Editor’s note: This column, originally titled “Does it Work?” was originally published in the February 2013 issue of SportsField Management. 

One thing is sure for the modern sports field manager: The technology and tools we use to manage our fields change and improve constantly. I remember 30 years ago when there were few if any products, services or equipment used on athletic fields that were not engineered for golf course turf management. We have seen our industry mature with product development geared specifically for sports field management. The best sports field managers realize this, and use it to their advantage. They are always open to a better way and don’t mind being proven wrong (now and then). Those who stick to products and services out of habit, no longer looking for a better way, will be passed up in a profession like ours.

How do you evaluate a new treatment idea (product or service) for your fields? It can be difficult and time consuming to really evaluate every available option and try to determine the efficacy of the proposed treatments. Sports field managers can’t conduct double-blind, replicated, peer-reviewed studies on their fields for every new product or service that comes along, nor can our universities. Trying the treatment somewhere else is rarely a true test. Nevertheless, if we want to improve, we have to keep trying and learning for ourselves.

Here are a few tips to evaluating a new product or service, at least from my experience.

First, tell me exactly what it does and how it works; I’m a scientist, I can understand it. I know pretty well how grass grows and develops.

What exactly are the claims? Is there independent, qualified research on these claims?

Tell me how it will solve a problem on my fields and improve quality.

For products I’m going to want to see a label or a cut-sheet. You can tell a lot about the company behind the product just by the label. Beyond what is required by law on some labels, I want to see exactly how to use it and who to call if I have questions about it. The better products have online MSDS and product labels.

Who else has experience with this treatment? I’ll want to talk with them. When practical, I want to see a demo or try a sample on a small area.

How does this fit in with my current program?

Tell me about the company and its culture. What other products or services have they successfully launched?

Many sports field management facilities are small on storage and can’t accommodate large deliveries. It’s important that the supply lines are tight and they accommodate smaller, more frequent orders.

Do they support the sports turf industry, or are they just exploiting a market?

Whenever possible I try to buy local, at least through a local distributor. Take good care of your reps; they are often great resources. They travel to all sorts of facilities and see all sorts of problems. I’ve probably seen hundreds of reps over the years. Some reps are really good; they can see your problems and come in with a quality solution. The good ones can sense when you are busy and kind of walk around with you and get what you need, which is what they need. When they bring their bosses in or a potential partner, let that person know how much you respect your rep. Not just marketing clichés, it really is about building relationships.

Maybe you’ve noticed I haven’t yet talked about costs. Foolish, some would claim, but I want to find ways to improve field quality. Even if my organization can’t afford it right now, if it is worth it I’ll advance the cause and justify the costs at budget time. If it’s still not practical, I’ll look to treat a small, representative area with a sample or demo to help justify the costs later and benchmark the improvement in field quality.

You’ve got to dig into costs. Maybe paint A is 30 percent more expensive, but if I can dilute it with water twice as much and still get the same brightness and staying power, is it really more expensive?

Learn to write and understand specifications for the products and services you need to improve field quality. Vague specs shopped around for the lowest bid are often a waste of scarce resources. All too often I see sports field managers forced into poor products and services due to poor specification writing. A specification must be specific, get it? If you just specify “thick-cut sod,” you might get painted into a corner with an inferior product on an inappropriate soil by the purchasing agents who are just doing their jobs. It happens all the time.

So now that you’ve made a purchase, how do you know that what you bought is working? Well, many treatments (products or services) don’t involve the whole field. We often create pseudo-control plots when we treat. For example, there is a small area right behind our goal posts that is very hard to treat with a foliar boom spray application. It’s off the field, and we just don’t treat it, so it can serve as a comparison for us in terms of treated and untreated.

You can usually create a small pseudo-control plot with most treatments, just be creative. A word of caution: As I said earlier, you are not really conducting a scientific evaluation here, you’ll have to make some subjective calls.

Too many of us fall into the trap of logic called “after this/because of this.” For example: “I added product A to my fertility program this year, and we had the best year yet, therefore, it must be product A.” The good year we had may or may not be because of product A, there are just too many variables in such a complex system. What if the weather was just better last year? As a professional, you are paid to be critical and do your homework. With experience one can usually tell what works and what doesn’t.

Be open, my friends.