Below the Cleats - Tales from a Sports Field Life: Sports Field Magic
Tips From The Pros
Ross Kurcab is a Certified Sports Field Manager (CSFM) and a professional sports field consultant with 30 years’ experience as a head turf manager in professional football. He graduated from Colorado State University’s Turfgrass Management program and now operates and owns Championship Sports Turf Systems.
Below the Cleats – Tales from a Sports Field Life: Sports Field Magic
In the world of sports field management, we talk about three primary goals in delivering a playing field. First and foremost, ‘the playing field has to be safe’. While there is no playing surface that can make any active sport truly safe in the respect that no one would ever get hurt or injured, field managers aim for eliminating hazards to players and guests in the areas we can control. The sports field manager’s second priority: ‘playability’. Again, this is a somewhat nebulous term that has been debated through the industry. I’ve always seen it as the ability of a field to adequately host athletic performance for the given sport at the level of competition played. This could mean things like consistent ball roll or skip for soccer, even ball hop characteristics on the skinned areas of a softball/baseball field. In football, it has a lot to do with solid footing. Finally, after safety and playability, is ’the field’s appearance’. And while appearance may be third of our three main priorities in delivering a field, this does not diminish its importance and the time and effort spent on it.
When we walk into a natural grass ballpark or tune into a game on TV, we wonder how they do it. “What’s your secret?” It’s a question high-profile groundskeepers get often, as if it were some kind of alchemy that is used to deliver such a marvel. There’s an old saying in cycling, “It’s 95% the rider and 5% the bike”. Similarly, sports field management is 95% fundamental turfgrass science and soils management, 5% being tricks and hacks to keep up appearances. As Mark Razum, the incredibly talented head groundskeeper for the Colorado Rockies once told me, “You can’t polish a turd.” In other words, these appearance hacks won’t make up for a poor playing surface, but they can really make a good field look great.
Just as we humans spend billions on men’s and women’s health, beauty products and services, field managers have a few make-up tricks of our own in hiding blemishes and emphasizing our strong points.
COVERING UP BALD SPOTS WITH MOWER CLIPPINGS.
Natural grass sports field management really is a grass-cover game. If you have good, healthy grass covers, you’ve won most of the battle. After so many games and events, even the best fields will begin to thin and lose cover, exposing the soil below. One of the oldest tricks in the groundskeeper’s magic bag is using fresh, saved grass clippings from a game day mowing and sprinkle them over thin areas on the field. Depending on conditions, they can last for many hours before shriveling up.
Late in the season, after a lot of wear and tear, maybe it’s too cold or hot and this slows canopy growth. You just aren’t mowing enough fresh green clippings of the field to collect any useable yield. In this case, when we couldn’t get sufficient clippings from the game day mowing, we would “bank” clippings throughout the week in 5-gallon paint buckets and keep them fresh in our refrigerator.
GREEN PAINTS AND DYES
The same environmental and human event stresses that eventually lead to thinned grass areas will also discolor the grass, causing a yellowing or purple appearance. Here in the US, we love deep green grasses and one quick way to mask off-color grass damage is by literally dyeing or painting the grass green. This is usually done with a boom sprayer using either a green dye or diluted green paint onto the discolored grass. In my experiences, the dyes tend to give an easier and longer lasting green, but may permanently stain certain fabrics and ruin game uniforms. This became such an issue with NFL equipment managers in the 1990’s. They began threatening to send a bill to the club they just played for stained uniforms, if they had dyed their field green. Eventually, the league came out with guidelines in using a more paint-based green colorant product that does not permanently stain like some dyes and they also set a Wednesday deadline for field managers if they are to use green dye. This was to allow time for the colorant to fully dry and be less prone to ending up on uniforms and even the game ball in some situations.
“Greening-out” a playing field is not a perfect science and most often, if you’re going to green up some bad looking parts of a field, you want to figure on treating the entire surface because it is almost impossible to actually match the green tint of the product with the natural green tint of the grass. It usually takes several coats. Keep this in mind, when you are ordering product, make sure you have enough.
You’ve got to have grass to spray the colorant on. Once you get so thin that only bare soil is apparent in the worn areas, treating the field with a colorant will help slightly, but it doesn’t work on bare soil very well in my experiences. Although it will darken the tint of the bare soil areas which will tend to make them stick out less on TV or from the stands.
PRE-GERMINATED GRASS SEED
Thinned grass areas and divots can be quickly filled back in, within reason, by sprouting new grass from seed in as little as a few days. By soaking the seed in water for 6-24 hours before planting it in the divots and thin areas, the skilled field manager can fill-in grass cover between games.
“Pregerming” grass seed is done using mostly Perennial ryegrasses (Lolium perenne) because of their deep green color and quick germination, relative to other species of grasses. Its bunch-type growth habit makes it ideal for this type of interseeding. (Link to my blog). Especially in larger areas, keep in mind this is very young grass that will not endure or stand up to much traffic.
Most high-profile field operations make great use of turf covers. There are a variety of turf field cover types to fit every field and the needs of various sports but they basically do three important things that push a field over the hump from a good field to a great field. Quality field covers can extend the growing season, protect the surface from the elements and protect the surface from people.
Vented turf covers are used to build heat into the grass field and effectively extend the growing season. You wouldn’t see the beautiful green MLB field in any northern cities for opening day in early April without vented field covers. Sports seasons are longer than they used to be and getting longer. Spring sports now start in early February. In many parts of the US, this is only possible because of field covers.
Rigid, turf protection systems allow multi-event field use and increased revenue. In the old days, it used to take 7-10 days to build-out a stage and concert elements on a stadium field. With these newer protective field covering technologies and better designed and built stages, we can now literally have a concert on Saturday night and a sporting event Sunday night. Although I don’t recommend it, there is just no room for error or misfortune like an untimely rain storm that can ruin such tight timelines in an outdoor setting.
Rain/snow field tarps are used to keep the playing field warm and dry during storms. These are the field tarps you’ll see quickly pulled out over the infield skinned area at baseball parks pulling during a rain storm. These types of field covers allow the players to get on a field right after a storm and not have to wait several days for the field to dry out. In the cold months, some field managers even pump in warm air from sideline heater under these tarps to prevent surface frosts. You just won’t see another “Ice Bowl Game” with a rock-hard frozen surface ever again in large part due to rain/snow field covers.
SPORTS FIELD MANAGERS LOVE KITTY-LITTER
Kitty-litter is made of highly absorbent baked clay granules. Sports field managers use a similar product in all sorts of ways. These ceramics are a higher-quality kitty litter that is mined, processed and baked specifically for the granule stability needed sports field use. Simple cat-litter is too dusty and crumbles easily. This might tend to “clog up” a soil profile, impeding drainage and grass health. There are different products available for various uses whether on a grass or skinned areas surface. You’ll never again see a baseball infield doused with gasoline and torched to dry out and yet we still see this usually illegal tactic tried on ball fields every once in a while.
MOWING DIFFERENTLY THAN YOUR HOME LAWN
Sports field managers mow about half the height (or less) of the average home lawn. This is what athletes prefer because it creates a shallow, but tight root mass near the surface for stability and creates a denser turf, better to run and fall on. Most home lawns are mowed with rotary blades that use a cut more akin to a machete chop, whereas sports field managers at high-profile facilities almost always use a reel mower, often called a cylinder mower outside the US. These mowers work using a scissor-like cut at a much higher clipping rate. The result is a cleaner cut. Much like how a paper cut on your finger heels slowly compared to a sharp knife cut, mowed grass reacts similarly. A dull cut leaves ragged edges and “threads” behind that will not only increase turfgrass disease pressure, but will brown out the tips of the grass and give the field a less green with a less professional look to it. Most home lawns would get an immediate improvement in appearance and health if they regularly sharpened their mower blades.
Reel mowers have front and back rollers of various types on each reel-head. These tend to add a grain to the grass, creating light and dark tints for the viewers. This is how sports field managers create the appealing mower stripes and creative mower art on sports fields. The STMA even has an annual mowing pattern contest. Dave Mellor, the venerable Boston Red Sox groundskeeper, really took these skills to a new level in the 80’s and he even wrote a book about it. If you have the ability to mow a perfectly straight swath on a large riding mower over long distances, you’ll always have a job on a high-end sports field team. It’s a lot more difficult than it may sound. Sometimes, we even pull a tight string line to get the pattern perfect.
A much lower height of cut also means sports field managers mow much more frequently than home owners require due to the 1/3 rule of mowing grass. As such, many high-end sports fields are mowed 3-4+ times per week during the active growing season.
SPORTS FIELD MANAGERS USE THE BEST TYPES AND VARIETIES OF GRASSES ON THEIR FIELDS
Most homeowners couldn’t tell you the variety (s) of grass on their home lawns but sports field managers use specific mixes and blends of grasses best suited genetically for the local climate and the particular needs of the sport. Ask most sports field managers and they can tell you exactly which grasses they are cultivating. “It’s a 419 Bermudagrass based overseeded with a 3-way blend of Perennial rye”. Some of these “sports specific” varieties require specific management strategies to look and perform at their best and many of these techniques, like verti-cutting for example, which are not really practical on the home lawn.