Supplement Feature - September 2011
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Tomorrow's Turf

Budgets and the Environment Drive Trends in Natural and Synthetic Sports Fields

By Julie Knudson

While researching options for the new synthetic field, McNeal found that a wide range of more environmentally friendly infill materials and products were available, including coatings that inhibit bacterial growth and infill with different mixtures of sand and rubber to get the feel as close to natural grass as possible. "We spent probably four to five months researching and diving into it," she said, explaining that coated sand and infill materials aimed at reducing waste and landfill were among the trends she noticed during her search and selection process.

The players at Wake Forest have given McNeal good feedback on the new baseball field. "It plays really true," she said. "The bounces come right through the infield. There are no bad hops."

A slight incline in the outfield tells players they're nearing the warning track, and McNeal left open the possibility of adding lava rock later if needed. Synthetic was chosen because the existing facility would have required extensive renovation to support a new grass field, a project that McNeal says wouldn't have received sufficient funding.

Staffing and maintenance requirements post-installation also swayed the school's decision toward a synthetic surface, and McNeal said it's a route more organizations like hers are taking. "I know at least two other schools in our conference that have them. We will be playing on them by next baseball season, next spring. I know of a couple [schools] in the upper Midwest that also have them going in."

Installing synthetic fields exclusively for baseball is a trend that Mark Novak is seeing as well. And even though traditionalists continue to advocate for natural grass in baseball, Novak reported, "We're seeing a movement in the industry now where synthetic turf is not only becoming a more accessible solution, but they're also getting rid of the skinned infield area … and going with synthetic turf."

Challenges exist in the high-wear areas that are likely to see the most action, such as where athletes dig in at home plate or slide into second base. "I think it's always good to recommend they have contingency plans in mind to address those areas with continual maintenance," Novak said, "and also maybe after four or five years of use, swapping out the home plate area or areas around bases with new carpet to make sure that infill levels are at the appropriate level and fiber breakdown doesn't go too far."

Funding the purchase of synthetic fields has increasingly been a challenge for many schools and municipalities in recent years. "A lot of municipalities that don't currently have synthetic turf fields would like one," Novak said, "but with the current economic conditions, they're struggling with ways of funding these surfaces."

Safety is playing its own role in prompting innovations in synthetic surfaces.