A player slips during a big, nationally televised football game. The announcers typically question the field, rarely the athlete or the cleats worn. It’s very frustrating being the sports field manager for such an event. You rolled out a tight surface, but a slip on a key play puts out the message to millions that the field is “slick.” Now, you will be faced with a year-long set of questions from fans who watched on TV and read the players’ and coaches’ opinions the next day.

Fortunately this is changing, and new research is beginning to show what a lot of us have suspected for years. If you want to know about a slip or, more importantly, a lower leg injury, you should talk with the equipment manager, and look at the shoes or cleats the player was wearing before anyone considers there are issues with the field.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the lines of research initiated in the last few years on athlete safety, protective equipment and — in our slice of the world — playing surface characteristics and surface/shoe/athlete interactions.

Using the Pennfoot traction tester, Dr. Andy McNitt and Thomas Serensits at Penn State University’s Center for Sports Surface Research (CSSR), compared rotational forces of eight cleated shoes on Kentucky bluegrass and several artificial turf types. In a study published in May 2014, they found: “Of the treatments in this study, shoe type influenced rotational traction most, with differences among shoes being nearly four times as large as those among playing surfaces.”

And, “The results of this study indicate that footwear selection has a larger effect on rotational traction and, potentially, injury risk than the playing surfaces evaluated in this study.”

McNitt, the CSSR director adds, “It’s important that athletes, parents, coaches and trainers are aware of the importance to choose the shoe that is appropriate for the surface.”

At the University of Tennessee, research is being conducted at the UT Center for Athletic Field Safety (CAFS) to evaluate vertical and horizontal forces generated using the Tennessee Athletic Field Tester on different sports turf surfaces, using different shoe types.

“What we are finding is that the shoe type (cleat configuration) makes the biggest difference in vertical and horizontal forces generated, more so than the surface type,” explained Dr. John Sorochan, CAFS co-director. “We are also seeing that, across all shoes types in this study, Kentucky bluegrass was the most consistent playing surface.”

This research, and other ongoing studies, could change the way cleats are designed and engineered, as well as marketed.

What does this mean to the sports field manager? It will help tremendously in our efforts to produce the best performing and most consistent playing surfaces possible for the athletes who play on them. As researchers develop a clearer understanding of the biomechanical forces at play in athlete injuries, the protective equipment used, and how both relate to playing surface characteristics, a more data-driven field management protocol will emerge.

For example, I foresee the data someday being used to refine sod production, installation and maintenance methods, and even to help determine when it’s time to resod a field or a portion of it.

All this will be aimed at reducing the risk of player injury and improving player and field performance. Isn’t that what sports field management is all about?