Feature Article - February 2004
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Fielding Questions

Sports field designs and options for high-performance and high-use

By Stacy St. Clair

The Wheaton, Ill., school system found itself in a recreational bind.

They had no space. No outdoor place for gym classes to frolic. No home for intramural sports, either.

The options were limited. Its land-locked locations made building new facilities and fields impossible.

Some proposed opening the two high-school football fields to additional programming. Officials nixed the idea repeatedly. The stadiums—home to two of the state's top football teams—simply could not withstand the beatings that would come from daily activities.

"We really didn't have many choices," says Denie Young, spokeswoman for Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200.

The Wheaton system was not alone in its worries. School districts across the country have begun to voice concern about the programming and maintenance demands on their athletic fields.

Center Grove High School in Indiana, for example, grappled with its football field's usage. The gridiron hosted only a few games per year, but the recovery time needed to make the field playable each week made the facility off-limits to most school activities during the fall.

The restrictions left the marching band, among other groups, without a place to practice. The school board tried to rectify the situation with plans for a lighted practice area for the band.

The band's practice area, however, would come at the expense of the district's garage. Officials would have to find another place for the buses to park.

In the end, the district came up with the same solution as Wheaton. It would install artificial turf on the football field, opening the space up for a wealth of programming opportunities without the maintenance headaches.

In making a pitch to the school board, Center Grove's athletic director promised the field would be worth the $500,000 price tag. He described it as durable, safe and usable 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 15 years with no additional cost.

"We want to make everyone aware that the cost is basically the same over 15 years as the maintenance we have now on natural grass," Zwitt told district officials. "But we'll use the field 20 times more than we do now."

Both districts opened their new fields this fall. So far, the response has been positive for each system. Near Wheaton, neighboring school districts are making plans to follow suit and install synthetic surfaces.

"We are extremely pleased with it," Young says. "It was the right choice for us."

The relative ease with which both districts converted their fields shows just how much the industry has changed. Five years ago, some athletic circles would have been outraged by the decision to replace the natural grass.

However, time and huge advancements in artificial turf have quieted much of the cantankerous debate. Officials now acknowledge that both real and artificial turf play important roles in the recreation industry.

The Iowa-based Sports Turf Manager's Association, for example, contends it doesn't have a preference for one over the other.

"There's no one right choice," says Suz Trusty, the group's communications director. "We're seeing both being very successful."

Sports turf experts say each option has its own set of pros and cons. The ultimate decision rests on facility's individual needs, Trusty says.