Maybe you or your kids will play on a less than ideal natural grass or synthetic field this year. Maybe you’ll see a collegiate or professional game on TV with tough field conditions. Like many people, maybe you’ll curse the field. But every sports field has a community of stakeholders that play an important role in the condition of the surface and its reputation. Think of it like a grass-root system. If the roots (stakeholders) are weak, the playing field can’t pull its weight and meet expectations.
Those who plan the new field start the root growth of field success. They contribute the essential foundation for athletic field success in financial planning and fashioning a field or complex that’s the right type and in the right place, time and amount – kind of like applying fertilizer. Input must be dispassionately weighed from all the field stakeholders during the planning phase to ensure success.
This is the time to plan and fund maintenance, not after the field is built. The field manager must be involved at this first stage, or at least an independent representative that understands and is experienced in field preparations and maintenance.
The field designer comes next. This is a key step. Too often, a qualified and experienced athletic field designer isn’t engaged.
One poor or vague specification can break the chain before the first shovel goes into the ground. The construction contracting game can be a rough sport and a good designer will expertly represent and protect the owner’s interests throughout the construction process. Sadly, many facility planners take shortcuts in awarding field construction contracts – consequently, the field struggles before it even exists.
New and standing fields are inherited by a new set of stakeholders. Facility and league administrators should make decisions in field use-scheduling policy and maintenance that meets, or even exceeds, the original plan and with limited resources provided to them. This should be an ongoing process with evaluation and adjustments made every year. Many field failures are really failures in the business plan and the lack of continuing adjustments to it.
Athletes, parents, coaches and equipment managers can also fail a new or existing playing field with unawareness. For example, emergent research is pointing to proper footwear fit and cleat type/arrangement as more significant contributors in athlete performance and certain types of lower-leg injuries than the type of playing surface. Yet, we buy cleats mostly by look, branding and now even as message boards. The elite athletes and equipment managers see athletic footwear as safety and performance gear and fully test the field during pregame warm-up periods, making practical adjustments in footwear and play. This is just another detail in excellence. They tend to give honest, reasonable feedback to field management, understanding that there is indeed such a thing between the greatest and worst playing surfaces.
Certainly, field managers and staff play their own roles in field failures. We must manage the fields with competence and results, understanding the latest sports field research and technologies and implementing them in a practical way. Athletic field managers best understand the entirety of the challenges discussed above. They’re positioned to facilitate communication and build awareness between all these disparate parties that hold field quality in their hands (and may not even know it).
We should also consider bringing the referees into the picture, as they often determine if field conditions are acceptable for play.
If sports teach us anything, it’s that it takes all parts of a team to enjoy success. Even individual-sport athletes, like tennis players and golfers, need a team around them to be successful. Athletic fields are no different. They succeed to the level of the awareness and priorities of a set of stakeholders.
You won’t find athletic fields in nature – each is a creation of a team of people. The field itself cannot fail, but people sure can. A good playing surface is a team result. As a sports-crazy culture, the better we understand this, the better the fields we’ll play on.