Natural turfgrass provides oxygen, cools the environment and sequesters carbon. At a time when climate change and air pollution are front and center, these attributes alone make turfgrass an important part of the environment.
Turfgrass, of course, has had a profound impact on sports. Per the U.S. census, there are 267 million people age 7 and older in the U.S. Of those, around 80 million (30 percent of the population) play sports outside.
Within the top five sports, it’s estimated that golf courses have the most activity at 25.6 million, and baseball and soccer have around 15 million regular participants (Table 2). The importance of encouraging people to play sports and offering them places to play those sports can’t be downplayed, particularly when the Center for Disease Control estimates that 17 percent of American children and adolescents are obese.
Natural grass has been the standard benchmark for a good-quality, safe playing surface.
When evaluating the quality of a playing surface, the surface hardness (impact absorption), traction and ball response is determined by using industry standard equipment that is recognized by organizations such as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), ASTM International and the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI). Those parameters were originally determined by measuring high-quality natural grass fields and coming up with preferred and acceptable ranges based on player surveys and epidemiological data.
One unique benefit to a natural grass playing surface is its ability to divot, or give, under foot traction. During sports with intense athlete-to-surface interaction, like sliding tackles during soccer, cutting maneuvers in football, or scrimmages in rugby, it’s important that the foot does not become stuck in the surface, potentially causing lower limb injuries like ruptured ACLs. However, recently published research from Penn State’s Center for Sports Surface Research has suggested that shoe type has the most significant bearing on traction values.
A common question pertaining to grass sports fields is: How many games can a field host? There’s no one easy answer, since each field is unique in its construction type, location and, most importantly, level of care.
That said, we can assume that a native soil field should be able to host 25 to 100 sporting events a year if it gets a certain level of management and there are few rainouts. Soil fields that are topdressed with sand or sand-slit and receive a higher level of care are at the top of that range. Soil fields receiving very little or no care are at the bottom of that range. Sand-based fields can handle more events.
The cost to build a high-quality sand-based field and maintain it properly over a 10-year period is about the same as the cost to build and maintain a synthetic turf field. Both systems require a large outlay of up to $1 million for construction. The decision to build a new field or to renovate and maintain an existing field should be made after careful consideration of the following questions:
1. Is there a qualified sports turf manager on site?
A sports field manager should be the No. 1 budget priority for any sports facility. A sports field manager will keep fields safe and playable, whether they are natural grass or synthetic turf. In many cases, high schools choose to install a synthetic field because they don’t have a sports field professional to take care of natural grass, and they see synthetic as the easier, “maintenance-free” option. It makes more sense in the long term to hire a professional to take care of all fields and grounds.
2. How many events per year will the field host?
If the answer to that question is less than 100 events per year, it might not make financial sense to build a new sand-based or synthetic field. Amending the existing native soil field with sand slits or an amended root zone makes more financial sense. If, however, the field is used excessively and there are issues with canceled games due to inclement weather or overbooking, then synthetic turf may be the answer.
3. How many fields are there?
Can games be scheduled on different fields allowing some fields to be renovated? Is the site landlocked with very few fields servicing a lot of people? Again, intense use with few fields to accommodate the community would be a scenario for synthetic turf. However, if there is space for other fields or practice areas, then a sports field manager could help get those fields developed and usable.
Your vital role
At the professional and collegiate levels, sports field management is viewed as a professional industry with resources available for equipment, materials, manpower and staff development. However, at the school and parks and recreation levels that’s often not the case.
In the 13 years that I’ve been visiting high school sports fields in Ohio it has been rare to be introduced to a dedicated turf manager, and oftentimes it’s a custodian or coach that has no background or education in turfgrass management. In some cases the fields are simply mowed by the city once a week.
Sports field managers need to tout themselves as trained sports field professionals as much as possible. The sports fields that are built are only as good as the person that takes care of them.
It’s sad to see a high school put so much money into a new grass field only to have it destroyed after a few games because no one knows how to take care of it. Given the opportunity, a professional sports field manager can produce the best playing surface in the world with natural grass.