A look at preparing for-and recovering from- a midseason concert

Image courtesy of stock.xchng/Nick Winchester.

A note to turf and agronomy schools everywhere: Alongside courses on plant physiology and soil science, it may be time to add “Intro to Show Business” to the curriculum. Because, at least for graduates entering sports field management, there’s a good chance they’ll be tasked with hosting concerts at some point in their career.

For Britt Barry, groundskeeper for the Lexington (Ky.) Legends (Class A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals), hosting concerts is a challenge he faces at least once, and sometimes twice, each season. Barry became head groundskeeper with the Lexington Legends last year and has now been with the organization through two playing seasons. He says he applies what he’s learned from his college agronomy classes, his past work on a golf course, and particularly from his experience interning with the New York Mets, in maintaining Whitaker Bank Ballpark, home of the Legends: “It’s been fun to take those ideas you see when you have a big crew and big budget and almost unlimited resources at the major league level and apply that to a smaller crew and a smaller budget. I’ve learned to improvise.”

During the roughly five days around the concert, Head Groundskeeper Britt Barry stays at the ballpark around the clock to help safeguard the playing surface as much as possible.
Photos courtesy of Britt Barry.

That applies not only to preparing the field for the team’s 70-game home schedule, but also for the roughly 60 special events that Whitaker Bank Ballpark hosts throughout the year. Many of those outside events are baseball-related, including various high school baseball games and state championship tournaments. However, a few require a completely different approach: Each year, the park hosts Red, White & Boom, a huge, annual Fourth of July concert event.

Part of the challenge is that baseball games typically take place up to the day before the stage arrives. So the field must go from sport to concert mode immediately. To help prepare the field for the jarring transition, Barry begins to implement a special turf maintenance plan weeks in advance. For example, he curtails his normal use of plant growth regulators (PGRs) in advance of the concert. “We try to plan it so the PGR runs out right at the time the flooring is coming up after the concert, so we’ll get a flush of recovery and boost as it runs out,” he explains. “The grass will overcompensate from being stunted for so long.”

Whitaker Bank Ballpark, home of the Lexington Legends, hosts an annual Fourth of July concert. While the infield is roped off, some 10,000 concertgoers take to the largely unprotected outfield turf.

The Independence Day concert typically falls during a seven-game road trip for the Legends. The preparation and recovery efforts make for a hectic week for Barry and his crew. The concert organizers allow for 10,000 spectators actually on the field, so the stage is set up in deep centerfield. “We rope off the infield, infield turf and sideline areas,” notes Barry. Those are really the only parts of the playing surface he can completely protect and preserve, everything else is subject to the crowds and equipment that are part of any big concert.

In order to minimize the damage to the rest of the field, Barry starts by putting down the limited flooring he has available. “We have PortaFloor in big rolls, and we can probably cover only about 7,000 square feet,” he estimates. “So with a big event we have to try to determine where the highest traffic areas will be and lay it out accordingly; we don’t have enough to cover the entire area.”

The PortaFloor covering is reserved only for foot traffic. Protecting against the stage and the truck used to install it is another challenge. “It’s an 80,000-pound stage that comes in on a tractor-trailer,” describes Barry of the nightmare scenario for every sports field manager. “We lay down Enkamat first, and then put plywood on top of that. We double-stack the plywood when the truck is coming in.”

An 80,000-pound stage is delivered by tractor-trailer. Plywood is put down to help minimize damage to the turf during concert setup.

The tractor-trailer carrying the stage backs into the stadium. Squares of Enkamat and .75-inch plywood are installed on the stage legs that will actually contact the turf. “Under the stage itself usually holds up pretty well; we just have a few smaller square areas that are a little beat up,” Barry describes.

Once the truck is gone, the plywood roadway is taken up until the day of the concert, when several more trucks arrive carrying mass amounts of sound equipment so the plywood must be put back down. Once the concert starts, Barry says, “It’s really out of my hands.” After, once the crowds, stage and flooring are gone, it’s time to take stock of the condition of the turf.

He aerifies the field with solid tines after the concert, “really just to try to open the soil up and get some air moving through the soil. Air movement is probably the most important thing you can do after a concert with that many people and flooring on the turf,” Barry explains. “Compaction is a big problem.” In addition to the aerification, he applies wetting agents post-concert to help push water through the soil profile and further help the air movement process. He also uses Oxyflor from Floratine, which is designed to help pull oxygen down through the soil profile. “Every time you put water down it’s pulling oxygen down with it,” Barry notes.

The amount of water the field needs to help recover depends on the circumstances. Barry says, “You really just have to walk the turf to see – every situation is different.” While the turf sometimes needs a lot of water, this year presented a much different, and dire, circumstance. The local area received several inches of rain during the period when the stage was set up, including a downpour during the concert itself. That didn’t stop 9,000-plus concertgoers from jumping, dancing and sloshing around the outfield. “There was standing water during the concert. It was a mess,” Barry summarizes.

The day after the event, the damage was evident. While centerfield had been covered by flooring and survived, the turf in left-center and right-center was largely lost. There were only three days between the concert and the next home game, and sod farms up and down the East Coast were unable to cut sod in that time frame due to the extreme wet weather. “We brought in a 2-ton rolling squeegee borrowed from the University of Kentucky and rolled the outfield to at least make it playable,” Barry recounts. “We threw out soil surfactants to further help push the water through and dry everything out as much as possible. But the plants were damaged too much to recover.”

Fortunately, Barry found a sod farm in Alabama that was able to cut 2-inch sod on plastic. “They shipped that up to us the next day, so we were able to replace the really bad sections that were really just mud. It was firm and the root structure was still there, so it wasn’t just chunking out on the players. It didn’t look very good, but there were no bad hops or anything,” says Barry. Given that the grounds crew had just three days to salvage the field, he says the results were pretty impressive.

This photo shows the field following the concert. Some sod was installed, and a slice seeding of ryegrass helped restore the appearance and playability as quickly as possible.

The crew spent the rest of the season continuing to recover from that single concert. After a seven-game home series, the Lexington Legends left on a nine-game road trip, providing a window for Barry and his crew to make further improvements to the field. “We started by overseeding. We did a slit seeding with straight perennial ryegrass at a rate of 15 pounds per thousand,” says Barry. “I threw out some amino acids and folic acids, which work wonders with recovery. We saw germination in less than six days. So by the time the team returned, they were pretty pleased with the effort that was made. It wasn’t always thick, but we had coverage everywhere.”

Based in part on the damage sustained at this year’s concert, some significant changes are currently being made to Whitaker Bank Ballpark. First, the purchase of additional flooring to help protect the turf is being considered. Barry has samples from a number of manufacturers that he is evaluating. More prominently, the turf on the field is being changed over from bluegrass to bermudagrass.

After researching various options, NorthBridge Bermudagrass was selected. Barry says, “With the amount of events we have here it will be nice to have a grass that can withstand high traffic and thrive under the hot conditions under the summer months. I think the best thing about it is that it will recover a lot quicker. The turf is going to get beat up either way, but I think we’ll be able to bounce back faster and be at 100 percent.”

As part of the installation project, about 1.5 inches of accumulated organic material has been removed, which Barry thinks will make a huge impact. Additional drainage was also installed along with a new irrigation system.

Barry advises any groundskeeper hosting a concert or other event with the potential to injure their field to maintain a personal presence throughout to help minimize damage where possible. “We’re there to supervise when the truck arrives, for example, to make sure they’re not just grinding the wheels and ruining the turf. And I normally stay here for five or six days straight and just sleep in my office,” he notes. “I don’t leave, so if there is a problem people know where to find me.” While the stage and concert crews are experienced at what they do, they don’t have the same level of concern or investment in a sports field that the groundskeeper does, he concludes.

Being there to direct the placement of plywood and make sure there’s no unnecessary trampling of the turf is critical, he states.

“Traffic is really the thing you need to control; that’s what’s going to kill your grass the quickest. So if you can find where your traffic is the highest, and either put flooring down or detour people somewhere else, that will help greatly,” he says.

The results of a lot of hard work. By the end of the season, the field was returned to its former glory. In order to help aid recovery efforts in the future, the field is currently being changed over from bluegrass to bermudagrass, and the purchase of additional flooring is being considered.

When Barry was working with the Mets he was able to take part in hosting a Dave Matthews concert. “I was able to be involved with the setup of the flooring and everything. Obviously, at the major league level they can afford to cover the entire outfield, but I was able to pick up a lot of smaller tips and hints, like using the Enkamat under the plywood, that I’ve been able to use,” he explains.

This year, Whitaker Bank Ballpark also hosted a mid-October concert for the first time, though just before the new bermudagrass sod was installed. So, at least for one concert event, Barry didn’t have to stress about the damage to the turf. That will all change next year when the Fourth of July rolls around and crowds swarm onto his pristine field.

While good groundskeepers tend to be perfectionists and very protective of their fields, Barry says he understands that hosting, and recovering from, outside events is part of the job. “These concerts are big moneymakers, and you’re always looking to capitalize on opportunities like that. There’s a risk that the field can get torn up, and the team knows that, but they also know that we will put all the resources into getting it back as quickly as possible,” he explains. “We go into this profession knowing that we try to get the field as perfect as possible only to have it get torn up, and then start over again the next day.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories. You can contact him at pwhite@meadowridgemedia.com.