The first sporting event to be televised in the U.S. was a baseball game between Columbia and Princeton in 1939. There probably weren’t many people watching, as so few had TV sets. Now, TV screens (and smartphones, tablets and computer monitors) are everywhere, and more often than not they’re tuned into sports. Consider this: of the 10 highest rated television broadcasts in 2016, nine were sporting events. With that many eyes watching games on TV, the playing fields invariably get some of the attention.
Is there anything special that sports turf managers do to get their playing surfaces ready for all of that televised coverage? And what’s the overall impact on the maintenance of a field when it’s frequently featured on TV?
“Do I consciously think, ‘Oh, I’ve got a televised game coming up?’ Maybe if it’s a baseball series, we may do something unique or different with our mowing pattern,” says Mike Echols, supervisor of athletic grounds at Clemson University. “We try to grow the turfgrass at the same level at all times, if we can.
Ten years ago, when we had a televised game, maybe I would do something different. But now, I’ve learned that it’s really about the safety and quality of the playing surface.”
For example, he used to overseed the Clemson football field in the fall “with just astronomical rates of ryegrass, but we’ve backed that way off.” While the ryegrass may boost the color and appearance of the field a bit, there are concerns that ryegrass can be slick during night games and hamper footing. So, this is a case where what might look the absolute best on TV isn’t as important as what will play the absolute best for the athletes.
Similarly, Amy Fouty, CSFM, sports turf manager at Michigan State University, says it’s more important that the turf be maintained properly all the time than groomed just for a TV game. “Preparation for Saturdays in the fall begins with great care and attention to the science of managing soils and turfgrass throughout the year,” she explains. “A field that is healthy, maintained properly and mowed consistently will naturally have a healthy color and dense stand of turfgrass.” One thing that definitely needs to show up on TV screens are the field markings, and Fouty says that she and her team have done “a great deal of research to make sure we have the correct and brightest paint for our climate and grass.” She’s found that GameDay paint, from Pioneer Athletics (PioneerAthletics.com), works best at Spartan Stadium.
At Florida State University, Kyle Slaton, assistant athletic director for athletic turf, has developed a program to help ensure that fields are ready for a close-up when the TV cameras come. “We do a ‘TV app’ on Wednesday night of game week,” Slaton explains. “It’s a liquid fertilizer application of iron and nitrate. It helps us get that last push for TV.” Slaton does the “TV app” not only for football, but also prior to most baseball, softball and soccer games, too. “There’s an assumption that almost all of our games (for most sports) will be on TV somewhere, so it’s no longer about doing extra things; being on TV is now a normal part of our job,” he says.
And the quality people see in the field is a reflection of the university, says Slaton. “It’s important for us to keep that positive image of our university and sports programs every game now.”
“High-definition TV broadcasts certainly provide viewers at home with an excellent picture of the game and the playing field,” says John Turnour, director of field operations for the Washington Nationals. But, he adds, the picture on TV screens isn’t what drives field maintenance programs. “We, as sports field managers, are our own biggest critics. If we aren’t happy with how the field is presenting itself, whether it’s the quality of mowing, the crispness of edges, the shape of the pitching mound, or how clean the infield skinned surface is playing, we see all that and much more each day when we are on the field,” says Turnour. “HD broadcasts aren’t the reason why we are going to make adjustments to those areas; we are going to make the improvements based on what we see on a daily basis working with the field.”
Turnour says that his dedicated crew takes the same thorough approach to getting the field ready for each game – providing a consistent, safe playing surface – whether it’s on national TV or not.
Todd Tribble, athletic field superintendent at Oklahoma State University, feels the same way. “Whether we’re on TV or not, we hope the product that we put out is always going to be the same,” he explains. And that means managing the field to a high standard all the time, not just prior to it being on TV, Tribble emphasizes. The football field at Oklahoma State is synthetic, so he says there’s only a few things that need to be done to get it ready for a televised game. On Friday night, after both teams have done their walk-throughs and the band has practiced, the field is sprayed with a disinfectant and Downey, to break the surface tension. “We make sure it’s clean, and then we brush it,” says Tribble.
There’s more that can be done to get the baseball field ready for TV, he adds. “If we’re on TV, there are certain mow patterns that show up better, so we tend to mow home-to-second base if we’re going to be on TV,” says Tribble. “And we try to make sure that pattern has been mowed four times before we’re going to be on, just to get all of our lines straight, the same width, crisp and bright.” This is in part because the camera decks are lower at the college level than they are in the professional ranks; the lower angle means it takes a little extra work to make the sure the mowing patterns really stand out. Tribble sometimes also sprays iron, “just to brighten up the appearance of the field.”
Behind the scenes
Jonathan Dewitt, director of athletic grounds at the University of Alabama, says he doesn’t do much differently to the field at Bryant-Denny Stadium prior to televised games. “I think the biggest impact for me is just the extra people and traffic,” that comes with TV crews being on-site, says Dewitt. “The stadium is a big place… but, by the time you get the concession people, security and all the other groups in there, it can get kind of tight. When you have TV coming in, they’re just one more group that you have to work around.”
Dewitt says he’s fortunate that Alabama has such a national following that it typically gets more experienced TV crews for its games – people who’ve been to Bryant-Denny Stadium many times, have covered dozens and dozens of other college football games, and know what they can or can’t do in terms coming onto the playing surface. Schools that might not be quite so high-profile often end up with less experienced TV crews (the “B crew” or the “C crew,” he says), and that can lead to problems. At one school where Dewitt worked in the past, for example, a TV crew took a golf cart and drove onto the field when the logos were being painted – and drove through the wet paint. “I lost my mind!” says Dewitt, who quickly put an end to their expedition.
TV crews are always looking for an extra story or an extra angle, and sometimes that involves the grounds crew, points out Dewitt. Like when the TV team wants to shoot some “B-roll” footage to use during the broadcast. “One time they asked us if we could run the irrigation at sunrise, about 6 a.m. on a day when we had a 7 p.m. game so they could get a shot of it,” he cites as one example. That was before the stadium had an internet-based irrigation system, so Dewitt had to get up at 5 a.m. to oversee that process.
Or, they may want to shoot B-roll of the field markings being painted, while the crew is hustling to get the job done. While it can sometimes slow down field work, Dewitt tries to take an understanding approach when working with TV crews. “They’re just doing their job,” he says.
There are cameras everywhere at sporting events these days, and that can also impact the field maintenance operation. “I’m sure they’re going to put cameras in the footballs pretty soon!” says Echols. While that hasn’t happened yet, TV coverage often uses “pylon cameras” to get a good look at the touchdown line. So, Echols needs to work with crews to help them bury the wiring to those cameras.
At Florida State, Slaton says that nearly half of the team’s football games in recent years have been played in the primetime Saturday night slot. It’s given he and his sports turf crew plenty of experience dealing with TV coverage. “We have become so used to all the extras that come with it, like the sky cam, the pylon cam and extra sideline carts,” he explains.
Making it on TV
In today’s selfie world, many people would be thrilled to be talked about on TV. But that’s not the case for most sports turf managers. “I’m behind the scenes on purpose – it’s one of the things I like about this job,” says Dewitt. But with all the coverage of sports on TV these days, he laments that sports field maintenance “isn’t behind the scenes much anymore.”
Dewitt says that sometimes those covering the game on TV make comments about field conditions without understanding much about sports turf maintenance, perhaps opining that the field is “tearing up” when it’s simply responding normally in game conditions. Or, a broadcaster may talk idly about the field just as a way to fill time during a broadcast. Dewitt says it can be frustrating to hear those sorts of comments from someone on TV who just rolled into town and is sitting in a booth high above the field, after he and has crew have been working 12- to 14-hour days to get the field ready. Plus, he says, those working the sports turf industry have higher standards than anyone else. If some aspect of the field isn’t perfect, “nobody is going to beat me up more than I’m going to beat myself up,” says Dewitt.
“I do not take [TV broadcasters’] comments about the field personally, positive or negative. They are commentating on what their perspective is. I see what is going on during the game and will always be the field’s toughest critic,” seconds Fouty. Still, she says, when it comes to discussing the field on air, “No commentary is the best commentary.” To help head off any erroneous discussion about the field, Fouty says she takes a welcoming and proactive approach to dealing with TV crews. “I take whatever time is necessary to answer their questions regarding the field and its care, so there is no speculation,” she explains.
Slaton takes a similar approach at Florida State. He acknowledges that criticism of the field on TV can be difficult to take – “it’s tough not to let things personal because our team spends a lot of hours and take pride in our work,” says Slaton – but he’s found that if there’s anything unusual happening with the field conditions, it’s best to work to educate the TV broadcasters about the turf, which lets them be prepared for whatever might come up during the game.
Echols sums it up this way: As a sports field manager, it’s always his hope that the talk is about the teams playing each other, and not the field. “If the field becomes an issue, that’s not good,” he says.
Though there are times when the TV crews can help spread a positive, educational message about the work that goes into maintaining a sports field to high standards. “We are lucky to have announcers who are extremely supportive of our work and who understand the importance and impact of our efforts on the game,” says Turnour.
Millions of people tune in to watch sports on TV, and sports turf managers are no exception. Turnour watches most home games on his office TV, “not to watch the game or score, but typically I’m critiquing what I’m seeing as far as field conditions,” he explains. “Viewing the game on TV offers us a different perspective than what we see out on the field. It’s important to pay attention to both perspectives to ensure a high-quality playing surface that not only looks good but plays well, too.”
“I generally watch the games on TV,” seconds Dewitt. After a long week of getting the field ready, by gameday he’s ready to retreat to his office, a little removed from the noise and chaos out on the field. “I know a lot of sports field managers who do that,” says Dewitt. “It’s fun, with the delay on the TV coverage, to try to guess what’s happened when you hear a big cheer.” He does note that it can be difficult to evaluate the field on TV, because every screen seems to display a slightly different shade of green, and even the camera angles can have a dramatic effect on how the field looks. “But I’ve actually found that TV is pretty forgiving,” Dewitt notes. Last year there were times when he wasn’t happy with the way the school’s baseball field was looking, but he says that when he walked upstairs and saw it on a bank of TVs at the ballpark, “I thought, ‘Hey, that looks great!'”
Fouty says she uses TV coverage as a tool to help her monitor changes in field conditions over time. “I keep a copy of each home game on DVD,” she explains. “They are good tools to use to evaluate conditions from year to year or game to game.”
And Slaton says he often sees his field on TV during clips of games, especially during the lead-up to the NFL Draft. “I can’t go a day without seeing footage from a home game on some TV show about the draft,” he says. “So, I catch myself noticing how the field looked and played in those clips. And I always try to remind myself how our crews’ work can be seen on TV on a daily basis, and that’s sort of cool.”