Feature Article - April 2021
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Firm Foundations

Athletic Flooring & Facility Success

By Kelli Ra Anderson

2020 has been rough for many in the recreation industry. But there's good news. According to IBIS World Reports, growth in indoor sports facilities is predicted to continue through 2025 as the economy rebounds and consumer confidence post-COVID-19 translates into renewed sports participation.

Survival of the fittest facilities—including those that only just opened this past year—is credited in great part to savvy managers who keep their facility doors open every day (not just the weekends) and throughout the year (no gaps between off-season sports). Selecting the right flooring to maximize that continual use has been a critical component to their overall success.

When RADDSports Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County, Fla., opened its doors in August 2020, they hit the ground running. Boasting 27 different sports within the 98,000-square-foot indoor facility, they attribute a lot of their success (despite the pandemic) to overlapping seasons and events to keep doors open and generate the cash flow needed to pay the bills. The result? They are virtually booked solid through 2022.

Richard Blalock, president and CEO of the facility, credits this success to a number of factors, including one of the most foundational: selecting the right flooring for the right reasons.

"We looked at the market, determined what strongest floors we could go after and then designed a facility to be able to make sure programs are successful," Blalock explained about their flooring selection strategy.

The RADDSports project—the result of a combined public and private venture—is just one of many projects Blalock has completed over the years working on both sides of the partnership equation. What he has learned is the importance of doing your homework, and making it easy for procurement by writing very specific specs. Eliminate the guesswork, he recommends, and make it as easy as possible for the government to know exactly what you want.

"But when you go over budget (which so many often do), you can't let value engineering drop you down to a lesser floor," he warned. "If you do that, you're screwed. When we went over budget in Wiregrass, we locked down and said if you downgrade anything inside we can't be successful. We're out."

It's clear from the feedback they've been getting from their users that their commitment to quality playing surfaces is paying off. "When USA Volleyball Region 7 came in a few weeks ago," Blalock recalled, "an operations director came up to me and said 'Finally, a floor built that wasn't an afterthought to basketball.' There's not an afterthought in this building."

Who's On First?

Among the most critical questions to ask before making a flooring selection is first and foremost, who is using the space and for what? While it may seem like a basic question, it is surprising how often people get this part wrong.

"A common mistake or assumption we see made is how a floor will be used now versus in the future," said Zach Bisek, AIA, LEED AP, senior associate and quality assurance leader for Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture (BRS) out of Denver. "We always try to get our client to consider what could be."

According to Bisek, when a new facility is being designed and constructed, facility managers and operators often select flooring based on single use or limit their thinking to traditional sporting activities. "Trying to educate a client about new sports and recreation activities that are becoming more popular in the U.S. is always a challenge," Bisek said about a common mistake in the planning process. "But if a facility's flooring is going to last for years, adaptability is critical to ever-changing uses."

Hardwood flooring, for example, while the gold standard for basketball and often the traditional choice for many gymnasiums, has more limited applications, even though it is one of the longest-lasting options when well cared for. But because of its higher maintenance requirements (sanding, sealing) and vulnerability to heavier loads, it's not always the best candidate for many multi-use spaces. This is usually where synthetic choices shine.

From pour-and-pad systems to interlocking or seamless rolls of rubber mats or even vinyl and linoleum, synthetics are typically more durable, great with heavy loads, easier to maintain and often faster to install. Add padding for some applications and you have a great surface for lower-impact aerobics, yoga or spinning. Or pour-and-pad systems can be excellent for a variety of uses including track, weights and fitness areas. Many synthetics are seamless and have the added advantage of introducing pops of color and patterns that can incorporate branding or offer greater variety in design. Conversely, modular or interlocking systems, because of their many puzzle-like components, can make replacing a damaged section much more manageable and affordable.

For Jeff Stevens, the owner and manager of Montana Indoor Sports in Boseman, Mont., which opened in March, 2019, maximizing revenue per square foot meant finding a flooring system that could make multigenerational players of basketball, volleyball and pickleball happy without breaking the bank or sacrificing safety and performance. It was a pretty tall order.

"When a playing surface is used for many things, you have to process a lot more," Stevens said, citing the important role low-maintenance costs played in the decision to rule out hardwoods early on. "We didn't want to be worried about inappropriate footwear, scratching or Gatorade. These are huge challenges."

After researching various sport association recommendations, visiting other sporting facilities and taking into account their users' range in age from tykes to people in their 60s, one product rose to the top. "We looked at other synthetic products, but the durability and quality and how realistically it plays—the way the balls bounce—the noise dampening and maintenance were all considerations."

In the end, they went with a modular flooring product, a wood-grain simulated synthetic floor that sits atop a rubber underlayment. "People are very pleased with the product," Stevens said. "A number of people had never played on a synthetic floor and were surprised at how well it played. Another thing we hear a lot is it's a lot easier on players' joints of all ages (it's more forgiving than hardwood), and we've got people in their 60s playing multiple times a week."

For one of Bisek's more recent projects, the Center of Recreational Excellence (CORE), a $63.5 million, 158,000-square-foot facility that opened in Hobbs, N.M., last June, the gymnasium posed a particular challenge. In addition to the usual court sports, they also wanted to use the space to host graduations, trade shows and public events. "Knowing these types of uses," Bisek explained, "we selected a pour-n-pad system that could meet the shock absorption requirements for high-impact sports like basketball and volleyball, a puncture-proof surface that could handle running spikes and street shoes, and even the rolling load of heavy forklifts for loading and unloading pallets of equipment."