Guest Column - January 2015
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Sports Fields

Rebranding the Sports Field Manager

By James Michael Goatley Jr., Ph.D.

Sometimes it takes some rebranding in order to gain a little more respect for a profession. I understand that one of the more successful businessmen to come out of my little high school in central Kentucky made his fortune after seeing the need for a "port-a-john" business in his area. Several years (and millions of dollars later), this entrepreneurial genius is now referred to as a "sanitation engineer." For what he is now worth, that is a very deserving title. In a similar fashion, for those who have the good fortune of collaborating with a sports field manager, I would like to propose that you now refer to them in a new way: sports field artisan.

Ar-ti-san (ärtǝzǝn): a worker in a skilled trade, especially one that involves making things by hand.

I marvel at the work of artisans in crafting beer, bread, jewelry and the arts (especially the paintings on old power saw blades). I'm regularly amazed by the artisanship of the sports field manager, particularly those managing natural grass fields.

While in Dallas, I was astonished at the architectural wonder of AT&T Stadium. However, I was even more awestruck when I walked down the street and got my first glimpse of the natural grass field of Globe Life Park. The field looked so good it could have been artificial, but then a mower appeared to cut the outfield to confirm what I already knew.

While at a regional sports turf association meeting several months ago, a speaker showed a slide of an award-winning, beautifully patterned high school baseball field. She said, "As you can see by this picture, this field manager is quite the artisan." She quickly corrected herself to say she had meant to call them an artist. It struck me that artisan was an appropriate term for describing that sports field manager and a better word than artist.

Artisans display passion for their craft, providing a product that uniquely satisfies in its own way and stands out from the assembly-line competition. This describes a sports field manager. Provide that dedicated person the resources to do their job and they will deliver a playing surface for any level of athlete (youth, teen or adult) that is equal in playability and safety to the fields hosting the Super Bowl, World Cup or World Series.

Most people outside the sports turf industry will think the key word to delivering success in sports field management in my last sentence is "resources" (or money), but in my mind it is the word "dedicated." Adequate resources (labor, equipment, etc.) are necessary to meet the goals and expectations of a facility, but one can surrender all the money in the world to the management of a field (either natural or synthetic), and if the field is not managed by someone who knows their profession and has a passion for the product they deliver, much of that money is wasted.

Artisan products typically take longer to develop, and there likely is a loss in work efficiency for the sake of delivering a high-quality end product. It might cost more than the assembly-line product, but the artisan creation is special, something that probably takes a little extra handling and care if it is meant to be kept. It is savored by the end user. That's the way it is (or should be) with a natural grass playing field.

There is more daily maintenance cost in the management of a natural grass field, but think about the biological wonder of what is happening. The playing surface is comprised of millions of living plants being regularly decapitated at ridiculous mowing heights, and it is expected to indiscriminately withstand repeated cutting and running from traffic of athletes of all shapes, sizes and skills. Those living plants are cooling the environment, stabilizing the soil, filtering the water, capturing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. When properly maintained, they are also beautiful to look at and safe to play on, too.

Natural grass fields certainly require inputs, but all living systems do, too. The real key to success is how those inputs are administered, and this is where the manager, or artisan, comes into play. Have you ever considered that those truly amazing performances by athletes on natural grass fields would not have been possible without the dedicated effort of that sports field manager and staff? These individuals take great pride in knowing they are experts in field management but also close partners to those who play the game.

Sports field managers aren't in this profession for the money (although most do deserve to be paid more), but I contend that their passion and commitment to the craft is every bit as strong as that of the athletes playing on the fields.

James Michael Goatley, Jr., Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Crop & Soil Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He is the past president of the Sports Turf Managers Association. For more information, visit