For 50 years we have argued the question: Which is the better sporting surface, natural grass or synthetic turf? The arguments can get emotional. I’m not here to answer the question, but rather to question the question.
Consider this: A group of international women’s soccer players filed suit last year to stop FIFA from staging the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada on artificial pitches. Their basic dispute was that FIFA acted with gender discrimination by allowing the prestigious tournament to be played on an “inferior surface” and it has never, and would never, allow this for the men. Meanwhile, in school districts all over the country, high school football programs hail the wonderful turf “field upgrade” over the old natural grass. Who is right?
It depends where you sit.
Sports field managers have been, in some cases, the most vocal opponents of artificial turf. I’m no different. When the newer 3G artificial turf fields hit the market back in the 1990s, there was a great deal of concern over some of the claims being made by artificial turf proponents. I can remember when the common talk was 20-year life spans and no maintenance required.
Today, the real answer to which is the best surface is: both. Ideal sports facilities, when budgets aren’t nearly as constrained, have both synthetic and artificial surfaces. They can complement each other very well.
Professional football and soccer teams often have both types of surfaces at their training facilities. When weather like snow or rain threaten to severely damage the grass practice fields, they can temporarily use the artificial surface, giving the grass fields a much-needed rest instead of a beating. The team practices on a better surface this way over more of the season.
School districts and municipal parks can reschedule some games to a facility with synthetic turf when conditions warrant, both for players’ safety and for the good of the grass fields, which also relates to player safety.
I would bet that if you asked 100 athletes to run at full speed and make a diving catch or header and let them choose the surface – grass or turf – almost all would pick the grass surface. If it was in bad shape, then the trend would reverse. Until we better objectively quantify playing field conditions in context, we pretty much guess at which is better.
Today, in a giant land-locked city like New York City, with $1 million square-foot land values and an epidemic of child obesity shared with the entire country, is a natural grass surface always the best choice? Still, some synthetic turf installations over the last 20 years were done mostly due to vanity and “keeping up with the Joneses” attitudes.
Capital funds in schools and municipalities seem much easier to marshal than maintenance dollars, considering the many funding sources for grass-to-turf conversions and new synthetic fields, and lack of funding for maintenance fortification of existing grass fields.
Typically, a synthetic field installation is considered a capital improvement. Renovating the natural grass surface, usually for far fewer dollars, is considered maintenance. But it’s hard to blame them when we all know the likelihood is for some school districts or parks to further cut maintenance on, and overuse, their ball fields. Why give a grant to a doomed venture?
We have newer and emergent natural grass playing field management techniques that can strongly improve the performance of our fields, but how will they help if we don’t prioritize quality athletic field maintenance programs?
We should have granted and otherwise funded much more scientific, peer-reviewed research published in credible journals first, then started funding the logical and reasonably best surfaces possible with our public and private grant dollars and programs. When it comes to our sports fields, we tend to leap before we look. When will we learn?
We know a lot about school bus safety, and rightly so. But we know very little, in comparison, about the health and safety aspects of the playing surfaces to which those buses take young athletes for competition. Why is that?
Now there’s a good question.