“There are many ways of going forward, but only one way of standing still.”
Those words of wisdom were spoken by President Franklin D. Roosevelt—a revered and distinguished American icon. But alas, he wasn’t a sports field manager. Still, his words about growing, and making progress, do ring true in the sports field industry.
This is evident by the results of SportsField Management’s 2016 State of the Industry Survey. Specifically, the fact that the vast majority of respondents feel the industry is heading in a good direction—46 percent responded, “Yes, our industry is on the upswing” when asked, “Generally, do you feel good about the sports field management industry?” And 50 percent responded “Somewhat, our industry seems to be growing a bit.”
Count Frank Newman, supervisor at the Heritage Park Sports Complex in Clarksville, Tennessee, as one of the survey respondents who feels the industry has a bright future.
“The upswing comes from me witnessing the concerns of safety and quality to athletic fields from the professional all the way down to municipal fields,” Newman says. “Also, I’m seeing the ‘smaller’ guys taking the time to educate themselves and actually put in the work to provide turf that says something about their complex. As for the greater concern of safety, it’s almost to the point where it’s expected at every level to provide safe playing surfaces.”
The results of our 14-question survey are based on 290 respondents, 68 percent of which are sports turf managers and assistants. Contractors, athletic directors, coaches and consultants also participated in the survey, which sheds light on sports field managers’ maintenance budgets and challenges, as well as their views on sustainability and water conservation.
Respondents represent industry segments from municipalities to schools to colleges to the pros. Forty-one percent of respondents oversee one to 10 fields, while, at the other end of the spectrum, 24 percent oversee more than 16 fields. While most oversee natural grass fields, 38 percent oversee both natural and synthetic fields.
Just as in any other industry, technology is changing the way sports field managers do business—on and off the field. From mobile apps on smartphones, to tablets and laptop computers equipped with endless features, to Bluetooth technology and GPS mapping, any sports field manager who wants to incorporate the convenience of modern technology can choose from many different avenues.
Mobile apps on smartphones topped our survey (60 percent) as the most-used technology on fields.
“There are a lot of great apps out there for the green industry, for tablets and smartphones,” says Brian Winka, CSFM, president of the Gateway Chapter of the Sports Turf Managers Association and supervisor for the city of Chesterfield, Missouri, parks department. “Dr. Barry Stewart, from Mississippi State University, gave a great presentation on some very useful apps at the 2015 STMA conference, and I use many of those apps today for land measurements, weeds and disease ID, and turf nutritional information.”
Winka also points out that his tablet is an indispensable tool.
“I run irrigation controllers at the complex, from my tablet,” Winka says. “I also use a tablet to take pictures of the work that my staff is doing—telling someone about a project is one thing, but showing them a picture is the best way to sell what you and your staff can accomplish.
“Checking the weather is another function or app that I use daily, if not hourly, on some days,” he adds.
Heather Nabozny, head groundskeeper at Comerica Park (home of the Detroit Tigers), agrees that weather apps on her smartphone are the most used.
“The app that I use is called Radar Scope; I use this more than any other app,” Nabozny says. “For forecasts comparisons when I’m out and about, I use the Weather Channel, My-Cast and AccuWeather. I also us MLB at Bat for baseball and schedule info.”
YouTube was also mentioned by several respondents as a fantastic resource on the job.
Break out the spreadsheets
Budgets are often a cringe-worthy topic when it comes to sports field managers. After all, who really has fun number-crunching, looking at spreadsheets and analyzing expenditures?
Nevertheless, although bland and often stressful, budgets are a key component for any sports field manager, especially when it comes to a new year – is your budget increasing, decreasing or staying the same?
This is what we asked in our survey, and the majority of respondents (65 percent) answered that their 2016 budget will be about the same as their 2015 budget. Some aren’t as fortunate. Difficult situations can arise when a budget is cut, yet expectations stay the same, or even increase.
About 12 percent of respondents reported that their 2016 budgets are decreasing by either 5 percent, 10 percent or more than 10 percent. This is a recurring theme for many sports field managers, especially in smaller municipalities. This is perhaps where “doing more with less” comes into play. Ben Barfield, athletic director for Jackson Youth Sports in Jackson, South Carolina, told us earlier this year in our report titled “Beating the Budget” that he routinely does just that at his municipal facilities.
“Doing more with less is a way of life in a small community,” Barfield said. “Folks expect more but don’t realize what it takes to deliver a great field. … It’s difficult when you’re in competition with larger, bigger-city recreation departments.”
About 23 percent of respondents reported that their 2016 budgets are increasing by either five percent, 10 percent or more than 10 percent. One respondent in the “up 10 percent” category is Winka, who views a budget increase as a “stamp of approval.”
“Having a sufficient budget makes me happy and proud,” Winka says. “Happy that the money is there for us to continue to improve the complex and proud that our proven track record of success over the years has helped us secure more budget money.
“With our budget increase we plan on doing a couple of field renovations, in-house. We plan on renovating a soccer field by stripping the turf, laser-grading the field, adding drain lines, re-doing the irrigation, adding a 6-inch sand base and then sprigging the field. We’re fortunate enough to have the tools to do all the work in-house, except for the sprigging.”
Winka reports that he and the crew at the Chesterfield Valley Athletic Complex also will renovate a baseball field this offseason.
“The original grass infield was just laid on top of the existing native soil infield mix,” he says. “Our plan is to remove the turf from the infield and re-grade the skin. We’ll then excavate the soil from the infield and modify it so that it’s more conducive to growing turf. We’ll also add new irrigation for the grass infield and skinned area and then modify the infield mix with DuraEdge.”
Up to the challenge?
In an ultra-close vote, Mother Nature (28 percent) edged out finding reliable help, old equipment and very high expectations as the answer to our question, “What’s the biggest challenge you face in managing your field(s)?”
Mother Nature was the answer given by Emmett House, supervisor of grounds at Colgate University in New York.
“In the spring we receive a good amount of rain, which makes it hard to get teams on grass,” House explains. “To alleviate this issue, we aerate and topdress fields more aggressively. This aids in drainage and growing a better strand of turf. In the winter, we have to deal with a lot of lake-effect snow and with three turf fields; we plow them more than roads. We have to keep them clear for lacrosse.”
At another university 485 miles west, Jason DeMink, sports turf specialist at the University of Michigan, cited finding reliable help as his toughest challenge. In Ann Arbor, the fields are high-volume in terms of usage, so having knowledgeable and dedicated workers is vital to operations.
“While finding these students is not necessarily difficult, the problem lies within our limitation to only give them part-time, internship-based work and the simple fact that we can’t necessarily guarantee them full-time work as a result of their time here,” DeMink says. “The way in which we try and respond to this challenge is providing these workers with a great learning environment, where we give them insight into everything that goes into running a great field with the hope that the experience they gain with us will set them up for future success, regardless of where that may be.”
Joey Fitzgerald, a superintendent at Camelback Ranch—a Phoenix spring training baseball complex shared by the Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers that houses 15 sand-based fields—also cited finding reliable help as his biggest challenge. Fitzgerald says the facility’s core grounds crew members are “tremendous.” But the problem occurs when attempting to locate the type of person who is willing to move up in the industry while working a constantly changing schedule for part-time pay.
“This is compounded when you factor in multiple complexes similar to ours in the area searching for the same thing,” Fitzgerald says. “When you get high-quality people, they benefit your facility in that position, but ultimately you want them to fill a higher-level role in which they are capable. This certainly isn’t an obstacle that I’ve only seen at Camelback Ranch. I continually ran into it at both of my previous stops at the minor-league level in Kansas City and Chattanooga.”
Fitzgerald says one thing that has alleviated the situation is focusing on finding people who have common ground with the sports field industry who are also looking to get a foot in the door. “Whether it’s from an area school with a turf program or a junior college baseball team,” Fitzgerald says. “This certainly requires scheduling flexibility on our end, but the benefit of having high-quality individuals looking to excel at the part-time level certainly outweighs any minor inconvenience of working around their schedule.”
High expectations are what challenges Chad Robinson the most. Robinson manages a brand-new sports complex (opening in May) in the city of Oxford, Alabama. “The city has invested quite a bit of money into [the new complex],” Robinson says. “The city, its citizens and stakeholders expect the facility to flourish and eventually be profitable.”
Subject of sustainability
Sustainability is much more than just a buzz word at this point. Carefully and mindfully caring for fields with consideration for the environment—and future generations—is now a way of life for many sports field managers.
Fifty-seven percent of respondents answered “Yes, we have committed to improving our environmental, economic and social components,” when asked “Have you embraced the concept of sustainability at your operation?” Furthering the point, 30 percent responded: “Not really, but I’m trying to learn more about sustainability.”
At Comerica Park, Nabozny and her crew are certainly among those who are all aboard when it comes to sustainability.
“I think all of Major League Baseball (and its clubs), with its green initiative, have made strides to help protect, preserve and reuse resources,” Nabozny says. “I know that as a business, the Tigers have made strides with energy consumption, conserving and lowering the amount of energy used to operate. In regards to the grounds portion of sustainability, we recycle grass clippings; we don’t collect them. They’re returned to the field to act as additional nutrients for the plant.
“Most of our fertilization is done foliarly,” she adds. “Giving the plant only what it needs for about 10 days, nutrients are absorbed and used up without leaching. When we do use granular products, we use a very slow-release product that only needs applying twice a year. Again, this gives the plant small amounts so that leaching and volatilization are unlikely.”
In Alabama, Robinson and his crew also keep sustainability on their radar at all times. They use the E-Par environmental management system to “ensure our facilities are up to speed in all environmentally applicable areas,” Robinson says.
Water conversation also comes into play when discussing sustainability—84 percent of respondents said they’re trying to conserve water in some way.
“I’m starting to use wetting agents to aid in water holding,” House says in regards to water-saving measures at Colgate University. “The big improvement was installing an in-ground irrigation system, which gives me the ability to water in the morning and water more efficiently.”
In the dry Arizona climate, water conservation is constantly in play, something Fitzgerald knows well at Camelback Ranch.
“We focus on how our watering practices impact soil and root health, instead of just watering on how the grass looks,” he says. “This tremendously lessens our [water] output. Due to constant baseball activity on certain fields throughout various times of the year, we aren’t able to have our irrigation run for deep watering cycles on a less frequent basis, but that’s definitely a focus when the calendar opens up for us.”
If you could do it over?
We asked, “If you could do it all over again, would you become a sports field manager?” For Nabozny, this one was a no-brainer.
“I love my chosen field,” she says. “I love to work outside. I love the fact that I can be physically active at work. Obviously, when dealing with Mother Nature, you take the good with the bad, and, in my opinion, the good far outweighs the bad.
“I love the sense of satisfaction when I look out onto the field and see the fruits of our labor immediately in front of us.”
The majority agrees with her, as 69 percent answered: ‘Yes, I love my chosen field.” About 27 percent said “I’m not sure” and just four percent answered “No, I wish I would’ve gone into something else.”
For DeMink at the University of Michigan, this question was also an easy one to answer—the career choice “fits him perfectly.”
“Manual labor can be incredibly gratifying, and, with turf management, it’s a labor of love,” he explains. “I love to get my hands dirty, and I love the fact that, even with the best plans in place, quite often thinking quickly on your feet is necessary. At the end of the day, this job allows me to work with some incredible team members, and our family-style work environment makes it that much more gratifying to put forward your best effort.
“I wouldn’t trade my profession for anything.”