The history and future of the industry
As the New Year approaches and new products, equipment and educational opportunities are introduced, it’s easy to see that significant changes have been made. Now, as the NFL celebrates the 50th anniversary of the American Football League, it’s a great time to see how far the sports field industry has come.
We’ve asked a few industry pioneers to share some of their memories of the early days.
Eugene Mayer remains active in the industry as a turf consultant after retiring from his position as technical training manager and turf agronomist for the Scotts Company. In that capacity, he played a role in multiple research projects.
Mayer says, “Dr. Bill Daniel of Purdue University was one of the ‘idea men’ in the early turf industry. I’d go to his annual field day and he’d be trying the weirdest things. Probably 95 percent of them didn’t work out, but we all benefitted from the ones that did. Tom Mascaro, president of Turf-Tec International, was another leader in turning ideas into something workable. He’d look at what needed to be done, research ways to make that happen, and come up with a piece of equipment that would do it.”
Research led Daniel to start advocating sand-based fields. The first Prescription Athletic Turf (PAT) system on a professional team’s field was installed in Mile High Stadium in 1975. Steve Wightman, currently turf manager for Qualcomm Stadium, was named turf manager for the new PAT field in 1976, when the previous turf manager retired.
Wightman says, “Dr. Daniel became my mentor as we worked with the system. He’d have me come each year to talk to his students about the continual learning process. The system had an impervious liner under and around the entire 2.5 acres of football field. The 16-inch profile was straight sand. Inground drainpipes were tied into a pumping system that could quickly pump water out. Or, with the drains closed and the pumps off, water could be injected into the drain lines to fill the rootzone reservoir subsurfacely to maintain optimum moisture conditions within the rootzone. Initially, there was no aboveground irrigation system. We were constantly adjusting the water table, experimenting to learn the right balance.
“There were 29 miles of heat cables for the electrical inground heating system, spaced 6 inches deep and 6 inches apart, connecting into four main zones. We were a two-sport stadium, so the baseball infield had to be removed for football. Every time we did that, we’d break some of those fine wires within the cables. We’d know which of the main lines had problems, but couldn’t pinpoint the broken wire without checking inside the cable. We worked with electricians for hours making those repairs. The heating system was expensive to maintain and also expensive to operate.”
Mayer got involved with the PAT system in 1990 when the Ohio Stadium field was converted. He says, “The PAT fields drained well and the grass looked great, but that 100 percent sand hurt playability. I was mainly focused on fertility and researching how to manage it under the different conditions with the straight sand system and those incorporating organic matter or stabilizers.” The research and experimentation was an ongoing process, and it continues to be with sand-based fields today.
Turf consultant George Toma points out the limited choices in grasses originally available to sports field managers. “There was only common bermudagrass for the southern regions and transition zone,” he says. “In 1957, if you wanted sod, you had to get it from a cow pasture.”
Mayer says, “In the early days, the choice was the grass species. In the cool-season zone, that was Kentucky bluegrass or the only tall fescue available, K-31. In fields that used a mix of the two, the bluegrass would crowd out most of the K-31, leaving just clumps of it. That caused footing problems and ball hops and looked terrible. There were few perennial ryegrass varieties until the early ’70s, and the early ones shredded when mowed.”
The new cultivars brought improvements in terms of growth habits; appearance; and tolerance to pests, heat, cold, drought and wear. The evolution in equipment brought tremendous improvements and broad options in machines and tools that hadn’t been invented in the early days. Toma says, “I remember submitting a bill for $25 for the rental of one horse and a harrow. That’s quite a comparison to the high horsepower machines today.”
Some of the control products were downright scary, with arsenate of lead, mercury and DDT, just some of those widely used.
In his early days at Kansas City, Toma got cow manure from a farmer, put it in 55 gallon drums, soaked it with water and sprayed the water on the field as fertilizer. Mayer says, “Improvements in fertilizers, like controlled-release products, were developed for the homeowners first and didn’t become available to golf courses and sports fields until they’d been on the market, sometimes for years.”
Field marking was a whole new category. Dry lime, marble dust and the white dust produced by burning anthracite coal were all used for lining. So was hydrated lime, which could burn the eyes. Toma remembers mixing the flakes of Ivory Snow laundry detergent with bluing in a 55-gallon drum and using that to line the field. He says, “Then they developed ‘limers’ that held about 5 gallons of the mix. They had a little valve for the liquid to drip out the bottom, and we’d use paintbrushes to even it out. Some groundskeepers, including Emil Bossard, used to do all the football field painting with a 4-inch paint brush.”
Back in the ’60s, the dome of the Houston Astrodome had been painted white to block the glare for better player visibility, and the grass died. Mayer was part of the team at Scotts involved in researching workable options. “We did a project with the Rohm and Haas company to find a combination of dome material and a grass that would grow in the amount of light the dome could provide, and that light couldn’t adversely impact player visibility. We set up 20 mini domes at Scotts’ facility and tested different grass varieties under them. We did find a workable combination and patented it, but the AstroTurf people had been researching artificial turf fields for the Astrodome at the same time and had developed their product first. That started the ball rolling on the widespread installations of the first generation of artificial fields.”
Going into the future, considerations of efficiency, cost effectiveness and environmental impact will increasingly influence the development of new products, equipment and sports field management practices.
With initiatives already underway, research will provide quantifiable data on both natural grass and synthetic system fields in areas of safety and performance. Using that new information, sports field managers will act to continually improve their fields.
Field use will increase, with more participants in sports programs and more non-sports activities to draw additional revenue, and expectations will continue to escalate.
Opportunities for formal education will keep growing. Dr. Gwen Stahnke of Washington State University (WSU) points to the many four-year turf programs that offer a sports field-specific class or component within a class. Some universities, like WSU, have teamed with the two-year programs of community colleges to channel students more effectively into the four-year degree path. Dr. Dave Minner of Iowa State University notes the strong internship programs available through the cooperation of sports field managers throughout the university and professional ranks.
Online education gives traditional students greater flexibility to work within the industry as they study, and provides the opportunity for those established in the profession to take advantage of formal education. Many community colleges and universities now offer online turfgrass certificate programs. The Ohio State University has developed an online sports turf management certificate program. Dr. A. J. Turgeon of Penn State notes their World Campus online program offers a certificate in turfgrass management, advanced certificate in turfgrass management, and bachelor’s degree in turfgrass science. They are working on the development of an online master’s degree program in turfgrass studies that would encompass advanced turfgrass work, management issues and thesis-type projects.
The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.