Supplement Feature - September 2014
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Fields of Dreams

Making the Best Turf Decisions

By Dawn Klingensmith

Notre Dame Stadium is known as one of the most old-school venues in college football, but the Irish departed from tradition in a big way by announcing that artificial turf would replace the grass in time for the 2014 football season.

Leading up to the decision, fans and administrators were divided over the possible installation of artificial turf, even though the field had looked patchy of late, with one player comparing it to a high school field.

"We had a strong predisposition to stay with a natural grass field," Notre Dame Vice President and Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said in a release. "However, the reality is that in two of the last three seasons since we moved Commencement to the stadium, we have been unable to produce an acceptable playing surface."

Even as the program broke with tradition, it fell right in line with a growing national trend. Artificial surfaces have become the norm in college football, as well as in high school football.

Making the Right Choice

High schools and colleges usually have just one field to accommodate several sports, and natural turf simply cannot withstand the nonstop wear and tear.

Jim Dobmeier, founder and president of a New York-based synthetic turf manufacturer, said high schools and smaller colleges easily make up most of his clientele. That's because high schools and colleges usually have just one field to accommodate several sports, and natural turf simply cannot withstand the nonstop wear and tear. Municipalities have the same problem but make up a fraction of the market compared to schools. Synthetic sports field installations are more expensive, Dobmeier said, and for municipalities using taxpayer dollars, "they're not as reachable."

Whereas Notre Dame switched with hesitancy, others do so eagerly. At Providence High School in Indiana, replacing the natural field with a synthetic surface for football and soccer was "a very big deal" and something the school had wanted "for some time," Athletic Director Mickey Golembeski told The Courier-Journal.

In Baton Rouge, La., several high schools have made the switch at their football stadiums—at least six since 2007, with more expecting to join their ranks. One of the principals described himself as a "grass guy," but told the local press after switching to synthetic, "For us it is more beneficial than not."

Though each project is unique, the benefits are fairly consistent from one to the next. Where demand for field use is high, synthetic turf can bear up against a number of sports and their practice and play schedules, plus additional traffic like marching band, commencement ceremonies and summer camps. Whereas rain and cleats and natural grass can make for a muddy mess, a synthetic surface allows for play during or right after a rain event, provided it has proper drainage. Synthetic fields also require less maintenance, although they are by no means maintenance-free. As for safety, there are studies in support of both field types depending on the type of injury evaluated, but just through daily use, a natural grass field will develop ruts that can trip up a player. A well-maintained synthetic surface, on the other hand, provides for "consistency on every square foot of the field," Dobmeier said.

Listing the benefits of synthetic turf in no way takes away from the desirability of natural grass, which fake turf emulates. "Natural grass when it's in good condition—that's our model," Dobmeier said.

However, "Why does our industry exist to begin with? It's not that perfectly conditioned grass isn't great for athletes," he said.

It's that perfectly conditioned grass that can withstand its intended use is hard to come by. Industry awards are given for turf maintenance because it's a science that requires proper timing of mowing, irrigation, fertilization, pest control and aeration, each of which is a labor expense and budget line item. To find a perfectly tended, perfectly playable natural grass field, we probably need to look "up the scale to perhaps a major university or pro-level team that has the luxury of having multiple fields, with only one sport per field, and separate practice fields," Dobmeier said.