Managing municipal fields is complex, complicated by the need to please multiple user groups, uphold the image of the city, bring revenue to the community and – most importantly – provide safe playing surfaces for the athletes. All this must be accomplished within budgetary limitations and the ever-present challenges of fluctuating weather conditions. As field use amps up during the summer months, SportsField Management connected with three experienced sports field managers for their insight on tackling the challenges related to caring for multiple municipal fields:
Clearly defining the basics of a facility’s fields and typical usage provides the structure for developing a maintenance program and constantly fine-tuning it.
Al Siebert, CSFM, is the maintenance superintendent for the Peoria Sports Complex, in Peoria, Arizona. The complex is the spring training facility for Major League Baseball’s Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres; both teams hold year-round activities there. It also hosts other professional-level baseball teams; youth and adult baseball league and tournament play; and private and city-sponsored special events. The 145-acre complex includes the stadium field (which also hosts minor league soccer) and 12 full-size practice fields (six are lighted). The soil profile for all fields is 12-inches of sandy loam. Some fields feature Tifway 419; others have Midiron.
Ken Edwards, CSFM, is the sports field manager for the Gulfport Sportsplex for the city of Gulfport, Mississippi. The 250-acre recreational park features a five-plex, including the championship field, and a quad, all with 1,500 square foot, multiuse, skinned infields. A quad at the city’s Goldin SportsPlex has the same features. All baseball fields are lighted and each handles 880 games per season. The soil profile of the outfields and the six international-size soccer/football fields is the United States Golf Association (USGA) standard – 80 percent sand and 20 percent peat. All turf is Tifway 419 bermudagrass.
Troy Pedersen is the complex supervisor for the city of Council Bluffs, Iowa, Recreation Complex. It features four softball fields, four baseball diamonds and two youth/fast pitch fields (all lighted); nine full-size soccer fields and four full-size football fields (none lighted). Pedersen says, “We move soccer fields around the complex, varying the setup at the start of the spring and fall seasons to accommodate anticipated usage for each level of play, based on previous seasons. Our spring 2016 layout gave us a 28-field mix for soccer and football.” Council Bluffs brought in 10 feet of clay soil to build up the ground level when developing the complex, and that forms the soil profile for all but the skinned areas of the fields. The turf is a combination of bluegrass and perennial ryegrass cultivars.
Field use for both the Gulfport and Council Bluffs complexes is local, primarily city-coordinated youth to adult league play Mondays through Thursdays, with traveling tournaments Fridays through Sundays. The exceptions for Edwards at Gulfport are a few week-long tournaments in July and the city’s flag and tackle football league, which runs an eight-week program that takes over those fields.
For Pedersen, the exceptions start in mid-June. Triple Crown, the company that holds youth baseball tournaments in conjunction with the NCAA Men’s College World Series, is centralized at the Council Bluffs complex for a three-week stretch of play that brings in over 530 teams from 38 states. That’s immediately followed by three weeks of the Nebraska State USSSA tournament, with 200 to 300 teams.
Pedersen is one of four full-time city employees at the Council Bluffs complex. For much of the year, they’ll work 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and alternate as needed with one full-timer working with a crew from their seasonal staff of 10 to 12 to rake, drag and chalk the ballfields. For tournaments, the complex is usually staffed from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m., and the two major tournaments require full staffing throughout the six weeks.
Edwards develops a long-range maintenance plan that incorporates all the cultural practices into a master schedule a year in advance. He says, “Once that’s approved by my director, we send it to the operations coordinators and they schedule field use around it.”
He blocks out the first two weeks in March to aerate, verticut and topdress to transition the 419 into spring. He does the same in August to start the fall transition. “We don’t do any overseeding because our 419 doesn’t go totally dormant. Our turf is stronger without the competition.” From May through October, coordinators book no field use for the first three weekdays of the month. Edwards says, “That’s our window for fertilization and any needed spray application of control products and it allows for the mandatory re-entry interval. If we don’t need to spray, we use the time for additional maintenance.”
Gulfport rarely has weekday league play before 5 p.m. Weekend play starts early and goes late into the night. Edwards and his full-time staff of six work weekdays from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. “The leagues and the promoters are responsible for dragging and chalking during games,” he says. “The city supplies a couple of Club Cars, drag mats, a chalk machine and chalk, rakes, brooms and hoses.” City rec aides are on-site during evening and weekend play. They handle cleanup, answer basic questions and can alert other city personnel should a problem arise.
Edwards adds, “Our first task on Mondays is to box blade and level out all the skinned infields. Daily, we tackle the cleanup, drag the infields, prep for the night’s activities and then mow and focus on other maintenance practices.”
Siebert uses the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) Playing Conditions Index (PCI) report forms three times a year, along with their own Excel field maintenance reports, to assess field conditions. He says, “We use a full facility calendar to work with our operations department to spread field use evenly throughout the complex and to set priority rankings for our multiple user groups. We average 325 games/practices a year per field with average use of 3.5 hours per day. Cooperation from operations ensures no field use is scheduled the day before or the day after our larger tournaments. They work with us to rotate use to allow each field downtime twice a year.”
Siebert is part of a full-time staff of nine, which includes an events coordinator, two crew leaders, an irrigation technician, three maintenance workers and an equipment mechanic responsible for three sites. His seasonal staff varies from eight to 30, based on workload. He says, “Our part-time staff hours equal those of eight full-time employees. We have staff members on-site for all events.”
Annual cultural practices are basically the same for each field. “Our summer maintenance schedule includes three to four aerifications (slice, solid tine and core); two verticuttings; fraze mowing one or two fields, plus fraze mowing the infield edges for eight to 12 fields. We topdress infields and sod edges as needed. It takes close to two months to fit in time to complete these tasks,” Siebert says.
Because of Peoria’s extreme southwest temperatures in July and August, the majority of games are played at night. “The Rookie League teams opt to practice in late evenings and minor league practice fields are only rented for early morning hours during weekends,” reports Siebert. “That creates our opening to bring in the outside contractors who handle the fraze mowing and to work in our own heavy verticutting.”
Pedersen works with the Council Bluffs recreation superintendent who does all the scheduling for the city’s leagues and books the weekend tournaments. Each tournament director does their own scheduling. “Our field management program is built around scheduled usage,” says Pedersen. While he tracks all usage and maintenance procedures in conjunction with temperatures, precipitation and related conditions, and has past records for comparison, Iowa’s weather fluctuates dramatically, with no “typical” weather pattern. Observation and degree-days are his primary guides.
Pedersen aerates with solid tines “every chance we get,” and core aerates and deep tines in the fall. “We don’t have the equipment for large-scale topdressing or the budget to significantly amend the profile. We start the spring overseeding with a mix of bluegrass cultivars. Every two to three weeks during soccer season we overseed those fields with a mix of ryegrass cultivars and let the players cleat it in.” His window for soccer/football field renovation is June through late August before the fall season begins. That’s bad timing for cool-season grasses. He says, “We do as much soil prep as weather allows followed by a heavy overseeding with a blend of bluegrasses and ryes. Fertilization timing and formulation varies on all our fields, based on grass needs, but we usually make six to eight applications a year.”
All three facilities have inground irrigation systems with smart controllers, for easier and more efficient water management. None have water restrictions beyond budgetary restraints. Getting sufficient water to the fields when heat is intense is an issue.
Peoria conducts two water audits annually, adjusting the control system for optimal performance.
“We’ve installed irrigation heads to quickly pre-water the skins before dragging and soak them after our final prep,” says Siebert. “Light watering of the infield turf nightly and each morning is necessary to keep our infields/collars thriving.”
It’s important to ponder the possibilities to devise strategies that help balance field use demands with available resources.
At Gulfport, Edwards reserves Tuesdays for common area maintenance, the mowing, blowing, string trimming and such. He says, “We’ll skip that if we have a rainout and the overall look will be fine, but by the next Tuesday it’s easy to see the importance of scheduling it consistently.”
In 2015, the Council Bluffs complex had some form of rain delay or cancellation the first seven weekends of the season. Pedersen says, “Our best defense is sponging up surface water to allow the fields to dry. We get old foam furniture cushions from the city recycling center, remove the fabric, and we have good, thick foam mats – for free.”
Siebert’s most important strategy to conserve labor and materials is rehydrating the used clay. He says, “We keep calcine clay products off our mounds and plates because they are nonbinding and we don’t want them mixed into the existing clay. We sweep the holes of loose clay, wet it and mix it right next to the holes at the mound and plate, fill it back in and tamp it. We only use fresh clay and the more traditional methods during spring training or reconditioning.”
Siebert calls their laser leveling equipment their most cost-efficient purchase. “We laser grade all of our fields three times a year because of all the activity we have. Without that, we would have numerous rainouts during our monsoon seasons. It saves on purchases of drying materials, too.”
As Siebert says, “With multiple fields to maintain, setting priorities, constant communication and keeping processes simple are the key elements to a successful operation.”