Like everything else in sports — equipment, rules and more — playing surfaces have changed through the years. Nowhere is this more evident than in the synthetic turf market. Starting with the Astrodome’s iconic namesake playing surface in the 1960s and stretching all the way up to the Olympic surfaces being constructed in Rio, synthetic turf has gone through various iterations.
Early turf systems mainly amounted to a carpet with thin padding over a surface of asphalt or concrete — something that, while durable and suitable for indoor use, led to complaints from athletes. By the 1990s the short-pile turf had given way to surfaces that used longer fibers together with silica sand and/or rubber infill from recycled tires, creating a more natural feel and a safer playing environment.
In addition, technology has brought about changes in the construction of synthetic fields. Drainage systems have been improved, as well as the irrigation systems used to cool the turf in outdoor installations. Ultimately, what emerged were fields with better playability and less impact, and which mimicked the feel of grass far more closely.
Fast-forward to today’s systems. In addition to their continuing aesthetic and safety improvements (an ongoing process that evolves each year), surfaces have been engineered for better durability under wear and tear, and are treated to stand up to the punishing forces of sunlight and heat. User groups range from school systems to NFL franchises.
Responding to consumers
The market itself, driven by consumers’ demands, has broadened to include turf that is engineered for specific uses. For example, artificial turf that’s used in a tennis court will be built to mimic a grass court, which is a different surface from that used to host a soccer match.
Safety concerns, concussions in particular, have highlighted the need for surface testing. Manufacturers now include testing information for each variation of their surfaces.
A somewhat less technical, more marketing- driven aspect of the advancement of the synthetic turf market pertains to actual field color. While it’s common for end zones to be the school colors, the whole-field color concept has now come into play.
The first high-profile school to offer a field in a color other than green was Idaho’s Boise State University. (That may not ring a bell, but the term, “Smurf Turf,” probably does). Trivia point: Boise State holds the copyright on any field color other than green; it licenses the use of colored fields (blue or otherwise) to other schools. Several schools have used turf in shades of red and gray, as well as alternating colors, such as purple/gray, red/gray, etc. (Go forth and dazzle your friends in the next trivia contest.)
Gotta be green
Synthetic turf systems have been engineered to be more eco-friendly through the years. Gray water systems allow for field cooling with reclaimed water.
In addition, owners are looking to have the fields repurposed. As an ever-increasing number of fields reach the end of their useful life and require replacement, options other than the landfill are coming front and center. Single-polymer materials are easier to recycle; however, many older fields are made of surfaces that are a mix of polymers. Count on new formulations to emerge and to become more popular with owners as a result of their role in the sustainability concept.
While the technology exists to take out an old carpet surface and create new components with it, it’s just now becoming available to the turf industry. As this technology evolves, it’s expected to become more readily available and far more affordable.
Something else contributing to the eco-friendliness of synthetic fields is the quality of infill that is currently in use. Over the years, infill materials have become more sophisticated, and as a result more standardized. The predictability of materials used in infill (sizing of sand or rubber, as well as type of sand or rubber) lends itself to the ability of these materials to be extracted and reused in new fields.
The continued development of synthetic turf will be driven by consumer demands, economic concerns, ecological issues, health concerns and athletes’ input, as well as the requirements of national governing bodies, regulatory agencies and others. Expect it to keep changing — and for the grass to remain greener with each new development.