With the new year upon us, it’s a good time to take stock of the sports field industry- where we are and where we’re going.

With the new year upon us, it’s a good time to take stock of the sports field industry-where we are and where we’re going. Sports field industry professionals shared their observations on the current state of the industry, the outlook for the future, and the trends they see taking shape.

Heather Nabozny
Head Groundskeeper, Detroit Tigers

The fact that she recently readied Comerica Park to host several college and pro outdoor hockey games illustrates one overarching trend that Nabozny sees in the industry: The increased use of fields for outside events. “When I started here 15 years ago, I think we had 10 outside events on the field. Now we’re at about 70 or so events,” she explains.

The revenue generated by these events – everything from concerts to corporate events to fan picnics – is important to help fund teams, but can add to the challenge for sports field managers, says Nabozny. Field protection and recovery skills are being developed and shared around the profession, and those entering the profession are learning from the experiences of those working in it now, she notes.

Nabozny thinks it may be a case of history repeating itself. Long ago, professional fields were overused and conditions were poor. Then, for decades, field conditions improved, in part because use of these fields was limited. Now, sports field managers are doing their jobs so well that they’re asked to maintain field conditions while also absorbing added use, she says. Fortunately, new techniques and equipment are assisting in that task. “Being able to lay sod that’s 48 inches wide and 40 feet in length and using machines to lock that sod in make it possible to quickly put in new fields,” she notes. Whatever added events take place on a sports field, the expectation is that playing conditions will remain high and the field will be safe, Nabozny emphasizes.

Tim VanLoo
Sports Turf Manager, Iowa State University

“I think the industry is in fine shape,” says VanLoo. “I think we’re moving in a positive direction – we’re not stagnant.” He feels that techniques and technology are continually improving and driving the profession of sports field management forward. VanLoo adds that sports fields seem to be getting more (mostly positive) mentions during game broadcasts and news reports. “I think we’re doing a better job as sports field managers at letting the public know what we actually do, and I think that helps us gain respect and interest.”

Another factor he thinks will help boost the profile of the industry is the increasing focus on the condition of youth sports facilities. “There’s so much emphasis and money devoted to youth athletics these days,” says VanLoo. “Just in Iowa, we have some youth sports fields that are in amazing condition, and it seems more and more common for every community to have these huge youth sports complexes – and they’re being irrigated and they all have turf managers.”

In addition to caring for the sports fields at Iowa State, VanLoo also works with turfgrass students at the university and teaches turf classes at a local community college, where he says interest is strong among the next generation. “Just seeing them – our future is bright, because these kids are being trained well, and they have their own ideas. The people working today are getting better and the people coming up who are learning from that are just going to make it that much better. I just think things are going to go in a positive direction,” he says. “I think we’re going to have even better fields 10 years from now.”

Kim Heck
CEO, Sports Turf Managers Association

In talking with sports field managers, Heck says there seems to be demand for projects to improve conditions on existing fields. “There are more renovation dollars out there for sports fields than there has been,” states Heck. “The 2014 outlook is positive from our members’ perspective, partly because budget dollars are maybe a little bit more available on the renovation side.” Conversely, she’s heard predictions that new field construction may actually be down slightly in the coming year. One particular strong spot with new field installations seems to be in the area of synthetic turf fields, where she says demand seems to be strong.

Sports turf is also gaining attention as a career choice, observes Heck. “We do see a number of people who go to turf school maybe thinking about golf who make a switch and come over to the sports turf side,” she says. “And we see more and more females interested in turf management; we are seeing the percentage of females going into turf programs increase.”

One troubling sign for the industry is the patchwork of laws being passed governing the use of pesticides, fertilizers and other inputs. “Our members are consistently challenged on environmental regulations, as communities evaluate what they believe is good for the environment,” says Heck. “They are having to adjust and adapt to that.” These localized regulations are often enacted by officials who don’t have all the information on a given topic, she says, which can create confusion and cast turf professionals in a bad light. “It’s frustrating when sports field managers have been protecting the environment and their inputs are less than those of homeowners in many cases,” she adds.

To help address such situations, STMA is currently pilot testing a new environmental certification program for sports facilities. “We think that will help our members be more proactive in communicating their environmental stewardship,” Heck explains.

James Bergdoll
Turf Manager, Elizabethtown (Ky.) Sports Park

“Like any industry, it’s always evolving. There’s always a lot of new technologies and research coming out. And, for me personally, it’s always interesting to stay up on whatever the latest and greatest things are, whether it’s a new cultivar of grass or piece of equipment,” says Bergdoll. “There’s so much going on and so many things being thrown at us.” He says part of his challenge professionally is to sift through these advancements to figure out which ones make sense, financially and realistically, in his operation.

Bergdoll says that, throughout the industry, sports field managers are being challenged to do more with less, and he feels that fact is starting to be recognized by those who support the industry. “I think, finally, the equipment manufacturers and the chemical manufacturers and the university researchers have caught up to where we are as sports field managers, trying to do as much as we can given the constraints we have, whether it’s limited budgets or staff,” Bergdoll observes, noting that he’s seeing lower cost chemical options and maintenance equipment available on the market, as well as research that addresses more practical issues. There seems to be industrywide recognition now of how budget-conscious most sports turf managers need to be, he concludes.

Another trend Bergdoll has noticed has special significance for him: a rise in the number of high-caliber youth sports complexes opening. Elizabethtown Sports Park is a tournament destination facility and one of the largest of its kind in the U.S., with 12 ball fields and 12 multiuse fields, including two synthetic fields, on 150 acres. The city of Elizabethtown built the park as a way to bring in visitors and revenue. “I’m seeing more of these types of facilities pop up, maybe on a smaller scale, but it feels like the youth sports industry hasn’t gone down because of the economy,” Bergdoll notes. “I think people feel, ‘No matter what the economy is, we’re still going to spend money on our kids.’ The competitive youth sports industry, as far as I can tell, has been thriving even in this down economy.”

At the same time, he thinks the expectation levels are rising for both the conditioning and safety of sports fields. He says, “I think that can only help our industry when people actually understand that kids need to play on safe fields.”

Ross Kurcab
Head Groundskeeper, Denver Broncos

“I think that as an industry we’re strong,” says Kurcab. For example, he observes that a number of equipment manufacturers and suppliers that had focused on golf course maintenance are now shifting some attention to sports fields.

“I think the sports turf market is getting bigger, everything from product development to equipment and supplies. When I first started, every piece of equipment and product we had was developed for a golf course and we tried to make it work in a sports field application,” notes Kurcab, adding that there is now a wide range of products designed specifically with sports field maintenance in mind. “I think that will continue,” he says, noting that sports fields might be a more stable market – less vulnerable to economic downturns – than golf in the eyes of suppliers, making it more attractive.

He’s observed a similar phenomenon taking place with professionals working in the industry. “It’s the first time I can remember seeing golf course superintendents actively changing professions to become sports turf managers, and I welcome that, because the better people we can get, the better off we’re going to be. It will only help our industry’s professionalism,” he explains.

One trend Kurcab sees developing over the next five years is safety and performance testing for sports fields. “That’s going to get huge. In the NFL we already have performance testing going on, everything from field hardness to traction tests, grass cover tests, moisture levels, and things like that. We’re having to meet certain guidelines, and I think that’s going to filter down,” he predicts, noting that Europe and Australia are far ahead of the U.S. on these issues.

Kurcab thinks the emphasis on concussions and other issues related to sports safety will drive advances in the science of testing and focus on field safety all the way down to the youth sports level. “I’ve even heard from school districts where their legal departments are looking into whether they might be liable [for injuries] if they can’t document the maintenance of their fields,” he states. “I think awareness of field safety is going to drive more objective testing on the quality of fields, and that’s only going to help the industry in terms of resources and budgets.”

Paul Hollis
Executive Vice President, Redexim Turf Products

“I am amazed at how far the industry has come in the last decade,” says Hollis. “The quality of the facilities has increased greatly, and the level of the field managers is tremendously better than it was 10 or 15 years ago. I am encouraged by the focus on sports turf that has trickled down from the pros, down to the high school level, and even to private facilities. The industry seems to still be in a growth pattern that we hope continues in the foreseeable future.”

Hollis says other vendors he’s spoken with share his assessment of the strength of the industry. “On the flip side, there is concern that the golf market is going in the opposite direction, and the contrast between two markets that are so similar in many ways is striking,” he adds.

The sports field industry is following golf’s lead in one positive way, notes Hollis: professional development. The opportunities for education and training that the sports field managers receive these days rival what golf course superintendents have had for decades,” he states. As the level of knowledge has grown within the industry, there’s been greater demand on the part of sports field managers for equipment that will help them achieve high-quality conditions, he adds.

Perhaps there’s also an increasing recognition of the expertise that highly trained sports field managers offer. “There seems to be a trend, at least in some areas, of schools contracting or consulting with outside firms to provide maintenance work,” observes Hollis.

John Rector
Turf Product Manager, Barenbrug

In his 35 years in the industry, Rector says he’s seen a lot of changes. “We had this big boom in grass development in the 1980s and 1990s. Most seed companies had their own turfgrass breeding programs. Unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of that,” he says. “There are really only a handful of companies now that truly have their own breeding programs.” Fewer private breeding programs exist, with more reliance being placed on university breeding programs, of which there are also fewer than in past years. “The reason for this is basically cost, research is expensive,” adds Rector.

The risk with having fewer people involved is that the industry will lose a lot of innovation, he explains. Barenbrug is one company that continues a strong worldwide breeding program and emphasizes sports field grasses as a priority, notes Rector. He says the emphasis on research involves traits that sports field managers are most interested in: Fast establishment, traffic tolerance, and the ability of the grasses to recover from injury and repair themselves. “It’s pretty remarkable how far those areas have come in the last 10 years,” observes Rector. He cites recent improvements in the speed of establishment of the company’s bluegrasses, which he says germinate in less than 10 days.

Sports field managers will need more innovative grasses in the future, says Rector. “There’s added pressure on them because their budgets are tight, and it’s not as easy anymore to fire up the sprayer and go put down an herbicide or fungicide application,” he notes. Then there are water restrictions and fertilizer regulations, etc. “So there’s added pressure on [turf breeders] to develop grasses that are going to have needs for lower inputs and that are going to be more disease resistant,” says Rector. Oftentimes these superior grasses cost a little more, he states, raising the ultimate question of whether end users are willing to pay for these traits.

Fred Stringfellow
Executive Director, American Sports Builders Association

Stringfellow says a survey taken of the ASBA’s membership shows positive results from the past year. The vast majority (more than 80 percent) said that business was up in 2013 compared with 2012. Of the sample that responded to the survey, football fields were the most common source of work during the past year, as nearly half of the ASBA members reported working in that area. Soccer (36 percent) and baseball (28 percent) were the other leading sources of work. All respondents reported that they had been involved with a mix of both new construction and renovation of sports fields during the past year. The ASBA survey showed hope for the coming year: Almost half (45 percent) of those who responded said they expected business to be up between 5 and 9 percent in 2014, with another 10 percent of members projecting an even greater increase in business during the coming year. Nearly equal numbers (18 percent each) expect to see business stay flat or increase slightly.

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.