A brand is a way for a company or industry to distinguish its goods or services from the myriad of options available in today’s markets. It’s a set of principles, logos, trademarks and marketing strategies that provide the consumer with information and assurances. Buy-in is the goal with branding – but what does this have to do with sports turf?
A natural grass playing surface seems to have no discernible brand, unlike a synthetic playing surface or virtually any other part of a sports facility. But who would argue that a high-quality playing surface, part or entirely natural grass, isn’t a product?
From a strictly marketing perspective, we have two playing surfaces: natural grass and synthetic. I believe both are fine products, when used correctly. I also believe that deciding which surface is best can only be answered on a case-by-case basis. Yet it occurs to me that synthetic turf has been effectively branded and natural grass hasn’t. Maybe that’s the “unfair fight” aspect that riles us champions of natural grass.
Synthetic turf fields have organized advocacy groups like the Synthetic Turf Council and Synthetic Turf International. Together with the manufacturers, they’ve built a brand that provides assurances to both the financial and administrative sides of the athletic field industry.
With few exceptions, the grant and funding programs that I’ve researched for athletic fields consider synthetic turf as a capital expenditure that can be depreciated on some actuary table, with some sense of certainty. Financially speaking, a natural grass field seems to be branded as more of a wild card, highly dependent on maintenance dollars, scheduling and other uncertain variables. This results in many funding programs looking to grant or match donations for synthetic fields only. Certainty is what wins the financial day. (Or at least perceived certainty.) A competently written maintenance and management plan, along with a written commitment by the facility owners/operators to fund it and follow it, can get your natural grass field project into a few grant programs, but not many.
I believe a natural grass playing surface and all the components of the field system that support it should be considered as capital items, just like a synthetic surface, and as such gain fair access to competitive granting and funding programs.
The Turfgrass Producers International do a great job of branding the many benefits of a natural grass playing surface, as do others. The countless facilities that deliver high-quality grass fields achieved by expert sports turf managers do their part. But as an industry, natural turfgrass as an athletic playing surface has seen much less coordination and horsepower compared to artificial turf branding.
In the playing surface competition, grass has tactics but turf has tactics as part of a strategy.
I believe the vast majority of folks prefer to play and watch sports on a natural grass surfaces.
But a lack of competitive branding has left the impression of a grass surface to many people and business decision-makers as a wasteful, high-end luxury with very low-use potential, when compared to synthetic turf. To them, grass is often seen to be prone to ruin after the first good rain of the season.
A grass field is also often seen to some as expensive to maintain, wasteful of water and not environmentally friendly.
You may not like it and I know I don’t, but that’s the way it is.
Nobody owns the product of natural grass playing surfaces. Anyone can unfairly disparage a grass field with no legal consequences. Do that with most other products and it might be seen as unfairly damaging to the product and brand. Should we look at the food libel laws passed in 13 states? These laws make it easier for crop producers to win libel-type suits against those who make disparaging remarks – without scientific proof – against food crops.
Without a discernible brand that can be protected, natural grass playing surfaces are open to falsehoods and negative branding. Look at how the “American lawn” has been attacked by certain media as environmentally harmful and wasteful, without any real review or consideration of the science.
There’s no organized effort to establish any sense of unfair damages to a natural grass brand.
There’s no brand to defend.