Making way for a mega stage

The U2 Tour stage on show day, October 18.

The U2 360° Tour was a whirlwind that turned football stadiums into venues for what’s been called the concert world’s most spectacular stage. With concentric oval stages covering over 60 yards, a center spike extending 164 feet and a suspended 360-degree LCD screen that could morph in size and shape, hosting the event was a challenge during the football season, especially for those of us with natural grass fields.

U2 stage construction used cranes, cherry pickers, flatbed trucks and forklifts.

As director of athletic field management for the University of Oklahoma in Norman, my role began long before U2 took the stage on Owen Field on October 18. While our stadiums mainly host football games, they are also entertainment venues, and we have to be ready and able to host other events. That starts by plugging into the networking resources in the turf industry and the dedicated field managers that share information. Next comes processing that information and combining it with knowledge of our facilities and resources to determine the best measures for our situation. The final phase is implementing them efficiently. This all takes the teamwork of our staff, all those involved within our facilities and those with the suppliers of materials and services.

Countdown to U2

We knew in February that we would be hosting a concert, and in mid-March we found out it would be U2. We learned that the EPS flooring system called Arena Panels used in the European tour would come to the U.S. It consisted of 7-by-10-foot aluminum sheets, bolted at all four corners. The sheets were flat-grooved on top and bottom, but, once installed, blocked all air and water movement. That flooring system would be on our field for nine days.

The field was stripped off with Koro Field TopMakers.
TifSport bermudagrass grown on plastic was installed.

The 50,000-square-foot stage in relation to our stadium’s 80,000 square feet of field space would require different positioning than other stadiums. The promoter, Live Nation, required the stage be set on the 50-yard line, extending it sideline to sideline and 20-yard line to 20-yard line, with the Arena Panels wall to wall.

We knew field replacement would be inevitable. I researched our options to determine the best thick-cut sod for our facility with nine days to get the field “game ready” toward the end of October, when weather can be unfavorable. We selected sod grown on plastic and worked with Mark Paluch of Bent Oak Sod Farm in Foley, Ala.

The field is TifSport bermudagrass, which was the same as our existing field, overseeded with a blend of perennial ryegrasses to be ready for play when installed. I made site visits to the sod farm in July, as well as during the last part of the harvest.

It started raining on October 4 and continued throughout the week, accumulating over 5 inches. We removed the goal posts and replaced our irrigation heads with caps with small holes in the top, which made them easy to find when reinstalling the heads before the sod went down. We also painted lines to mark the outer perimeter for post-concert removal of the field surface.

My staff monitored the setup to ensure the flooring system was down before the heavy equipment moved in and that none of the construction equipment moved off the flooring. The field was wet when the Arena Panel installation started on October 12. Though we have four entries into the field, only our southwest ramp, with a 16-foot width down to the field, offered width and height clearance for equipment access.

Flooring installation started at the 50-yard line and worked out to both end zones. They began moving in the steel structure of the stage on the morning of October 13. The setup took six days after the flooring was down. They used four 70-ton cranes, four 30-ton cherry pickers, four 5-ton flatbed trucks, three 1-ton flatbed trucks and about 15 forklifts.

In addition, a U2 production compound was set up on Terraplas covering 40 yards at one end of our synthetic practice field and extending onto plywood on the natural grass adjacent to that field. This was the most workable location with proximity to the stadium stage. Installation began October 13, and our staff monitored this area to ensure minimal impact to the football practice field complex.

Teardown/field back

The show opened at 7 p.m. with the Black Eyed Peas and closed at 11:15 p.m. with the final U2 encore. The fans cleared out quickly and the teardown crew moved in. After five and half hours, only the steel structure and the flooring remained. Thirty hours after the concert ended, the structure was dismantled. Lift off of the Arena Panels began at 9 a.m. on the October 20, with removal completed by 4 p.m. It took under two days for the entire deconstruction process.

Owen Field as it appeared after being covered for nine days under the Arena Panels.
Machines were used to maneuver the thick-cut sod for tight seams

The Arena Panel removal revealed a bad odor and mushy brown turf so tightly matted down nothing would have restored playable footing. The sheer weight of the stage had left impressions beneath the four legs and center stage area.

The crew had scheduled turning the field back to us by 10 p.m., but the reality was 4:30 p.m. Everyone involved in the first process of stripping off the old field and hauling it away was on-site and ready to go by 5 p.m. Our only off-field staging spot was outside the southwest ramp. The Arena Panels that had been stockpiled in sections there had to be loaded onto trucks and removed before our dump trucks could load out the field surface material.

We contracted with Colorado-based GreenOne for removal of the top 1.5 inches of sod and soil. They used two Koro Field TopMakers, channeling the material into four 1-ton dump trucks. R & M Resources of Yukon, Okla., handled this hauling, as well as the tilling and laser grading. They used a Blecavator to till any remaining organic matter into the top 4 inches of the sand-based profile. Final laser-grading followed this process. Rain started at noon, shutting down work by midnight and dumping nearly 4 inches overall.

Sod installation was completed three days after the field was taken out.
One week after sod installation, Owen Field is ready for OU’s home game against Kansas State.
Owen Field three weeks after sod installation, set up and ready for OU’s home game against Texas A & M.

Shipment of 24 trucks, each containing 24 rolls of sod, was staged to arrive at predetermined intervals starting on October 22. We used Green Acre Sod Farm out of Bixby, Okla., to handle the sod installation. They were experienced with this type of sod and had the specialized equipment needed to maneuver the heavy rolls in place. The first sod truck from Bent Oak Sod Farm arrived at 2:30 p.m. Each roll of the 1.5-inch-thick sod was precision-cut, leaving a sharp, straight edge for a tight fit during installation. Day two of sod installation consisted of laying sod east to west in the north end zone, the final 20 feet down the west sideline area, and the laying of the south end zone similar to the north. Installation of the last of the 576 rolls was complete by 4 p.m.

Game prep and beyond

On Saturday, we rolled the entire 80,000 square feet with a 3-ton roller. We let the field rest on October 25 and reinstalled the goal posts the next day. We mowed the turf and topdressed with 1/8-inch of straight sand. We started game day painting set up on the 28, and the field was ready for play and national television by the 6 p.m. kickoff on October 31.

Soil temperatures had stayed in the low 50s throughout October. Early November brought daytime highs into the high 70s and lows in the 50s. We topdressed another 1/8-inch of sand on November 3 and continued to grow-in our new turf, spoon-feeding nutrients, mowing and monitoring conditions. We left our Evergreen blankets on day and night to manufacture some heat to spur perennial ryegrass growth and stimulate bermudagrass rooting for our last two home games on November 14 and 28.

Jeff Salmond, CSFM, is director of athletic field management for the University of Oklahoma in Norman.