Do more with less. Stretch your funds. Find a way to make it work. Get creative. Hang in there.
We’ve all likely heard those clichés at our jobs at one point or another, when it comes to working with a shrinking budget, or – pardon yet another cliché – when it’s time to “tighten the belt.”
Though they are trite, stereotyped expressions, the funny thing about clichés is that their messages are accurate. When you’re in a situation where your budget is smaller than in previous years, you are, by definition, required to do more with less, stretch your funds, find a way to make it work, get creative and, yes, hang in there.
Let’s apply this situation to sports fields – when dealing with budget cuts, what can you do? How do you make it work, so that the conditions of your fields don’t suffer? Is it possible to maintain fields on a limited, or reduced, budget?
Creating a workable plan
Whether you maintain one field or 15, begin by prioritizing your fields to determine where time, supplies and maintenance should be allocated. For example, according to University of Missouri Assistant Extension Professor Brad Fresenburg, Ph.D., “game and main practice fields require the most time and money to maintain at a at a high level. … Maintenance frequency can be reduced on low-priority fields and other areas.”
This is perhaps where “doing more with less” comes into play. Ben Barfield, athletic director for Jackson Youth Sports in Jackson, South Carolina, says he routinely does that at his municipal facilities.
“Doing more with less is a way of life in a small community,” Barfield says. “Folks expect more but don’t realize what it takes to deliver a great field. … It’s difficult when you’re in competition with larger, bigger-city recreation departments.”
One way of doing more with less is concentrating maintenance practices, according to Fresenburg. While practices like mowing and fertility may occur over the entire field, overseeding, aeration and sometimes topdressing can be applied to areas of greatest need, Fresenburg notes.
“Applying seed between football hash marks will reduce seed requirements by 66 percent. Other high-traffic areas include goal boxes on soccer fields and positional areas on baseball and softball outfields. Focusing on the areas of dire need will stretch limited dollars for the most good,” Fresenburg says.
Survey says …
In SportsField Management’s 2015 State of the Profession Survey, published in our January issue, one of the questions asked, “What is your 2015 maintenance budget?” Of the 321 survey respondents, here’s how the answers broke down:
- Up more than 10 percent: 12 (3.74%)
- Up 10 percent: 20 (6.23%)
- Up 5 percent: 38 (11.84%)
- Same: 211 (65.73%)
- Down 5 percent: 18 (5.61%)
- Down 10 percent: 11 (3.43%)
- Down more than 10 percent: 11 (3.43%)
Also relating to budgets, 25 percent of the respondents said that having “old equipment to do the job right” is the biggest problem they have in managing their field. These answers clearly indicate that, to a number of field managers, working with a lower budget in some form is definitely a challenge – but not one that should cripple your operations and practices.
“A positive attitude goes a long way,” says Jeff Jennings, grounds and roads supervisor at Southwest Minnesota State University. “Empower your staff to help find efficiencies. … They will likely surprise you with some great ideas.”
So, what are some ideas field managers on a limited or reduced budget can use?
Why not start with something simple, like mowing?
“There are cultural practices that are necessary and others that can be altered from a little to a lot,” Fresenburg says. “Mowing (time, fuel and repairs) is a must and always part of every annual budget.”
Fresenburg recommends maintaining the highest possible mowing height allowed (up to 3.5 to 4 inches) in combination with overseeding and fertility. This “will help to maintain the highest turfgrass density possible for safety, playability and weed competition,” he adds.
Soil testing is another inexpensive practice to consider to save money. Turf managers can determine the soil pH and their need for nutrients, Fresenburg says. If soil pH falls outside of a desirable range (pH 6 to 7), applications of fertilizer might not benefit turfgrass plants as nutrients could be locked up in the soil colloid. Soil test results also may indicate sufficient levels of some nutrients like phosphorus and potassium, which eliminates the need to purchase fertilizers containing those nutrients.
“The savings can be applied to additional nitrogen fertilizers or allocated to other maintenance practices,” Fresenburg adds.
Let’s not forget perhaps the most widely used cultural practice – watering. Proper irrigation is crucial on any field, but can be altered to adjust to a changing budgetary situation. James Walker, athletic director at Santa Clara (California) High School, says his facilities are cutting back this year by watering less.
“This keeps costs down and helps with our drought conditions in California,” he explains.
Of course, proper irrigation may not be an option in some cases.
“Most low-budget programs tend not to have a source of water, especially if it is potable water being purchased,” Fresenburg says. “While soil moisture is important during play, it can increase the chances of turfgrass diseases if applied too often. It is best to be on the conservative side of irrigation, except where safety is a concern.”
Why not ask for help?
Field managers also can meet their needs within a budget by “reaching out to local businesses and alumni who may have expertise or connections that can help get the work done at a lower cost or no cost at all,” Walker says.
Fresenburg suggests that field managers develop relationships with local golf courses and lawn-care businesses to borrow equipment, such as an aerator, and with farm co-ops for things like seed, fertilizers and pesticides.
“This can be as simple as introducing oneself and asking a question,” Fresenburg says.
In South Carolina, Barfield is forced to implore local folks to get involved and volunteer, as he has zero paid help. Barfield even received 419 bermudagrass donated from a tee project at a private golf course. He also often seeks advice from others with knowledge of field maintenance and field care.
Fresenburg advises field managers to engage in a cooperative agreement with outside contractors to do specific field maintenance, use booster clubs to offset various costs and use advertiser trade-offs. Community businesses may have some excellent sources of knowledge and may be willing to donate products, equipment and services in exchange for an advertisement on a scoreboard or outfield fence.
Efficiency is the magic word
“We try to stay as efficient as possible,” says Jennings of operations at Southwest Minnesota State. “A lot will depend on student help; if we get a student or two, we will have some flexibility. If not, we will need to be quite sharp in order to get everything accomplished.”
Efficiency is defined as accomplishment of or ability to accomplish a job with a minimum expenditure of time and effort. These words should ring true to any field manager or groundskeeper.
Fresenburg points to aerification as an example. “Aerification is and always will be the most neglected maintenance practice,” Fresenburg says. “It provides some of the greatest benefits – reduced compaction, air exchange and water and nutrient infiltration. It is a practice that can be completed using a borrowed piece of equipment. Walk-behind units can be rented daily for a nominal fee and used in those areas with the most need (center of a football field, goal mouths, sidelines, etc.).”
Being efficient at your fields might mean – in the case of Walker at Santa Clara High School – cutting back on planned improvements and focusing on maintaining what you have.
“[Efficiency] is very important,” Walker says. “The workforce consists of my football coach, groundskeepers and myself. We need to work together on field use, times and scheduling maintenance for our field. … If I get things done with less, without cutting corners, they should be able to follow that lead.”
Being efficient with the checkbook also is a good way to stay budget-conscious. In Minnesota, Jennings says he and his staff “are always aggressively looking for good pricing on products, trying new products or watching for generic versions of products.”
Field managers also can look at incidental and miscellaneous spending as ways to free up the budget without cutting corners on the field.
The last word
As Fresenburg puts it, “Although there is no universal budgetary formula, some level of success can be achieved on most athletic fields. … [A] low-budget situation is not hopeless.”
In the age of lofty expectations and shrinking budgets, sports field managers now have an opportunity to be leaders, rather than followers, by showing their employers and staff that, yes, more with less is doable by setting and achieving goals and designing a plan of action using effective and creative methods.
“I know folks are watching me, so it’s very important for me and my board to always be enthusiastic and positive at all times,” Barfield says.
“Our slogan is ‘Family, Fun and Fundamentals.’ No matter what the books say, it’s our job to give these kids the best playing/practice facilities we can, so they can learn the sports we offer properly and safely.”