parents a "mouse eye's" view of the game, which should help reduce overly aggressive parental coaching or umpiring, Blackwell says.

The fence is also backed with tennis-style windscreens, further obscuring the view from behind the plate and the dugouts. Parents can still see from bleachers placed behind third and first base.

"It's still a great view, but one where parents can cheer without actually coaching the kid as he bats," Blackwell says.

The $2.5 million facility was paid for with open space grants from the state of New Jersey and Middlesex County. City officials hope concession and other revenues will help support youth programming.

Blackwell says that even some parents who have been problems at games are supporting the idea. And in perhaps the biggest sign of success, applications for umpire jobs are way up.