Tips From The Pros
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: FREEDOM LOGOS
Sports and holidays go together. One of the fun parts in working at a pro sports stadium is the fun of preparing a field for “the big game”, the one’s that will have many extra fans watching from the stands and television. Just like the players, the field managers want to show up big in the big games, as does everyone that works at the stadium or ballpark. Innovation is a key part of any professional turf team managing sports fields. Just as it is in all areas of endeavor. I’ve always said, your natural grass playing field does not come with a maintenance manual. Sure there are plenty of generally accepted principles and management tactics to draw from, but finding a better way of delivering and improving the product demands a constant environment of good idea generation. On a good turf team, you’ll constantly roll around new ideas on how to improve methods and output. Good field managers know that good ideas come from a constant process of this innovation from everyone one the team.
Like many venues in the US, every year we would host a big 4th of July game with a huge fireworks show afterwards. It drew the largest crowds of the season, whether it was for the MLS Colorado Rapids, the MLL Denver Outlaws, or even the one year when we had both teams using the stadium for home games. This annual game and show drew large crowds of over 30,000 for professional lacrosse or soccer games and set attendance records in Major League Lacrosse. Just like in ballparks and stadiums all over America, the big game revenue generated goes a long way in club budgets and staff salaries.
Mowing-in the American flag.
In 2010, we decided to try an American flag mowing pattern on the field. We had seen this done before on TV and on social media by talented field managers all over the country. Some even used the light/dark mower swaths to depict a US flag waving in the breeze by mowing a serpentine pattern. It looks really cool and gives the surface an appearance of small rolling hills. Being our first try, we decided on a classic, rectangular US flag pattern mowed into the center of the field. Outside of the flag, we would mow every swath double and in opposite directions to effectively erase any grain, producing a flat background to our mowed flag. We would start mowing this new pattern into the field about 2 weeks ahead of the game, every other day in the exact same patterning. We call this “burning it in”. The idea is to make the flag stripes vivid in appearance, make the creation “pop” in field manager’s parlance. The turf team discussions started right away. How do we depict the stars? Could we use hand tools and grain-in the stars? A little trial and error and we realized that this idea was more error. We could not get the crisp edges we needed on the stars. Nowadays, there are computer controlled air-puff machines available that can add detail to grass-grain graphics on a natural grass field.
We decided to use some green colorant mixed with some typical yellow field paint to get a good, deep green so the stars would pop. This is the same mix we used to “Green-out” soccer lines during football season. The yellow paint gives it a more grass-like tint I think, and its thicker consistency helps it stick to the grass canopy better upon application.
We only mowed-in and painted the American flag that first year of the freedom logos in 2010, but not after that. I loved the idea, it’s just that in my experiences field graphics done using light and dark grass grain tints are prone to sun-angle and stadium light effects. The technique shows best when the sun is bright and the sun is at the best angle in relation to where you are seated around the field at any time. Many pro sports games are nighttime events. Stadium lights from all angles tend to cancel-out tints created by mower swaths and the graphic no longer pops. Just my preference though, I’ve seen works of art in using mower graphics that amaze me. It’s just that I like the reliability of a painted logo. That said, in some sports like Major League Baseball (MLB) and Major League Soccer (MLS), they generally don’t allow painted logos inside the boundary lines. In these circumstances, a mower-grain graphic on a grass field is a great way for a savvy field manager to circumvent these rules and still decorate the field for a big game.
Back to Freedom logos.
Abe Picaso is now the assistant field manager for Empower Field at Mile High in Denver, but back in the summer of 2010 he was the lead on the “seasonal” turf team. A few days before our game field painting was to start and the big game approached, he came up with a great idea. Abe had recently attended a Colorado Rockies baseball game and bought a ball cap with the usual “CR” logo on the front of the cap turned into an American flag. I think this idea had been around for a few years in MLB, I’m not sure. Either way, the idea of respectfully displaying an American flag in unique ways had been done for years in many different ways. Who remembers the American flag gas tank and helmet on Peter Fonda’s chopper in the 1969 classic film Easy Rider?
Abe asked “What if we did that for the Denver Outlaws logo we paint on the field?” Naturally on our turf team, the idea quickly sprouted. “How could we do it and not have it look amateurish?” I asked. Chris pointed out “Since it has to do with the American flag, it has to be done respectfully”. “Do we have enough red, white and blue field paint on hand?” asked Cody Freeman. Luckily, we did as we routinely painted the NFL logo on the Denver Broncos playing surface.
After a little internet searching and reading, we found an American Legion website about US Flag etiquette. We quickly learned that we were not actually planning to display a flag with our freedom logos, just use the pattern in a decoration, like clothing that has the red, white and blue with stars. As such, the rules of etiquette for flag display did not apply to our idea and we were good to go as far as etiquette, according to The American Legion. Taking all this information to club officials, we got immediate approval for the idea.
The first step was to develop a working mock-up of the team logo in stars and stripes. It’s what we painters call our “resource”. We got the graphics department to make us a few hand held model logos and that was really helpful once we started logo layout and painting. We looked up the basic terminology of the various parts of the American flag so that we knew what each other was referring to. We would have the Canton (aka union) in the upper left corner of the 4 team field logos, a blue background and white stars, just like an actual US flag. The rest would be the red and white stripes of the “field” part of a US flag. Once we “dotted out” the logo on the grass, we would pull strings horizontally across the logo to create the field, and do the same using strings to delineate the Canton. Pro tip: Once you set these strings, pin them down well so that you don’t kick or trip over them while painting the logo.
We had the normal team stencil to lay out the basic pattern of the logo. We used aerosol white field paint to paint the small white stars in the union. The challenge, and most of the time spent painting the first logos, was in trying to delineate an element like the cow-horns on the Outlaws logo when they pass through more than one stripe. We only had three colors to work with. For example, in the white stripes, we would trim a white element in a thin line of blue or red to delineate it. If you are painting it with 2 or 3 paint machines loaded with the different colors, your painters have to communicate really well to avoid mistakes. After we did the first and especially the second logo, we pretty much had the procedures down.
Due to event and games closely before or after our big 4th of July events on some years, we couldn’t always paint logos because of TV and sponsor conflict issues. Also, the time needed for us to do the field conversion work in multi-event weekends left little time needed for logo painting, especially the trickier freedom logos.
In 2012, with no conflicts, we were good for logos again and decided to add in two statue of liberty logos with some fireworks going off in the background. Our graphic designers at the stadium came up with a foldable stencil we could use. We pulled a public-use image of the statue of liberty off the internet and used a Photoshop negative to create the template image for a stencil. For the fireworks in the background, we would paint one color first, usually white, then we would twist the stencil just slightly clockwise or counter-clockwise and paint the next color.
If you’re quick, you can see all these techniques in these time-lapse videos I did for fun and also did for future references. When you only do a tricky task once a year, I found a video log of it to be so very helpful and easy to do.
Freedom logo name.
We wanted a name for what we had created. One great part of doing the work as a team is you have time for team debate on ideas and processes while you are working. Someone came up with the name “Freedom Logos” and it stuck. It rolled off the tongue easy. I don’t see why this idea can’t be used for any flag in any country celebrating a national holiday, however painting team logos on grass fields for games is almost a uniquely American thing.
Ideas are key drivers in excellence. Doing what everyone else is doing will usually deliver mediocrity, not excellence. And yet the creative process is so much more than just brand new creations and coming up with things that no one ever thought of before. That is invention, I’m talking about creativity, and there is a difference in my mind. Some of the best ideas come from seeing another idea you like, and applying it to a different application. Everyone on a team brings different skill-sets and talents. I’d say probably 90% of the good ideas I got credit for over my 30 years were generated by someone on my talented turf teams other than me. If I get any credit, perhaps it is in that I encouraged constant discussion on how to do things a better way and come up with new ideas. I’d call up the bookstore at The Ohio State University (a tremendous turfgrass science school) and ordered sets of their famous football helmet stickers coaches gave to players for accomplishments. It may seem like a small thing, but I always made sure to give out “Buckeye Awards” for great new ideas in front of the entire turf team. I sometimes even gave them to myself. We used to stick them on our radios, stadium ID badges and especially our lockers to show off our creativity skills. We had fun with it, but there was a serious motivation behind it. Generate excellence.
Abe Picaso won a lot of Buckeye Awards. He is a very smart, creative thinker and a really fun person to work with! Now in his 19th year on the Broncos turf team, he was often the one I called on to do any difficult task or treatment where there was little margin for error. I’ve seen a lot, but I’ve never seen a more gifted field painter than Abe and you can calibrate a compass off his laser-like straight mowing swaths. He is a second generation groundskeeper at Denver’s largest sports venue. His father Nick Picaso, or “pops” Abe calls him, worked for 19 years at Denver’s multi-sport Mile High Stadium as assistant field manager before the construction of the new INVESCO Field at Mile High opened in 2001, the year I brought Abe on board. For the last 38 years, the Denver Broncos field has been painted by a Picaso!
Six years after we created our freedom logos, the national Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) started a fun “Stars and Stripes” field design contest that has run every year since. It’s truly amazing to see this idea take off to new levels and to see the turf team excellence in every one of the submissions.
There are no great field managers in sports, only great turf teams.