Getting athletic fields in good shape is both complicated and not-so-complicated
By Kyle Ryan
The good news for Jesse Pritchard was that he got the job he interviewed for: grounds manager for University of Virginia athletics. The bad news came quickly after that, says his friend Eric Fasbender, grounds manager for University of Oregon athletics.
"Like literally his first day of work," Fasbender says, "they said, 'Welcome aboard, Jesse. Hey, by the way, this fall we're having the Rolling Stones coming, and they're going to be playing a concert at the football stadium—and, oh by the way, nine days later we play Florida State on a nationally televised game." He laughs.
After the concert, as workers deconstructed the stage and the temporary flooring that covered the field, it quickly became apparent that all the natural-grass turf from roughly the 20-yard line to the neighboring end zone had died. But before stage construction began, Pritchard had pre-germinated the field with quickly growing ryegrass seeds and fertilized it heavily. He didn't even replace or cut out any of the dead turf. The result? Untrained eyes couldn't notice a difference in the turf when the game aired a little more than a week later.
Proper planning and understanding of how turf works are the mundane details that make these kinds of miracles possible. Natural-grass fields may have more complex needs, but even synthetics require a little TLC to function properly. People continually underestimate that, according to Mike Trigg, president of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) and superintendent of parks for the Waukegan Park District in Waukegan, Ill.
"The misconception [is] not understanding all that is required to maintain athletic fields," he says.
Turf, whether it's created in a factory or by Mother Nature, has many needs. Understanding them makes for a safer surface that offers ideal playing conditions.
Of course, turf comes in all flavors and varieties, and what type gets used depends on geographic location, sport, season (warm or cool), coaches' preferences and the amount of activity it will endure. The many fields that are part of the Waukegan Park District use a Kentucky bluegrass/ryegrass mix, both of them cool grasses. Fasbender's fields in Oregon use Kentucky bluegrass, which is perhaps the most popular type for sports. In Columbia, Mo., where Brad Fresenberg is a turfgrass specialist for the Division of Plant Sciences at the University of Missouri, the school's natural-turf fields use warm-season Bermudagrass, though its baseball field uses tall fescue, a cool-season grass.
Turf's vulnerability depends on a number of factors, such as activity and field profile. According to an STMA survey, the most popular event at the nation's sports complexes was softball, followed by soccer, baseball and football. In general, warm-weather grasses like Bermudagrass or even St. Augustine grass tend to be a little more resilient, according to Fasbender.
The two most common athletic field grasses are Kentucky bluegrass and Bermudagrass. Bluegrass is a cool-season grass that tends to grow densely with a deep, rich green color. Although it can tolerate cold winters, it tends to stress out during extremely hot weather, so it requires a lot of watering to stay functional in warm climates. In drought conditions, it can go into dormancy, but it thrives in sunny areas.
Bermudagrass specializes in hot temperatures and thus has an innate resistance to droughts. It also grows dense and dark green with a deep root system. It tolerates heavy traffic and can recover from injuries more quickly than other types of grasses. It doesn't, however, like shade; Bermudagrass needs the sun's full attention to grow properly.
Some areas, like the Waukegan Park District, have activity on their Bermudagrass fields after the grass goes into dormancy. So the fields also feature a slight mix of ryegrass, a fall grass that buds when Bermudagrass fades away. The area's harsh winters don't allow for much of anything beyond that, but areas in slightly warmer climates—what Trigg calls the "transitional area," southern Ohio, Kentucky, southern Indiana and southern Illinois—can sustain ryegrass deeper into the fall. Fields in those areas often have a full transition from Bermudagrass to ryegrass, though that also can cause problems.
"I know there's several facilities that had temperature changes and fluctuations that have not been consistent," Trigg says. "[So] that ryegrass is not fading out, or the Bermudagrass temperatures aren't heating up fast enough for it to kick in, so you get like a turf mix of both ryegrass and Bermuda, which is not a favorable field surface, and of course they're a challenge to maintain."
Trigg favors a lot of fall work to prepare fields for the spring season, such as heavy aerification (punching holes in the soil to allow air and water to enter it more easily), overseeding and fertilization.
"We get the call each year for earlier and earlier use of the facilities when the weather changes," Trigg says. "Of course April, but even some requests to use to start practicing in March. So we've definitely learned the more we can prepare our sites and facilities for the fall months before we put them to bed until the winter, [the better]."
A field's durability also depends on what lies beneath the surface: natural soil or sand. Sand-based systems drain better (and thus play better in wet conditions) and help prevent soil compaction. According to STMA's survey, sports managers expressed a 3-to-1 preference for sand-based fields. But native-soil fields (without sand) generally have stronger soil and retain nutrients better than their sandy counterparts.
A lot of synthetic-turf systems use sand bases, which can be one of their primary assets. Field managers don't need to worry about root systems losing nutrients through leaching or weak root systems—the primary drawbacks of sand-based natural turf—because synthetic systems don't need nutrients.
Technology has advanced significantly with synthetic turf over the past decade or so. Long gone are the days of fake-looking green carpet; high-tech synthetics that recreate natural root systems have replaced that. The older stuff still gets used for some sports and practice fields, but generally not in competition fields for football or baseball.
The University of Missouri's Faurot Field, where its football team plays, has gone through them all over the past 12 years. In the early '90s, Faurot Field used an early generation synthetic. It switched over to Kentucky bluegrass around 1995, then back to a newly popular synthetic turn in 2002. The switch to the latest system came after a new head coach, Gary Pinkel, joined the staff.
"Coach Pinkel is the type of coach that likes to utilize the game field quite a bit, even for practices and such," Fresenberg says. "His use of that field in August, when the field was still natural grass, was just too much and too damaging prior to going into the season."
The cool-season bluegrass couldn't recover quickly enough from the summer activity, so the school made the pricey decision to switch back to synthetic.
"Now [Coach Pinkel] can go down there as often as he wants whenever he wants and practice on the game field," Fresenberg says.
Synthetic-turf use is popping up at less prominent levels, too. At Star of the Sea School in Honolulu, school administrators replaced what began as a natural-grass play area with synthetic turf.
"We had a grass lawn that failed to survive the wear and tear of little feet, coupled with drainage problems with our new construction," Principal Lisa Foster says. "Within a year, the once grassy playground turned into a hard, dusty dirt surface that created safety and health issues."
The school board investigated its options for the 6,400-square-foot area. They considered grass plugs, but those would take too long to grow, and the school would have to cordon off its playground as it grew. They also considered planting sod, but that was expensive and not guaranteed to work. No grass seemed capable of sustaining high traffic in a shady area. Other synthetic options also were discussed, such as a poured-in-place rubberized surface, but the board wanted the area to have a grassy appearance.
"Others suggested sand, chips, etc.," Foster says. "We wanted a 'grass' look without the recurring problems of growing grass."
The school eventually settled on a grass-like synthetic system that replicates the look and feel of natural grass. So far, Foster says, it's been a hit and "well worth the investment."
"I noticed that children's play is facilitated more with the new, soft surface," she says. "They utilize the area more—running, kicking balls, etc. If they fall, they do not sustain scraped knees, cuts or other injuries."
The new system is virtually maintenance-free; Foster is considering having it "brushed" monthly to keep it in good shape. But a general play area like what the Star of the Sea School has shouldn't require much maintenance compared to natural grass. That's not the case with big-time synthetic playing fields, though.
"They'll probably require less maintenance," Fresenberg says, "but the thing is a lot of the facilities that are buying these synthetic fields right now are actually being told it's minimal maintenance or, in some cases, no maintenance. That's really not the case."
One maintenance issue goes against one of the main benefits of having a synthetic field: watering. According to Brian Vinchesi, principal for Irrigation Consulting, synthetics still need to be watered—just not to help them grow.
"A lot of synthetics want to be watered for cooling," he says. "People don't think you have to water synthetics, and the manufacturer will probably tell you it doesn't need to be watered, but the sports-field guys will tell you they want them watered…I'm doing three of them right now, and I've probably done four in the last year. But again they're all higher end college fields that I'm doing at the moment."
Synthetics obviously don't need the same amount of water as natural-grass fields, though. Nor do they have the same pest-control issues as their natural counterparts.
Those issues vary with the type of grass used on the field; certain types are more susceptible to certain pests and disease. The three main problems Fresenberg sees are dollar spots, brown-patch disease and white grubs.
Dollar spots typically occur in Kentucky bluegrass in the spring, when daytime temperatures reach the 80s but fall back into 60s at night.
"It's usually a characteristic of those mornings where you have heavy dew, and the air just feels really damp," Fresenberg says. "Those are ideal conditions for dollar spots, and when those conditions exist and you have Kentucky bluegrass that's susceptible to dollar spots, that's when the disease will set in."
The condition also occurs, to a lesser degree, in perennial ryegrass and bent grasses, which are common on golf courses. Dollar spots also thrive on low fertility, so if a field manager maintains the field's nutrient levels, it makes the field less susceptible to the disease. Even if they still occur after that, dollar spots generally can be kept in control by fungicides.
Like dollar spots, brown-patch disease is also a fungal problem, though it tends to affect tall fescue grasses, perennial ryegrass and bentgrass, which are usually found on golf courses. The difference between brown-patch disease and dollar spots is the former favors heat and humidity, not cool, dewy mornings. In the middle of the summer, when conditions are at their hottest and most humid, patches roughly 6 inches to 2 feet in diameter can appear on the grass. But like dollar spots, brown-patch disease can be treated with fungicide.
White grubs come from insects, where the grubs feed on the root system of the turfgrass, pruning the roots and killing the grass as they eat. Fresenberg says these usually show up in late July or early August.
"It's something that you don't see every year," Fresenberg says. "Some years are worse than others, and the best way to deal with those is with insecticides."
Fields that have a history of white-grub problems can be treated with long-lasting, residual insecticides that get applied in the early summer, like around late May or early June. They typically protect the field the whole season. But if the white grubs show up out of the blue, the field still can be treated with late-season residual insecticides that also will address the issue.
Using the right fungicides, insecticides and pesticides can help keep these problems at bay, but the chemicals themselves can create their own problems because of their toxicity.
"You basically have to make sure the individuals applying these products have a pesticide-applicator's license, and they are licensed to do so," Fresenberg says. "Then just basically follow the label of the product; there's nothing outside of that specifically that you need to do. A pesticide label is actually the law approved by the EPA, so if you follow the label, you're generally following the law."
But Trigg of STMA says federal, EPA-mandated laws are being beefed up by local governments. Sometimes what the label on the product says doesn't quite go far enough.
"As an association, we are hearing more about that in different parts of the country," Trigg says. "Some of them have been very local, municipal issues that sports-turf managers have had to address or follow… Again that's networking and finding out if others have had similar situations and how they've handled it."
Of course, the trend toward "green" or eco-friendly groundskeeping offers a more natural approach to traditional chemical treatments and other practices. Again, networking can help you investigate and adopt more environmentally conscious products and treatments.
Like pretty much every living thing on earth, grass needs water to survive, and delivering that water is a whole industry unto itself. According to an STMA survey, 80 percent of fields use pop-up sprinklers for irrigation. And like almost everything in this tech-savvy age, sprinkler systems have specific designs for various purposes.
"The equipment you'd use on an athletic field is much different from the equipment you'd use on a golf course or should be using on residential," says Irrigation Consulting's Vinchesi. "Every manufacturer makes a sprinkler that is made specifically for an athletic field."
In spite of that, Vinchesi often sees residential or commercial sprinkler systems (ineffectively) watering athletic fields. Ignorance may explain that, but it probably has more to do with cost. According to Vinchesi, sports sprinklers cost roughly three times as much as their commercial counterparts. The extra cost comes from the extra features: more durability, a stronger retraction spring (to ensure it pops down out of the way when not in use), a heavier case, thick rubber cover to prevent injury and a larger capacity with higher water pressure. Ideally, the sprinklers would deliver roughly 80 gallons of water per minute.
Somewhat surprisingly, irrigation systems don't differ much among the different types of sports fields. The same equipment is generally used on all of them, but the fields all have to be zoned correctly in order for the irrigation to be effective. Even professional fields occasionally have this problem.
"What's happening is some areas of the fields are getting more water than you might like, and some areas of the field are getting less water than you might like," Vinchesi says. "The big thing with sports fields these days, especially on soccer and football, is to be able to deal with the wear areas separately from the rest of the field. So you're overseeding those more, and they need to sort of have their own zoning so you can separate them from the rest of the field when you're doing renovation work."
For example, as few as three rows of sprinklers can irrigate a football or soccer field, but that usually puts a row of sprinklers down the middle, which delivers most water away from the most severe wear areas. According to Vinchesi, this type of design also puts a sprinkler right at the free-kick point for soccer, which can be problematic. A four-row system will move the sprinklers out of the middle, but that system isn't perfect, either.
"It used to be most people, when they did football or soccer, they just zoned right across the field," Vinchesi says. "Well, the wear is in the middle, not on the sides, and if you zone across, you can't treat the sides and the middle separately."
The same setup won't necessarily work for both a soccer and football field, either. Soccer fields get a lot of wear in the goal area, so those parts of the field need special attention. That's one of the main problems Vinchesi encounters on fields: irrigation systems that fail to address wear patterns. It takes Vinchesi about an hour to assess the effectiveness of an irrigation system when he performs irrigation audits. An audit measures how evenly the sprinklers apply water.
"You get a visual result, which is usually very eye-opening because it shows you exactly how much water is hitting in certain areas of the field," Vinchesi says. "You can also collect data and do the math and calculate exactly what's going on and get real hard data. But basically you're seeing how uniformly the sprinklers apply water. You're measuring the distribution uniformity, and you can calculate how your schedule should change because of good or bad uniformity."
Irrigation audits also examine soils and root depth, which can help field managers figure out the best time to schedule irrigation. That, in turn, helps keep managers from over-watering their fields, which is a common problem on lower level playing fields, according to Vinchesi. With water scarcity becoming an issue even in non-arid climates, using too much water can be problematic. Some higher-end irrigation systems have moisture sensors that let managers know how much water a field needs. Although the technology can be high-maintenance, it generally works pretty well and does more than a traditional rain-shutoff system.
In general, Vinchesi recommends that irrigation systems have these characteristics: sprinklers with small surface areas (the smaller the top, the better); sprinklers with a high pop, so they can be set unobtrusively low to the ground; a valving system located away from the field; and a controller that allows field managers to water their fields according to their needs.
"Talk to a lot of people," Vinchesi suggests. "Find out what they like and don't like about their systems, and then take all your likes and have your system done that way. Unfortunately, most [irrigation systems], because some contractor or distributor gave them a standard layout, aren't customized for the field. They tried to do it as inexpensively as possible because it's a competitive situation."
Like a lot of things, doing an irrigation system cheaply and doing it correctly may or may not be mutually exclusive.
One thing America has no shortage of is lawsuits. During the past year, representatives from the STMA have been called as expert witnesses to testify in court for lawsuits that stem from athletic fields. There's no getting around the fact that football or lacrosse or field hockey are inherently dangerous sports. Football seems to have a high risk of injury on its own—a poorly maintained field only exacerbates that. To lower the risk, Trigg suggests conducting safety inspections. Documentation of inspection and repairs shows vigilance and helps prove competence should the matter ever go to trial.
"Use checklists to document inspection of field areas like turf, bases mounds and irrigation heads, as well as non-field areas like bleachers, fences, etc.," he says. "Also document when repairs are completed."
Another type of risk comes from outside user groups. Most fields see only a limited amount of activity during one part of the year. To make them more cost-effective, owners rent them to outside groups for concerts, camps, band practices, religious events, and so on. Even though they bring in money, they can prove costly if the field gets damaged in the process.
When he was field manager for AA-minor-league baseball team the Schaumburg (Ill.) Flyers, Fasbender had his field damaged by a baseball camp held in the stadium. The damage was mostly aesthetic—pit burn from high temperatures and protracted wear in one area—but it opened his eyes. Now he has a comprehensive system in place to protect his fields at the University of Oregon.
A field's vulnerability to damaging wear depends on the type of turf it uses (some grasses are more resilient than others) and the condition of the field beforehand. Knowing a field's proclivities helps, but Fasbender thinks something less scientific is more important.
"Communication in the process is the most important thing," he says. "The second thing is preparation… In terms of protecting yourself against those outside user groups, it's not the day of the event you really need to be worried about. It's the preparation beforehand and the communication beforehand."
Fasbender takes photos of his fields before and after events to document any potential problems. For events that could cause extensive damage to the fields, such as concerts, he insists on an refundable deposit upfront equal to the amount it would cost to replace the field.
"I don't believe that you want to do it for everything," he says. "A standard day camp for kids that are coming in and just playing T-ball or Wiffle ball or whatever on a field…the chance of them causing major damage is slim to none, so why put them through it? But in a high-risk situation, you definitely want to protect yourself in that way."
Don't assume the people renting the fields are terribly competent, either. Just because someone is organizing an event doesn't mean they've done it before and know everything it entails.
"That's probably the biggest thing that people get into problems with," Fasbender says. "In the course of their conversations, they assume that the other people understand what it is they're saying."
Field managers should know what they're doing, though. Caring for athletic turf can seem as complicated as raising a child, but at least the problems and solutions inherent to turf maintenance are relatively clear-cut. It takes a certain vigilance to keep athletic turf in good shape, but the effort pays dividends when it's game time—or when the Rolling Stones show up.
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