Where we are, where we’re going

As the economic slowdown moves through the nation, it creates a ripple effect. Budgets are being cut, employees are being laid off; everyone in the industry is certainly feeling the crunch. Sports field managers everywhere are struggling to create a balance between field use demands and budgetary restrictions, but the economy is not the only issue affecting the industry.

The green movement’s focus on sustainability keeps public facilities under the spotlight. Public watchdog groups focus on fertilizer and chemical use, and new challenges arise, such as the recent EPA ruling on MSMA that ends its use on sports fields as of December 31, 2010.

Other ongoing issues, such as the safety and liability factor and the controversy surrounding synthetic turf, continue. Water usage is being watched more closely than ever before, with severe restrictions pending in regions experiencing long-term drought, and the ever-present impact of other fluctuating weather conditions.

The resilient sports field industry is preparing to not just meet these challenges, but to turn them into opportunities. SportsField Management spoke to a variety of people in the field–groundskeepers, equipment manufacturers, association presidents–to get their take on where we are, and where we’re going.

Working together

Sports field managers are looking for even more ways to stretch their resources and be efficient with what they have. Those planning to purchase new equipment will be studying the performance-to-cost ratio. Industry suppliers are striving to accommodate the market.

“We’re trying to hold last year’s pricing to help those hit with budget cuts,” said David Taylor, general manager of Blec USA.

Groundskeepers are also seeking machines that make labor-intensive jobs less labor-intensive, adds Bill Kenney, vice president of Smithco. He says managers are looking “for multipurpose, high-capacity ball field maintenance equipment that saves labor, saves money for the facility.”

When there is no money in the budget for new fields or equipment, the industry is adopting a “fix up what we have” approach, says Taylor. “This year we have already seen the need for more specialized renovation equipment and an increase in spare parts.” That need could continue into the next several years, according to Grove Teates, president of Alpine Services. “We anticipate there will be a great need to replace/repair those fields that are being constructed by non-sports field contractors,” he says.

With golf course construction and new home construction down drastically, suppliers serving multiple markets see the sports field industry as the bright spot. Rene Asprion, sales manager for Diamond Pro/TXI, says, “This industry is still building fields and still needs to maintain them. As suppliers, our role is to support their efforts, to make sure they have the products they need, when they need them, as economically as possible.”

Cost-effectiveness extends to the products that help convert sports fields for other uses, as facilities seek more ways to generate revenue, adds Bob Curry, president of Covermaster, Inc. He says, “There’s a wide range of products that can provide the necessary field protection while meeting the requirements of budget restraints, with both purchase and rental options to consider.”

Costs may affect attendance for professional sports, but marketers of these teams understand that the show must go on. Danielle Marman, director of marketing for West Coast Turf, says, “We have sodded Dodger Stadium, Angel Stadium, PetCo Park, Chase Field and the Oakland Coliseum in preparation for the Major League Baseball season. I don’t anticipate other high-profile sports turf customers, such as the NFL teams, not getting their fields ready for their season, either.”

Synthetic turf

With all of the negative press synthetic turf has received over the past year, educating people on the product has become a priority to those in the industry. Despite the rumors and myths being passed around the public, interest in synthetic turf remains strong.

Rick Doyle, president of the Synthetic Turf Council, says, “Three months ago I’d have said 2009 would have been as good a year as 2008 was. We’re still seeing a strong demand this spring, but we’ll have to see whether the interest results in sales of new fields. I’d say, overall, there’s an attitude of cautious optimism.

“As an association, an industry, we’ll do what we’ve done since we began, a two-pronged approach promoting synthetic turf and its benefits and working hard to dispel misinformation, and to educate on an ongoing basis. A major initiative was the formation of two new committees. The legislative and regulatory committee will develop specific strategies for addressing the misinformation and educational components as related to governmental agencies. A green task will focus on the issues of sustainability and recyclability, addressing the green lifestyle.”

Serving communities

Looking to 2009 and beyond, the wellness movement will continue to increase sports participation in all age groups. Concerns about child obesity are affecting school fitness programs and prompting parents to get their kids involved in team sports.

Cities are examining every aspect of their operations and prioritizing their services. During economic challenges, people tend to turn towards city offered recreational programs, and parks and rec departments are preparing for that.

Kevin Vos, CSFM, community services director for the city of Pella, Iowa, says, “During the whole city budget process, the prioritization of services offered was reviewed with even greater detail than in previous years. We did, and will continue to, review alternative products and procedures that allow us to offer a quality program while serving more participants, and remain committed to our number one goal, maintaining a safe playing surface.”

School systems also face budget challenges. Jody Gill, CSFM, grounds coordinator for Blue Valley School District of Overland Park, Kan., says, “We’ve gone through phase one of budget cuts and anticipated phase two would be implemented with development of the budget for our next fiscal year, beginning July 1. We know there will be cuts, but we can’t determine the extent until it is determined if stimulus money will be heading to the schools and, if so, what the overall impact will be at the state level. Meanwhile, we have a hiring freeze and have been asked to cut back expenses everywhere possible, including materials.”

Mike Tarantino, director of maintenance and operations for Poway, Calif., Unified School District, has faced five years of working with a bare bones budget at Poway. He says, “Now we’re being asked to do more with less—again. No one seems to realize what we provide until it’s gone. We need to anticipate the cuts we may be asked to make, do our homework, and be prepared to explain to our financial decision-makers what changes could be made and what the short-term and long-term consequences of those changes will be.”

Those same strategies will come into play whenever cuts are required. Tarantino says, “If we face the stringent budget cuts being discussed, or if we go into mandatory water restrictions with usage cut by 40 to 45 percent, we’ll have to eliminate irrigation at our elementary schools. That will allow us to maintain the fields used for organized sports activity, but we’ll lose the open fields used for elementary school play and PE, and for recreational play by the community surrounding those schools. At some point, they’re going to want those fields back. With today’s dollars, it would take $2.3 million dollars to reestablish all the fields.”

Staff reorganization is another option Tarantino is considering for Poway. Instead of assigning individuals to specific elementary school sites, they would shift to a crew system, with each crew hitting five or six schools each day. Mowing the sports fields at the high schools and middle schools would drop from three to two times a week, with other areas mowed weekly. Fertilization would take place only at the high schools and middle schools.

Jody Gill also plans on staff reorganization. Instead of one person designated at each stadium during an event, one individual will cover multiple facilities. He will also be expanding growth regulator use from the sports fields to other turf areas. “To cut costs, we’ve gone from a five-day mowing rotation to seven days, and now to a 10 to 12-day rotation. The Primo will give us the lateral and root growth while slowing the vertical growth, allowing us to minimize the mowing costs and labor costs.”

Sports field managers are also upgrading existing fields and looking for grasses best adapted to potential uses for new fields, notes Jon Straughn, national sales manager of Pennington Seed. They’re reviewing NTEP results, checking extension service recommendations, and consulting with suppliers and their networking resources.

Be creative

Many facilities are seeking grant opportunities to provide services or develop special projects. They’re seeking ways to enlist other resources, too. James Minnich, sales representative for Ewing Irrigation in Southern California, says, “As cities and public agencies are cutting their budgets, we’re seeing the different leagues and associations working to raise the money to keep their fields in playable condition. Because it’s for the kids, the parents care so much that they’re willing to do whatever it takes. We’re working in conjunction with Turface [Profile Products] to put on mound building clinics for Little League volunteers to encourage them to use the right methods and materials. In some cases, we’re also providing the irrigation layout.”

For Kevin Vos, meetings with user groups, volunteers and staff detailed exactly what the city of Pella could provide, and focused on continuing and expanding partnerships for offering programs and helping in the maintenance of the athletic fields. He says, “The city staff and user groups and other volunteers—adults and kids—work together, and this grows the sense of pride in the facility or field.”

It’s a group effort, with staff being asked to be more innovative in saving time and money. With everyone in the facility working together, and in conjunction with suppliers and field-user groups, the sports field industry can—and will—turn challenges into opportunities.

The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.