As participation in organized sports and the need to generate revenue increase, overuse becomes a growing problem. Key strategies are needed to manage the overuse. Fine-tuning them to meet current conditions and applying them effectively will result in better and safer fields. Sports field managers keep finding ways to deal with the heavy use of their fields.

Because volunteers assist with field maintenance, they take an ownership attitude toward field use, and it shows.

Coordinate labor resources

Dudley Rice is director of parks and recreation for Solebury Township, Pa. Rice says, “Most of our sports fields are concentrated in one park, including one football field, one soccer field and all six of our ball fields. Five of those are used for different levels of baseball play, with one the dedicated girls’ softball field. Our five additional soccer/football fields are split between two other park sites.”

Rice says sports league participation is increasing by 2 to 3 percent each year. He says, “Steady growth is good and manageable, but the simple fact is, the more you use a field, the more it’s going to wear.”

The township’s public works department handles about 20 percent of the field maintenance. An outside contractor is hired for much of the remaining 80 percent, with the contract for that mowing and maintenance work going out to bid every three years. Volunteers from the leagues tackle the rest. Rice says, “We organize volunteer workdays to direct and coordinate their efforts and get a great turnout, especially in the spring. We also have some volunteers who are in the business who donate seed and fertilizer and such. The combination of materials and labor is a huge benefit to our program, and it creates a sense of ownership that really shows in how they use the fields.”

Team volunteers take on the postgame cleanup, including dugout and trash detail. After practices and games, they do the divot walk on all of the multiuse fields, and the turf areas of the baseball and softball fields. They check the base paths, bases, mounds and batter’s boxes. To preserve the turf in the goalmouths, they use portable goals during soccer practices, rotating the areas to avoid wear.

Portable mounds allow quick conversion between softball and baseball or different levels of baseball play.

Rice oversees field use scheduling and the field management program, so he has the flexibility to coordinate use to field conditions within the parameters of the programs. He plans to start field preparation on the first of March, but this year, like many others, there was still snow cover. After the late start, the unusually rainy spring caused many weather-related cancellations. Rescheduled games ran to the end of June, instead of wrapping up in the first or second week as they generally do. While that ends the organized baseball and softball programs for the year, soccer and football start the fall season in mid-August.

The fields are native soil, most with a mix of bluegrass, perennial ryegrass and turf-type tall fescue. Rice says, “We resodded two of the baseball fields last fall and went with a bluegrass blend there since the turf gets less concentrated activity. The main wear areas on those fields are in front of the dugouts. We use the clay bricks as the base for our mounds and batter’s boxes to reduce the need for major repairs there.”

Quick couplers are strategically placed and well-protected, yet easy to locate.

Rice has a base field management plan that he adapts annually to fit the changeable weather conditions. He says, “We aerate in the spring, overseed as frequently as field conditions dictate, and topdress every other year. Once the spring soccer season ends, we raise the mowing height on all of our multipurpose fields and basically shut them down so the root system has a chance to rejuvenate the plant. We post 2-by-3-foot yellow signs stating ‘This athletic field is closed,’ and allow no organized practices or games on them until the fall leagues start up. There is the occasional casual pickup game, but anything beyond that our staff would police. Our community has done a good job of honoring that because of the ownership attitude they have for their fields.”

By the end of the football and soccer season in November, the turf on the multipurpose fields does show some wear. Rice fits in as much postseason field maintenance as the weather allows on those fields so they go into winter in good shape and are primed for an early start in the spring.

Little things matter

Old Settlers Park at Palm Valley is a 570-acre complex in the city of Round Rock, Texas. Serving a population of over 100,000, it’s heavily used whenever weather allows. It includes a 20-field baseball complex, organized in four clusters designated for specific levels of league play. In addition, there are five lighted fields within the softball complex; a football complex with two lighted game fields; a seven-field soccer complex; one regulation cricket field; a section of multipurpose practice fields; areas designated for disc football and ultimate Frisbee, along with a professionally designed disc golf course, tennis courts, walking trails, a lake with a fishing pier, and multiple other amenities for general public use and hosting communitywide events.

The complex was developed in conjunction with the Sports Capital of Texas tourism campaign, with part of the agreement giving them one weekend each month for a tournament. The type and size of that event is based on the recruitment and bidding process conducted by the Round Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau. Their baseball and softball tournaments usually draw over 100 teams. Other field use, including league play, is coordinated through the city’s parks and recreation department. Many of those tournaments are just as large, with even the smaller tournaments attracting at least 50 teams.

With no restrictions on use of this soccer complex, only the edges of the turf survived.

Because of the size and scope of Old Settlers Park, it’s a separate entity with an on-site staff under the direction of Johnnie Keith, parks foreman, and parks crew leaders Kenneth Wilkison and Jorge Avina. During a tour of the facilities, they shared many of the details that allow them to focus labor, equipment and materials resources to effectively manage the volume of field use. Crews are coordinated by primary assignments such as field layout, striping and lining; infield maintenance; mowing; plumbing and irrigation; and open space maintenance.

Here’s the same soccer field after renovation and implementation of a well-planned field use strategy.

Little things make a huge difference, especially for the quick changeovers needed for back-to-back events. The original design took much of that into consideration, planning for long-term use and maximum efficiency. Small maintenance buildings within the complexes are used to store items that are used daily, while the larger main building houses bigger equipment and the bulk of supplies. The fields are native soil with Tifway 419 bermudagrass turf. Soccer fields are designed for setup in multiple configurations, such as converting from lacrosse to a 21-field layout for three-on-three soccer. The placement of maintenance gates within the baseball and softball complexes allows mower operators to go directly from grass to grass as they enter and exit the fields. Skinned pathways between the mound and home plate eliminate a major area of turf wear for fields with grassed infields. Quick couplers for irrigation are strategically located and well-protected, yet easy to find.

Whisker plugs mark the placement of bases for multiple field setups.

Management practices are planned for flexibility. Portable mounds, stored at the ball field complexes, allow crews to quickly convert between softball and baseball, or levels of baseball competition, depending on the tournament. Whisker plugs mark the proper placement of the bases for all of the field setups. Maintenance building storage areas are laid out for optimum efficiency, with everything kept in its assigned place.

Document and educate

Don Scholl is superintendent of the parks, landscapes and sports fields division of the city of Tracy, Calif., Department of Public Works. Scholl oversees a total of 15 fields at various sites throughout the city.

The multiuse field space covers about 27 acres. Scholl says, “We opened them for play in September 2001, with a layout of four full-size soccer fields. At that time, though I tried to explain the importance of managed field use, our parks commission insisted there be no restrictions on play. By the end of the second season, 90 percent of the turf was dead, with only the edges surviving.”

The only recourse was fencing off the fields and closing them down for four months for renovation and overseeding. Scholl says, “The cost was just under $30,000 with the extra labor, materials, seed and the fencing rental. It was a time-consuming process with media attention all the way, but the results were such an improvement everyone took notice.”

It’s actually become one of those situations where a failure has become a benefit in the long run. It clearly demonstrated that Scholl had the knowledge and expertise to develop and coordinate a comprehensive sports field management program. He says, “Now we reassess the fields every year and decide what adjustments, if any, need to be made in the hours of play allowed.”

Scholl took photos of the fields as conditions deteriorated, and additional photos to document the renovation process and to show the results of the renovation. Now, if complaints about being too restrictive on field use come from the public or city officials, he can schedule a meeting or presentation to explain his management program. Those sessions always include the before and after photos to clearly illustrate the results of overuse.

Damage from overuse can be mitigated with proper planning, strategic play restrictions and paying attention to all details.

The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.