Feature Article - July/August 2005
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A Complete Guide to Sports Surfaces and Flooring

Sure Footing

By Kyle Ryan


According to the National Sporting Goods Association, 9.6 million people played tennis more than once in 2003; that's down from 14.2 million in 1993. But basketball has more or less held steady over the past decade; 29.6 million played in 1993, and 27.9 million played last year.

Especially on campuses, basketball remains both a popular participatory sport and spectator sport. For indoor basketball surfaces, wood (generally maple) reigns as the standard—and for good reason. Wood looks good, can outlive its building (it generally has a life span of 40 years), is durable and has a long, extensive history with sports.

Of course, wood has its own drawbacks. For one, it's relatively high maintenance. Water can destroy it, and not just through leaks or pooling; humidity can warp wood just as well. Installing it takes skill and time, too. Wood also can be more pricey, from $10 to $14 per square foot, depending on the system. An NBA/NCAA-regulation court, at 94 feet long by 50 feet wide, creates 4,700 square feet of space, so even a third-tier wood surface could cost about $47,000. (Smaller high-school courts do not save much; they're only 10 feet shorter.) A good synthetic system only may cost half that.

The subsystem—what goes beneath the surface—makes or breaks a wood floor. Without a good one, wood absorbs impact poorly and is susceptible to moisture from below. Subsystems generally consist of wood or synthetic layering that may or may not be anchored to synthetic studs or the concrete base. Free-floating (that is, unanchored) systems generally cost less, with anchored systems being the most expensive.

What lurks underneath the wooden strips of flooring plays a critical role, but people don't see that part. They see the wood, and that wood's quality depends on its grade: one, two or three. When people watch NCAA or NBA games on TV, they see grade one, the best-looking, palest and most expensive of the grades. Cost and quality drop, and color darkens, as grade numbers increase. A basketball court need not be the same grade everywhere, though. It makes sense (and saves money) to use lower grade wood in the out-of-bounds areas because no one plays there.

Wood also needs protection, both when in use and during off-hours. Just like a wooden patio deck needs treatment to keep moisture out, wood floors need a finish to do the same and resist stains and scuffing. Floors can be coated with a special urethane/acrylic finish (usually a couple times), sometimes with a catalyst to ensure the necessary chemical reactions take place. It can take several hours between coats, and it usually needs at least a day before the court is ready for traffic.

After all of this happens, wood still needs a lot of TLC. Humidity must be monitored at all times, and the court has to stay clean. Considering water is wood's arch enemy, a simple mop and bucket of water aren't good options. Some damp-mop (that is, low-moisture) cleaning solutions seem to work pretty well, though. Regular cleaning will extend a court's life and protect its finish.

Keeping people off between games and practices will help, too, which is why there are numerous court covers on the market. They're generally big tarps stored on rollers. After an event, a few people simply pull the tarps off the rollers. A complete system can cost a few thousand dollars, and storing the rollers can be a hassle—but, of course, replacing a floor is an even bigger, more expensive hassle.