Fields of Dreams

Making the Best Turf Decisions

By Dawn Klingensmith

Notre Dame Stadium is known as one of the most old-school venues in college football, but the Irish departed from tradition in a big way by announcing that artificial turf would replace the grass in time for the 2014 football season.

Leading up to the decision, fans and administrators were divided over the possible installation of artificial turf, even though the field had looked patchy of late, with one player comparing it to a high school field.

"We had a strong predisposition to stay with a natural grass field," Notre Dame Vice President and Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said in a release. "However, the reality is that in two of the last three seasons since we moved Commencement to the stadium, we have been unable to produce an acceptable playing surface."

Even as the program broke with tradition, it fell right in line with a growing national trend. Artificial surfaces have become the norm in college football, as well as in high school football.

Making the Right Choice

High schools and colleges usually have just one field to accommodate several sports, and natural turf simply cannot withstand the nonstop wear and tear.

Jim Dobmeier, founder and president of a New York-based synthetic turf manufacturer, said high schools and smaller colleges easily make up most of his clientele. That's because high schools and colleges usually have just one field to accommodate several sports, and natural turf simply cannot withstand the nonstop wear and tear. Municipalities have the same problem but make up a fraction of the market compared to schools. Synthetic sports field installations are more expensive, Dobmeier said, and for municipalities using taxpayer dollars, "they're not as reachable."

Whereas Notre Dame switched with hesitancy, others do so eagerly. At Providence High School in Indiana, replacing the natural field with a synthetic surface for football and soccer was "a very big deal" and something the school had wanted "for some time," Athletic Director Mickey Golembeski told The Courier-Journal.

In Baton Rouge, La., several high schools have made the switch at their football stadiums—at least six since 2007, with more expecting to join their ranks. One of the principals described himself as a "grass guy," but told the local press after switching to synthetic, "For us it is more beneficial than not."

Though each project is unique, the benefits are fairly consistent from one to the next. Where demand for field use is high, synthetic turf can bear up against a number of sports and their practice and play schedules, plus additional traffic like marching band, commencement ceremonies and summer camps. Whereas rain and cleats and natural grass can make for a muddy mess, a synthetic surface allows for play during or right after a rain event, provided it has proper drainage. Synthetic fields also require less maintenance, although they are by no means maintenance-free. As for safety, there are studies in support of both field types depending on the type of injury evaluated, but just through daily use, a natural grass field will develop ruts that can trip up a player. A well-maintained synthetic surface, on the other hand, provides for "consistency on every square foot of the field," Dobmeier said.

Listing the benefits of synthetic turf in no way takes away from the desirability of natural grass, which fake turf emulates. "Natural grass when it's in good condition—that's our model," Dobmeier said.

However, "Why does our industry exist to begin with? It's not that perfectly conditioned grass isn't great for athletes," he said.

It's that perfectly conditioned grass that can withstand its intended use is hard to come by. Industry awards are given for turf maintenance because it's a science that requires proper timing of mowing, irrigation, fertilization, pest control and aeration, each of which is a labor expense and budget line item. To find a perfectly tended, perfectly playable natural grass field, we probably need to look "up the scale to perhaps a major university or pro-level team that has the luxury of having multiple fields, with only one sport per field, and separate practice fields," Dobmeier said.

So, let's do just that. Brigham Young University's football team competes in Division I of the NCAA and plays on one of the prettiest fields in college football. In 2009, the field had a complete surface overhaul, and though the national trend is toward synthetic, the school installed a sod hybridized for athletic use, over a new drainage system. The sod also handles Utah's extreme heat and harsh winters—conditions that might have caused another program to understandably opt for synthetic. The grounds crew reportedly spends 100 hours getting the gridiron in playing shape before each game, so the overall maintenance program must be exhaustive.

Higher up the scale, in Major League Soccer, the Toronto team actually removed its artificial surface in 2010 to replace it with natural turf, saying it was something both the fans and players wanted. The installation includes a sub-surface heating system to protect the grass throughout the long playing season, which starts in March and can stretch into November for the playoffs.

To players quoted in the local press, natural grass represents a higher level of professionalism and credibility in their sport.

At the college level, as well, soccer coaches and players "want to stay on natural grass—it's just a soccer preference," said David Nardone, a field expert at Stantec.

Go far enough down the scale, to the parks and recreation level, and grass fields are prevalent because, as Dobmeier pointed out earlier, the alternative is "unreachable" from a cost perspective. Cost came into play when the East Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission (BREC) renovated two stadiums in 2011 and 2012, choosing Bermudagrass for a fraction of the price to install artificial turf.

"We're not saying (artificial turf) is right or wrong for anybody, but for BREC this was the decision that was best for us," BREC's communications director, Cheryl Michelet, told The Advocate.

That seems to be the takeaway—what's right for one program might not be right for another.

Natural Maintenance

Avowed "grass guys"—and there are a lot of them—maintain that healthy natural turf can take quite a beating. "With the right cultural practices, natural grass is very viable" at all levels of play, says Jeff Langner, brand manager for a Buffalo Grove, Ill.-based company that makes topdressing and other turf products.

The biggest threats to a natural grass field are overuse and neglect. After doing nothing but mowing for years, a Rhode Island school saw the consequences of the latter. Compaction on its multiuse sports field was so bad, it felt like cement underfoot and athletes across all sports were getting injured.

Woonsocket High School determined that inadequate maintenance was to blame, but rather than replace the exhausted turf with a lower-maintenance synthetic system, the school vowed to master and consistently perform proper maintenance, with the help of a consultancy for the field rejuvenation and a full-time turf manager for ongoing maintenance.

People mustn't forget that turf is a living organism requiring at least three basics for optimal health—air, water and nutrients.

"It's like people. You can go for a little while without water. Without oxygen, you die," Langner said. "The root system needs oxygen."

Compaction prevents oxygen from reaching the root system. Aeration addresses this while improving soil drainage.

Compaction is a result of inadequate maintenance and overuse, and is common in schools and communities where demand for field use is high. Though the intent is to accommodate a range of users fairly, over time, excessive traffic causes natural turf to be unsafe and unplayable. To keep natural fields in optimal health, users should rotate activities among fields, if that's an option. Limit field use to necessary events only, and don't practice or play in weather that is likely to tear up the field. Change the daily location of practices on the field to prevent excess wear in one area, and move a portable goal around the field to limit wear around the goal posts.

Perform warmups off the field and team drills outside painted numbers. Where wear does appear, spread seed on those areas before games and practices. Ideally, stressed turf requires up to several weeks of "rest" (disuse).

Synthetic Maintenance

Synthetic costs less in day-to-day maintenance but it's not maintenance-free. Synthetic turf requires grooming, cleaning, topdressing (with infill) and even watering, to keep it cool on hot days. This type of field requires occasional repairs because it can rip or wear out in certain places. But though the maintenance should be on a schedule to ensure compliance and consistency, it's not time-sensitive, whereas natural grass requires proper timing of mowing, watering, fertilizing, applying pesticides and aerating.

Of course, if a synthetic turf system comes with maintenance instructions, stick to the manufacturer's recommended schedule and methods; to do otherwise might void the warranty. Many contracts stipulate that the turf company will train the school's maintenance crew to ensure the field is properly cared for.

Ironically, the more grass-like an artificial field, the less maintenance it needs. In general, artificial fields require two to three hours of maintenance a month with the right equipment, Dobmeier said. Infill needs to be added to areas on the field that undergo the most wear and tear, but less so on fields with longer, denser fibers that make it harder for infill to move about. So, the plusher or more "grass-like" the field, the less maintenance, Dobmeier said.

Compaction can occur on artificial turf fields, as well. Compaction of the infill can cause poor drainage, standing water, matted fibers and slipperiness, which can all lead to injury.

When synthetic turf is specified for a project, it is often because the field is expected to see a lot of use—perhaps near-constant use. While it's true that synthetic turf stands up quite well in these circumstances, its life expectancy may be shorter than the eight-year industry standard.

"Synthetic turf is seen as indestructible," Nardone said. "But if you use it from sunup to sundown, all day, every day, with that much use you're not going to get eight to 10 years out of it. People need to be aware of that."

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