You only need three things for this game — a ball, some players and a field. And somebody has to set the field, even if it’s just four orange cones marking the corners. Somebody has got to do it. The rest of it, all you coaches, administrators, marketers, trainers and the like are just fluff. Not integral to the game.”

This was a favorite retort of mine anytime the friendly but frequent ribbing came from co-workers. Everyone thinks that their jobs, their departments and their missions are the most critical, the most integral. But in the world of sports, the sports field manager can make this claim above all others, save the players.

Try to think of a sport where the field or playing surface doesn’t play an important role in the event. In our industry, we often consider only the major sports. However, many other sports require a high-quality surface for the athletes, and you’ve probably never even thought about it. These surfaces face some of the same scrutiny and concerns as the surfaces of the “major” sports.

Take tennis for example. What other sport plays on three different surface types? It’s a question as old as the sport: Grass, clay or hard court, which is the best? They even have seasons based on the surface. The short but sweet six-tournament grass-court season in summertime is my favorite, but you knew that already, just like you knew Roger Federer, the grass king, is my favorite player.

Every player slip at Wimbledon stirs up a news story cycle. As with many high-profile sports, every slip draws comments on surface concerns; it’s never about the athlete perhaps putting himself in a bad position. You cut off the inside foot on a quality grass field, you should go down, I don’t feel bad for you. I’ve seen thousands of elite athletes playing and practicing on grass. Some couldn’t make a clean cut on a sandpaper field, and some could make a big, high-speed cut on an ice rink if they had to. But it’s always the surface that causes slips in sports … I digress.

Horse racing surface controversy is everywhere, and I can see why. If an athlete gets injured on your surface, chances are the injury is relatively minor and is forgotten in time. Not so on a horse racing track. The injured athletes here sometimes need to be euthanized. Now that is pressure on the sports field manager!

 

We often see controversy here too on what is the best surface for the game and the athletes. Big controversy. Is it dirt? If so, to what specifications should the surface be constructed and maintained? Is it grass? Seems to be preferred in European horse racing. Artificial surface of some type? There are those who report lower injury rates on artificial surfaces. It is serious business in horse racing, and we should look at this industry in how we research surface-athlete interactions.

In the sport of cricket, it seems there can be no match devoid of controversy with the pitch or wicket. Every four years we relearn the importance of those who specialize in managing ice-sport surfaces at the Winter Olympics. From problems with hockey rinks where the palm trees grow, to the folks who spray water on the curling surfaces to create the ever-important ice bumps or “pebbles” that can be furiously swept away to control the direction and speed of the kettle. These surface specialists are heroes in Canada.

So we know this, but we really don’t. From skiing to rock climbing, from sailing to cycling, from auto racing to track and field, you name it and the surface is integral to the game. Always has been, right from the start when Ogg blamed a rock in the “field” after losing to Grogg in ancient human’s first game of kick the coconut.

Don’t let anyone ever tell you that your mission isn’t important. They might not know it, but the fact is that you can’t have sports without a sports field manager.