Consistency is often cited as a critical part of athletic field quality. It makes sense on its face. The games could be played at a higher level of execution and athlete safety would be improved if all fields performed uniformly, and all areas within a field were the same, region to region and season to season. Athletes don’t like surprises on the playing surface, especially elite athletes.
In reality, we will probably never get to full consistency with athletic fields — why would we want to?
Striving to deliver any field as consistent as possible is a worthy, if slightly unrealistic goal. I don’t believe it’s completely practical, especially across venues, regions and products. Within limits, adapting to and performing on different surfaces is part of what makes certain athletes great and sports more fun.
We should have certain measurements, layouts and other specifications dialed in and very consistent across fields. A pitcher’s mound should be built and maintained to the same specifications across each league.. A six-yard box should be 18 feet on every soccer field. But once you start collecting certain field performance data (e.g. impact attenuation, moisture content, infill depth, etc.), you’ll realize that the majority of fields, natural or artificial, will play with a certain amount of variability. There’s no way to get an artificial field in Maine to perform and play exactly like a natural field in Phoenix.
But we can work to get things as close as we practically can for the athletes.
Consistency across levels of play may not be the best approach. A quality youth sports field must play and perform differently than a professional sports field, as the athletes are vastly different. So, it’s not a surprise that when we began staging high school state championships at professional stadiums, many athletes struggle with the playing surfaces. They weren’t designed and aren’t maintained for youth sports.
Look at pro baseball. Groundskeepers keep the natural fields pristine and very consistent across 28 of the 30 ballparks while using four different species of turfgrass (Bluegrass, ryegrass, bermudagrass and paspalum) and countless different varieties. Though they use different skinned area mixes, they get consistent results. Only two of the fields use artificial turf and many fielders struggle with the difference in ball roll and bounce characteristics at these venues.
At the other extreme we have professional tennis, which plays on three different playing surfaces. They even have a clay season, grass season and hard-court season.
Some players specialize on a particular surface; the result is a more interesting sport.
Synthetic fields are no guarantee of consistency across or within fields. Different products from different manufacturers will perform differently. A new field will perform different than the same field in successive years. We’ve learned how important it is to professionally maintain synthetic fields, sometimes the hard way.
All this points to a higher responsibility for the athlete to partner with sports turf managers and equipment managers and come better prepared to play on different surface types and conditions.
It’s time we looked at cleats and footwear beyond brand-building message boards for players. Wearing the proper cleats is several times more important to their safety and performance than the playing field conditions. We’re only beginning to realize the importance of proper measuring and fit for shoes. (Did you know we’ve been measuring foot sizes based on Civil War era standards?) We’ve all seen the athlete who can perform to a high level on almost any surface. We’ve also seen players that can’t adapt to any surface other than their preferred conditions.
You can always tell when a good team is playing on your field. Their pregame warmups are hard. They beat the field up before the game starts. These are the teams that have charged the athletes with the responsibility to understand and manage his/her interaction with each part of the playing surface on that particular day.