Strategies for fields in high demand

The men’s soccer team runs drills at stations set up off the field, with the locations changed each day.
Photos by Kevin Mercer.

The challenges sports field managers face are similar across the U.S. and around the world: hiring enough staff and getting enough equipment, supplies and funds to coordinate an effective program despite heavy use. Facility owners have to look at the big picture. From their perspective, the athletic fields are a source of revenue. “That’s the reality we have to manage,” says Mark Miller, athletics supervisor for the public services department of Apopka, Fla. While the geographic location, the type of use and the size of the program vary, strategies for managing overuse are always a key factor.

City recreation complex strategies

Apopka’s newest facility is a 200-acre complex with 50 acres of ball fields and numerous other features. “Our growth is predicated on the tax base and how the city allocates funding in this tight economy. We want to provide fields that can stand up to heavy use and provide a setting and atmosphere that will appeal to all demographics. The Apopka Athletic Facilities care objective is to manage and maintain a safe environment while keeping high horticultural standards and practices that provide a fun opportunity and pleasant experience for its Apopka patrons. It’s the basis for everything we do,” Miller says.

The first field area, developed nine years ago, includes two quads, one for softball, one for a combination of baseball and softball, an open play area and eight rectangular pads that are divided into fields and set up according to the use schedule. One or two pads may be lined out as full-size fields with the others lined for up to four or six smaller modified fields, depending on needs. The newer field area is three years old, and includes one Pop Warner game field and three practice pads along with four large pads that can be laid out in individual fields to accommodate lacrosse and soccer play and four Little League diamonds. “Flexibility is the key. By breaking the full-size fields into individual pads, we can have up to 45 soccer fields in play. We have approximately 800 youth in our recreation department’s soccer program and another 500 involved in the Pop Warner, Babe Ruth and Little League programs,” says Miller.

Miller has a staff of six based at the complex. He’s developed field setup layouts to detail the multiple usages, with a combination of alphabetical and numerical labels to designate each field space within a specific layout. He says, “Maintenance is a continual juggling act as we coordinate proper field rotation with best management practices [BMP]. We meet almost daily to ensure everything is covered. Generally, we’re working with schedules two to three weeks in advance, but weather-related changes and new opportunities for revenue can require quick changes to our plans.”

Miller has the background to manage flexibility. He has a degree in horticulture, is a certified arborist and has specialized in aquatic biology. He’s a BMP instructor for the state, and all his staff members are trained and certified on BMP.

Miller is also a certified water auditor, and one staff member is a certified irrigation specialist. “All of the fields are irrigated, using a variety of rotors, mostly Hunter I25, I40 and I 35. Within the overall system, we’ve been adding low-trajectory MP rotators for matched precipitation. We use a lot of drip irrigation within the landscape beds. We do use reclaimed water and closely monitor our water usage. None of our irrigation systems are computerized, so everything must be set and tracked manually,” he says.

The fields and most of the rest of the complex are Myakka fine sand, the official state soil. The field soils are tested annually, with the program adjusted as required. Aeration and topdressing take place as frequently as possible. Miller is incorporating a little sandy loam as time and budget allow.

Tifway 419 is the turf on 90 to 95 percent of the fields, with Celebration on the remaining fields. “This year, we’re adding some of the seeded bermudagrasses, including Princess 77 and Panama, testing to see if the mix of varieties gives us greater wear tolerance and better resistance to pests. We closely monitor our mowing practices to fit turf needs,” Miller says.

The fertilization program is focused on encouraging a deeper root system that promotes stem development for a dense, weed-free playing surface. That starts with a basic granular, such as a 22-0-2 with 50 percent sulfur coated urea, applied at four to six-week intervals. “We do a lot of visual analysis to determine how to supplement that based on current and anticipated field use. We may go in with a high-iron application or a liquid 20-20-20 at half rate, especially on the Pop Warner and soccer fields. Every two to three weeks, we’ll add a full liquid package or a package of minors,” says Miller.

Open campus strategies

An open campus with lots of active students adds to the challenges for Nick Gammill, sports turf manager for American University in Washington, D.C. The university has a clay-loam soccer practice field, an artificial turf multiuse field and Reeves Field, the sand-based soccer game field, on the main campus, and a clay-loam intramural field on a satellite site.

The natural turf fields have a base of G-10 bermudagrass overseeded with perennial ryegrass for maximum playability within the transition zone. Gammill follows best management practices, with a high level of maintenance on the campus fields. “Overuse usually leads to compaction, the hidden cause of many turfgrass problems, so we’ve adopted an aggressive aeration program, coring six to eight times a year. We usually remove the plugs. We topdress four times a year, using a mix of 95 percent sand and 5 percent poultry manure. Our fertilization program varies,” he says.

While student groups are asked to sign up for intramural scheduling on the satellite field, that doesn’t always happen. Gammill says, “We keep that field open, so if there’s no scheduled activity, other students will use it, most frequently for pickup soccer games, and we do keep the goals set up for them. We’ll aerate, fertilize and seed whenever we have a window of opportunity.”

Gammill plans on renovating that field annually, in late May or early June, when most students are off campus and the bermuda is strongest. “Because of the frequent use, we usually need to strip the sod, renovate the soil and resod with standard cut bermudagrass. Once the sod is down, I’ll post ‘don’t use’ signs and zigzag orange safety fence through the field so it’s almost impossible to use it,” he explains.

Interactive strategies

Miller says, “The city is proud to support Little League and Pop Warner programs and encourage tournaments and other outside uses that generate revenue. The city is going to rent our fields as much as we can to keep those dollars coming.”

Communication and cooperation are essential between those managing field care and those scheduling field use. Miller interacts with the head of the recreation division almost daily. “We meet in person once or twice a week to review where we are in the field use process and where we’re going with long-term scheduling. He understands that field rotation is a vital part of our program. Working together, we can coordinate which fields to pull from the schedule during the summer for that vital two to four-week interval with no play,” he says.

This close-up view of the turf following one warm-up drill makes it clear how much turf damage could occur if the same activity took place at the same spot day after day.

A similar strategy for managing overuse is part of the overall efficiency program for Kevin Mercer, superintendent of grounds for St. Mary’s College in Maryland. With multiple sports programs running simultaneously, he points to the impact of the coaches’ involvement. “Through the years, Head Soccer Coach Herb Gainey and I have worked together to create a great working relationship between the grounds crew and the athletics department. He respects our crews’ work for the athletic complex and makes it a priority to teach those who coach other sports to respect the fields and not cause unnecessary stress for them. In exchange, we go the extra mile to make sure the fields are perfect for games,” he says.

“Herb consistently rotates goal placement using all four sides of the soccer field for practice sessions. He moves warm-ups off the field to protect the turf and reduce stress on it. He has his student athletes walk the entire field and repair divots after each game and practice session. He has even started teaching the same preventive measures to the coaches using the fields of the county’s parks and recreation complexes.”

The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.