Feature Article - February 2015
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Sports to the Max

Make the Most of Your Sports Fields

By Rick Dandes

Many municipalities and school districts are having to consider upgrades to their current recreation facilities, or building new sports complexes altogether, given the increasing popularity of youth outdoor sports, especially soccer, field hockey, softball and Little League baseball. Each of these sports are best played on slightly different sports surfaces, mostly natural grass, but tight budgets and the need to maximize programming also might mean that a switch to a multi-use synthetic field is in order, and that's OK, said several experts.

It's all about maximizing the safety and playability of an athletic field, said designer David Nardone, principal, Stantec, Boston. And that's accomplished with better, safer playing surfaces resulting from the development of improved construction and maintenance techniques.

"If you are considering putting in a new surface," Nardone said, "before you approach a vendor, start by asking yourself about the user groups: What is the sport? What are the ages of those who will be using the field? The best vendors will really try to tailor the turf to the user group. And yes, there are preferred turfs for certain sports."

Take an artificial turf baseball field. There are certain infill mixes that affect a ball coming off the bat. [By definition, infill is usually an acrylic coated, green-colored sand with antimicrobial properties or black crumb rubber particles. Either infill product is put in between the blades of the artificial grass lawn products to deliver a complete solution.] The infield might have a different infill mix than the outfield. In the infield, it is more the ball bouncing off the surface, while in the outfield a player might be diving to catch a ball and you can provide a more resilient surface to make it safer for the ballplayer to stretch out and dive on.

When it comes to the rectangular field sports and synthetic turf, Nardone said, "if we're talking about soccer or field hockey, the ball is constantly in contact with the turf, so the surface is a critical part of the game, versus lacrosse or football."

You want to consider the type of fiber a vendor offers, because different fibers are more appropriate for a soccer field versus a lacrosse field. You don't want the ball to roll too slow or too fast in soccer. Field hockey is almost the opposite. You want the ball to roll as fast as possible and there are some synthetic turf products that specifically are geared to that kind of surface. "But most smaller municipalities could not install such sports-specific surfaces because of the cost of a dedicated facility. In those cases, a multipurpose surface is called for, given monetary restraints," Nardone said.

Meanwhile, there are now hybrid surfaces being developed that are appropriate for both lacrosse and field hockey, and those hybrid surfaces are trending among buyers.

If your fields are natural grass, the sports turf needs to be maintained and cared for rigorously to preserve its durability and responsiveness to players. Like any material, it should be regularly evaluated for performance and replaced when necessary. But the proper selection process will help ensure that you get the most out of your grass, Nardone explained.

Natural grass management is a constant task, he stressed. Football fields, golf courses, even some grass tennis courts, all require regular evaluation and attention to counteract wear and tear. Depending on the intensity of traffic, some natural grass is more suited to certain sports than others. Golf course grass, for instance, can't sustain the heavy traction of football sprints, tackles and team movement.

Besides players and game action, weather elements must also be considered. If you are in the mid-Atlantic or up in the Northeast, where weather is a concern, said Darren Gill, vice president, global marketing, of a Montreal, Canada-based synthetic turf manufacturer, the playing season needs to be shortened. During winter months, fields aren't being used and as the snow melts and the weather turns better, grass fields need time to rebound from the cold weather. They need to thaw and maintenance work needs to be done. As a result, the playing season gets even shorter. That's a major reason why universities and pro teams in those parts of the country have turned to artificial turf. But in other more moderate climates, Kentucky bluegrass and perennial rye grass are popular choices for general multipurpose recreation areas.

If, however, the traditional maintenance methods are not restoring grass in your recreational area to an acceptable standard, you may need to invest in synthetic turf, meant to be long-term.

You should make a decision based on climate, use, weather and location, suggested Noel Brusius, Certified Sports Field Manager, Waukegan Park District, Ill.

The district has 13 natural grass soccer fields, four softball fields and one synthetic field, added Mike Trigg, Waukegan's manager of risk management. The grass fields are bluegrass-rye grass. "We do monthly and annual safety inspections of field conditions," Trigg said, "testing both our synthetic turf field and natural grass fields."