Supplement Feature - September 2008
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You've Come a Long Way, Baby

The Evolution of Athletic Playing Surfaces

By Richard Zowie


s the years go by, so do advances in technology. In the sports world, research and development is constantly at work to make playing surfaces safer, easier to maintain and more conducive to play on. Yesterday's grass athletic fields bring memories of games in the mud while today's fields are meticulously maintained and groomed. For some schools, no matter how advanced an artificial surface is, it simply can't beat natural grass. Artificial playing surfaces, once having a reputation for being abrasive and hard on the knees, today are becoming more and more like natural grass. Yesterday's cinder track surfaces have given way to rubberized surfaces that help athletes run faster with minimal stress on the knees and joints.

The selection of a playing surface today tends to be driven by three factors: safety, optimal performance and budget-friendliness.


For some sports programs, nothing beats playing on natural grass. Perhaps it's the nostalgia or the smell of fresh-cut grass, or perhaps even the rugged look of grass stains on a uniform after a hard-fought game. For some, it simply boils down to a belief that synthetic turf can't duplicate the feel of natural grass.

Natural grass remains a strong tradition at colleges like the University of Notre Dame. While many teams have switched from natural grass to an artificial surface, Notre Dame Stadium has held fast to its grass surface. But that doesn't mean there isn't ongoing improvement.

In 1997, a 21-month stadium renovation project was completed, which included a new natural-grass field and a new drainage system. After this past season, a new grass surface was installed. The project was overseen by George Toma, the "Marquis de Sod" who, among his many credentials in his 42-year career, has overseen the laying of grass surfaces for more than 30 Super Bowls.

In addition, "we're redoing the practice field area for football," said John Heisler, senior associate athletics director for Notre Dame. "We're starting from scratch and putting in three new fields."