Sports field designs and options for high-performance and high-use
By Stacy St. Clair
The Wheaton, Ill., school system found itself in a recreational bind.
They had no space. No outdoor place for gym classes to frolic. No home for intramural sports, either.
The options were limited. Its land-locked locations made building new facilities and fields impossible.
Some proposed opening the two high-school football fields to additional programming. Officials nixed the idea repeatedly. The stadiums—home to two of the state's top football teams—simply could not withstand the beatings that would come from daily activities.
"We really didn't have many choices," says Denie Young, spokeswoman for Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200.
The Wheaton system was not alone in its worries. School districts across the country have begun to voice concern about the programming and maintenance demands on their athletic fields.
Center Grove High School in Indiana, for example, grappled with its football field's usage. The gridiron hosted only a few games per year, but the recovery time needed to make the field playable each week made the facility off-limits to most school activities during the fall.
The restrictions left the marching band, among other groups, without a place to practice. The school board tried to rectify the situation with plans for a lighted practice area for the band.
The band's practice area, however, would come at the expense of the district's garage. Officials would have to find another place for the buses to park.
In the end, the district came up with the same solution as Wheaton. It would install artificial turf on the football field, opening the space up for a wealth of programming opportunities without the maintenance headaches.
In making a pitch to the school board, Center Grove's athletic director promised the field would be worth the $500,000 price tag. He described it as durable, safe and usable 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 15 years with no additional cost.
"We want to make everyone aware that the cost is basically the same over 15 years as the maintenance we have now on natural grass," Zwitt told district officials. "But we'll use the field 20 times more than we do now."
Both districts opened their new fields this fall. So far, the response has been positive for each system. Near Wheaton, neighboring school districts are making plans to follow suit and install synthetic surfaces.
"We are extremely pleased with it," Young says. "It was the right choice for us."
The relative ease with which both districts converted their fields shows just how much the industry has changed. Five years ago, some athletic circles would have been outraged by the decision to replace the natural grass.
However, time and huge advancements in artificial turf have quieted much of the cantankerous debate. Officials now acknowledge that both real and artificial turf play important roles in the recreation industry.
The Iowa-based Sports Turf Manager's Association, for example, contends it doesn't have a preference for one over the other.
"There's no one right choice," says Suz Trusty, the group's communications director. "We're seeing both being very successful."
Sports turf experts say each option has its own set of pros and cons. The ultimate decision rests on facility's individual needs, Trusty says.
"There is no panacea. There is no perfect option. Everyone has to decide what [turf] best fits their needs."
Before selecting a turf type, recreation managers must consider—among other things—their programming needs, budget, climate and overall goals.
"Our recommendation is that you consider your resources and what its uses will be," Trusty says. "We don't recommend one or the other. Our members have a combination of both."
The recreation world has become more accepting of artificial grass since the industry introduced a new type of turf. The next generation, which has been installed at several NFL and college stadiums, has more give and seems more like natural grass than its predecessors.
The University of Michigan, for example, converted to natural grass this year. At the time, school officials cited difficulties maintaining the field late in the season, when grass was unable to grow on the weather- and player-beaten field. Any unsightly dead spots would remain until the sprig when the warm temperatures returned.
"Everybody has a much better field and a much truer field in early September than they do in November when the championships are played," Michael Stevenson, Michigan's executive associate athletics director, told The NCAA News in September.
Roughly 40 Division I-A schools use synthetic turf on their playing fields, according to the NCAA. The majority of colleges still play on natural grass, but the number of artificial fields is at its highest percentage levels since 1997, statistics show.
But it is the high-school arena that has really seen a boon in synthetic fields. Many educators view artificial turf as a solution to programming headaches.
When it had natural grass on its football fields, Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200 had limited uses for the gridirons. They would only host four or five football games in the fall and four or five soccer games in the spring.
Though the park district would have preferred to use these fields in the summer, the grass was cordoned off at the end of the school year each June for reseeding. The rejuvenation process left two of the town's best athletic facilities off-limits for three months.
During the school year, gym teachers coveted the fields. The district's two high schools were growing each year, and recreation space was at premium. The football field, however, could not handle hundreds of students trampling across it each day. The physical-education department was given the administrative equivalent of a "keep off the grass" sign.
Wheaton school officials finally decided they had had enough. They could not allow such a valuable piece of recreation space go unused 95 percent of the time.
"It was really a minimal-use field," Young says. "Rarely did anyone use it. We wanted something everyone could use."
In summer 2003, the school district earmarked $1.1 million for synthetic fields at its two high schools. Now, there's nonstop programming on the fields.
"Everyone can use it," Young says. "The marching band, the gym classes, the teams. Everyone has a chance. We're very pleased."
Increased programming abilities are the best argument for installing artificial turf, says Bob Campbell, director of grounds keeping at the University of Tennessee. It also explains why synthetic grass has become the darling of high-school athletic departments.
"Everyone is jumping on the bandwagon," he says. "It's a great option for schools and park districts that have lots of things going on the fields."
Campbell, however, doesn't agree with one generally accepted belief that synthetic turf is cheaper in the long run than natural grass. The artificial fields may save money on paint and maintenance, but Campbell—who also is the president of the Sports Turf Managers Association—says there are too many unknowns with the new generation of synthetic grass. For example, they haven't been around long enough to prove their projected eight-year life span.
"It's not the cheapest thing," he says. "It's so new that you don't really know how long it'll last. You hope it'll last eight years, and it might. We just don't know right now."
Campbell also challenges other long-held beliefs about artificial turf. Specifically, he disagrees that the turf causes more injuries. While that might have been true in the past, he says the new synthetic material is easier on the joints.
A recent study also backs his theory. A 2003 NCAA report showed baseball players experienced nearly identical injury rates on synthetic and natural surfaces.
Campbell's anecdotal evidence also suggests football isn't much different. Injuries will occur in a contact sport, he says, regardless of the playing field.
"Big-time injuries are going to happen," he says. "These guys are getting bigger and stronger. They are hitting harder and harder."
Campbell oversees both artificial and natural playing surfaces at his university. The school had an artificial surface from 1967 to 1993, when it reverted back to natural grass. There have been no regrets since going back to real stuff, he says.
"It was the preference of the players," he says. "The players that they were recruiting wanted to play on real grass, too."
Truth be told, it is his preference, too. Campbell doesn't buy the argument that fields should convert to synthetic grass to avoid the ugly late-autumn look. He contends good groundskeepers can ensure their fields looks appealing to a national television audience.
"Everyone likes grass better," he says. "There is no comparison. Even a grass field that is worn a little bit looks better than artificial turf."
Personal preferences aside, recreation managers must determine which turf type will best meet their requirements. Either choice, however, will come with its own positives and negatives.
"There is no panacea," Campbell says. "There is no perfect option. Everyone has to decide what best fits their needs."
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