Editor’s Note: This piece, authored by Ross Kurcab, CSFM, as part of his Field Notes monthly column, originally appeared in the April, 2013 issue.
We open another spring season and the return of outdoor sports. Be on the watch for new and growing abiotic disease of turfgrass spreading rapidly in most major stadiums and filtering down to the school and comunity fields. There is no known cure as of yet, but if you are lucky, you’ll get away with just some stressed turf and aggravation. More serious cases can kill parts or all of the playing surface and ruin field quality for the rest of the year. Preventative measures have been largely worthless in combating the disease, and we can only hope that researchers catch up to this plague before it infects every sports field in the country.
I’m talking about what I call “eventitis.” The last decade has seen a tremendous growth in non-sport event use on our athletic fields, especially, but not exclusively, at our professional sports stadiums. In some venues it has almost grown to the point where the sports field manager could better describe their job as a floor manager at an events center that sometimes hosts soccer, football or baseball games.
The business of sports has swallowed up the game of sports in a trend that has an eminent crash coming with field safety and quality concerns. Fun is good and revenue is great, but we as sports field managers will have to be the ones to keep legitimate business concerns from overrunning these field quality and safety concerns for the athletes.
Many factors fuel this trend. The revenue demands at all these relatively new stadiums and ballparks are greater than the old days of municipally owned and operated facilities. It takes a lot of money to maintain and operate these new high-tech venues. The rise of sports administration programs in the universities plays its part. Graduates are now in admin positions and running things as more of a business and better leveraging every aspect of the popularity of pro sports.
New technologies in turf flooring systems have made it practical to book the types of events on the field that were never even thought of before, like food service with tables and chairs, or a bandstand, or almost anything you can think of where people say they were “on the field.” Even through a tough economy, sponsorship growth in professional sports continues to outpace even optimistic projections. The bigger deals require bigger considerations, like access to the field for a picnic, maybe a movie night or a pregame field pass to watch the players warm up, something like that.
The meteoric growth of the event planning business recently has turned the venues into an attractive space for hosting corporate and private events, and the field is the easiest thing to sell. Many stadiums and ballparks now have full-time special events departments to facilitate all this and sell the venue. In fact, they often contract to third-party event planners that sell the space (field) and just pay rent.
The results are large demands placed on the fields (and the sports field managers) to accommodate all these non-sporting events, maybe a dozen in the crazy weeks. Here are just a few examples: Sleepovers, youth and amateur games (and all the parents), charity races, wine and arts festivals, movie nights, corporate and private picnics, luncheons, TV commercial shoots, flag football tournaments, kickball, lacrosse mini jams, concerts big and small, hamburger cook-offs, marriage proposals, tours, seminars, game entertainment rehearsals involving hundreds of people, team practices, in-game promotions, on-field pregame TV productions and stages, prom crowning, fireworks shows, marching band competitions, punt-pass-kick competitions, team-building events, photo shoots, holiday pictures, charity games and events, monster trucks (or any other kind of dirt show imaginable), military re-enlistment ceremonies, rave parties, dance floors, police dog competitions – I could go on, but I do have a word limit here.
Impacts from eventitis can be direct and indirect and range in severity from negligible to complete destruction of the area used. Direct impacts are usually foot-traffic related. Hundreds or even thousands of people for the larger events can heavily bruise grass canopies and crowns in the areas of concentrated traffic, compaction restricting the critical root system. Flooring systems block sunlight and smash down part or all of the turf, some block gaseous exchange and can heat up excessively in the summer concert/event season.
Direct damage can occur from the equipment or elements used in the event. Most of the damage from concerts is caused by the construction and teardown of the stage and mixing tower. Indirect impacts from a heavy event schedule can best be described as “death by a thousand cuts.” The cumulative effects of even very light event damage in a busy season can weaken grass to where it cannot take the stronger abuse from the game schedule, the decline showing itself long after the event has occurred. Granted, most of these non-sporting events are designed to impact “noncritical” areas of the playing surface. But as sports field managers, we realize that there are no such noncritical areas. Players go flying out of bounds all the time in every sport.
Another important indirect impact is knocking the turf team off the optimal maintenance program. Only a sports field manager knows how important it is that work on the field be done correctly and at the right time. Spray apps best be done in the morning, or you may have to cancel in more wind-prone afternoons. Skinned areas have to be wetted and allowed to dry to the optimal level over time. You can’t schedule many important field treatments with any greater certainty than the forecasters predict the daily and weekly weather. A two-hour event may not begin until 5 p.m., but the setup may begin hours in advance and will take about the same time to take down afterwards. All the time many vital maintenance procedures are impossible or very limited, like washing in a granular application with the irrigation system.
I offer no known cure here, just this initial description of the disease.