In my last piece, field quality was defined to include three basic pillars: safety, playability and appearance. A quality field rates high in all three areas. Field management and event use decisions are compelled by the thresholds we set for these three concepts. We manage our fields and schedule event uses on a subjective concept of adequate field quality. We all talk about these three subjective priorities anytime we meet as professionals, but we as an industry would do well to further develop these concepts and how they can be tested scientifically.

The idea of performance testing athletic surfaces is not new, but it has been painfully slow to develop in this country. The Symposium on the Characteristics and Safety of Playing Surfaces (artificial and natural) for Field Sports was held in December 1988 in Phoenix. It was sponsored by ASTM committee F08 on Sports Equipment and Facilities. There have been two other symposia since then, the last in 1995, which resulted in a paper: Natural and Artificial Playing Fields: Characteristics and Safety Features. It is a worthwhile read. There have been some ongoing efforts through the ASTM. The STMA website has a summary and reference page for what has been done so far. They have done work on natural and artificial fields, but most of the natural grass work is on construction, hardness/impact issues and maintenance guidelines. Good and useful work, but not much on performance standards.

This past July, the University of Tennessee and AstroTurf partnered and opened the UT Center for Athletic Field Safety in Knoxville. Penn State partnered with FieldTurf in their Center for Sports Surface Research in University Park, Pa. Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa State, Purdue and other universities conducted a wealth of sports turf-specific research. We have scientific assets second to none in these research universities, and they are already in place. We have a funding mechanism with SAFE, the STMA’s Foundation for Safer Athletic Field Environments. We have some of the finest sports field managers in the world. We just need someone or some organization to light the match and oversee the collaboration.

In 1998, I went to London. I booked a couple of extra days on my trip to visit the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI) in Bingley, England. The STRI is a preeminent research and consulting organization that started in 1929. (I remember seeing old pictures of groundsmen in the early 1900’s, pitch-forking a soggy field before a match, all in full coat and tie, no less.)

The scientists and technicians each spent some time with me. They showed me several methods they were evaluating for a field performance testing and standards program. They measured hardness with a Clegg hammer. They measured traction with a cleated disc device and a two-handled torque wrench. They were working on ways, similar to a Stimpmeter for golf greens, to measure ball roll speed and trueness. They were working on ways to measure surface smoothness and level. There were several different kinds of wear simulator machines. One of the technicians was telling me how they were correlating the test data with player surveys after matches. Players would be asked to rate these performance characteristics for the pitch they just played on (hardness, traction, smoothness, ball roll, etc.). The survey data was used in part to establish the acceptable ranges for each parameter. It was a revealing day for me. While at conferences and meetings back in the U.S., all I hear is how hard it would be and reasons why a field performance standards and testing program can’t be done in the U.S. We are the most litigious nation on earth by a long shot, and this will draw challenge to the program, but that shouldn’t stop us.

In the early 1980s, the Consumer Product Safety Commission published “The Handbook of Public Playground Safety.” It was far from a perfect program, and technical standards and methods of testing were lacking. Manufacturers started the International Play Equipment Manufacturers Association (IPEMA).

The IPEMA worked with the ASTM to set testing procedures and standards. The IPEMA certifies the equipment meets their safety standards, and certified third-party inspectors ensure compliance. Another government mandate you say? No, this is a voluntary program, developed by the industry, that allows manufacturers that meet specifications to use the IPEMA seal of approval. Educated consumers (parents) can make better decisions and organize for change if they choose. Some school districts and municipalities have used the standards as policy. Trust me, if you saw the playgrounds I played on as a child, you would agree that conditions have vastly improved.

If we can do it for our playgrounds, why can’t we do it for our athletic fields, both natural and artificial? Collaboration will be the key. A voluntary, incentives-based program is the way to go. Facilities could choose to engage or not, but as an athlete or parent of a younger athlete you would have objective information to affect change if you wanted, instead of a subjective opinion. New Zealand has a national program for performance testing of athletic fields administered through the New Zealand Sports Turf Institute, as does Australia with their national PASS program (Performance Assessment of Sports Surfaces). I am sure there are others. It can be done.

What does all this mean for us sports field managers? At all levels things will improve. Events and game scheduling would be reasonable because we could truly document trends and the effects of overuse with objective data. We will develop data that will allow us to benchmark field quality over time, and better prioritize our maintenance budget expenditures by seeing what truly works and what doesn’t. We will get feedback on the treatments we decide to perform on the fields and make better decisions. Insurance companies will take notice of a sound program and offer incentives in the way of discounts on premiums to facility owners who achieve the accreditation. Budgets will improve correspondingly, as they should. Sure, we have to science-up a bit, but that’s probably needed anyway in our profession. The most important result of a field performance testing program would be safer, more playable and better looking fields<1><1>. A worthy goal indeed.

Let me know your thoughts.

Ross Kurcab, who holds a bachelor’s in landscape horticulture/turfgrass management from Colorado State University, has 26 years of turf management experience and is the first Certified Sports Field Manager). You may reach him at ross@sportsfieldmanagementmagazine.com.