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.
THE EPIC 60 YEARS WAR: GRASS VS TURF
For nearly 60 years, there has been a playing surface competition going on. The perpetual question, natural grass or artificial turf? Outdoor sports are pretty much played on one surface or the other. Grass vs. turf, these two weary fighters battle on. Each has gained the upper hand over the years only to get knocked down by innovation in the other corner. I have been watching this fight since the late 60’s, live at ringside for much of it.
Pre 60’s: Mud and Guts.
Up until the late 60’s and early 70’s, grass was king. There were no viable synthetic turf playing surface alternatives. Grass had no competition. It was fat, satisfied and often really out of shape. Let’s face it, few of these grass fields would stand up to today’s standard of playing surface quality for high-level sports. When field conditions were horrible it wasn’t mentioned much. Field conditions were considered much like the weather. It may be awful, but what can you do about it? Think about the legendary “Ice Bowl” in Green Bay. No one was upset at the management (or mismanagement?) of that field leading up to the game. If that same scenario happened in 2020, it would be a national scandal because I doubt they would have played on that frozen field, hard as a rock. The press and social media would crucify the home club.
So what’s changed? Well, everything generally improves with time. Today’s athletes are bigger and stronger than three generations ago. But I would also make the argument that grass needed turf, turf needed grass. They have made each other better and stronger. Back and forth it goes over the decades, one gaining on the other, forcing innovation and improvement. Like Rocky and Apollo Creed, Bird and Magic, they need each other.
1960’s: Turf Enters the Ring
Many think of Houston’s Astrodome” as the first installation of a synthetic playing surface in 1966, but the first large-scale synthetic turf installation was actually in the fieldhouse at the Moses Brown School, Providence, R.I., in 1964. In the 1950’s, the Ford Foundation did a study that found that young people in rural areas were generally more physically fit than urban dwellers, due to lack of useable field space in cities. They partnered with Monsanto to develop the perfect urban playing surface. The result was “Chemgrass” that was installed two years later in the Houston Astrodome because the grass indoors wasn’t getting sufficient light. The name was changed to “Astroturf” after this first major installation. “Chemical” wasn’t a bad word in the 50’s. Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring published in 1962 changed that, I believe.
Soon there was an outdoor installation and the fight was on.
This “first generation” turf was initially a big hit. It solved the great rainout problem that had been the bane of sports played on grass up until then. It made “mud games” a thing of the past. Players liked the consistency and firm footing or traction of it. For any of us old enough to remember maintaining these early turf fields, it was pretty simple, periodic water-extraction cleaning just like you might do on your carpets at home.
We hear often terms used like first-generation or “Gen-1” artificial turf. As the technology has progressed over the years, we are now at Gen-5, best I can tell. What does it all mean? I don’t know for sure, but here’s how I remember it. Gen-1 was the original. Gen-2 saw longer, softer fibers with a pure sand infill to hold the fibers up vertically and add cushion to play more like a natural surface. Who remembers “Omni-Turf” and the issues of slipping on the Omni-Turf during the famous 5th down game in Missouri in 1990? Gen-3 was the rubber/sand mixed infill and the invention of Field Turf. 4th generation artificial fields used a deeper infill of pure crumb rubber or other natural or synthetic “alternative” infill materials. Gen-5 is a hybridized system of natural grass stabilized by synthetic turf. I may be wrong, but this is how I remember it.
1970’s: Turf is Winning
The late 60’s and 70’s saw the dawn of the multi-purpose stadiums. Sure, there had been multi-sports stadiums before then, but these were generally ballparks, designed for baseball, hosting other sports. The field layouts were more or less “fit” into the stadium footprint. (Funny how that has come full circle and we are nowadays doing that again). These new high-tech stadiums often had moveable stands that could be arranged to much better fit the sport being played. As such, artificial turf, now fully commercialized, was often specified for the playing surface to handle such demands. Astroturf, which had now become a brand name for any of the other competitors that had sprung up, like 3M’s TartanTurf was the cool, new thing when I was a youth athlete in the 1970’s, but few of us ever played on one. Super Bowl V in 1971 was the first to be played on an artificial turf field. PolyTurf was the surface at the Orange Bowl in Miami that day, believe it or not. (It went back to grass in 1976.) This new product was designed for football with a shock-pad and a polypropylene fiber instead of nylon. It was purported to be a softer, more forgiving surface for football. By 1976, 16 of the then 28 NFL teams were playing on synthetic turf in their home stadiums.
Down, but not out. Now because of “Astroturf”, any poor grass field conditions were getting much more scrutiny. But even as the old, muddy grass fields were down on the mat, the seeds of its resurgence were being planted in West Lafayette, Indiana. In 1970 Dr. Bill Daniels, a renowned turf specialist and teacher at Purdue University developed the Prescription Athletic Turf (P.A.T) system. This high-tech new field system used pure sand for the growing medium and drain lines attached to suction pumps, all in a plastic liner. It’s like growing grass in sand, in a bathtub, with an electric pump attached to the drain. Water could be sucked out of the soil or even pushed back in from underneath to water the grass without needing to wet the surface. No more rainouts. “Suck the raindrops down before mud forms!” exclaimed Daniels. Gone was the need for a huge crown on the grade of the field, P.A.T fields were flat. In 1974 Purdue University installed the first P.A.T. system. Within a couple of years, three multi-purpose stadiums had installed the P.A.T. system, Denver’s Mile High Stadium, RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., and Miami’s Orange Bowl. Since then, it was installed in, and in some cases taken out, such well-known venues as Chicago’s Soldier Field, Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium, and Big 10 schools The Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa according to Purdue’s website.
1980’s: The Rise of Sand-based Grass.
As popular as they were, most of the artificial turf fields before the late 90’s were not much more than green nylon carpet glued down to asphalt, much like you might do on your back porch nowadays. They were hard and rough. Players began complaining of sore joints, burns and abrasions, and certain non-contact injuries. Baseball and soccer especially had issues with ball-roll and ball-bounce being much faster and higher than grass. The base cut-outs were covered with turf patches. This created seams that drew the ire of players and coaches. But a lot of players, usually younger ones in my experiences, did like Gen 1 artificial turf. They like the consistency, and it made them feel faster, quicker and they were probably right. But then again, wouldn’t this also increase the speed and quickness of your opponent? In St. Louis, the Rams built a Super Bowl champion team based on turf. Who can forget “The Greatest Show on Turf”?
Words. You’ll notice I sometimes use “grass” for natural grass and “turf” for artificial (or synthetic) turf playing surfaces. There has been a movement in the sports field industry to stop using “turf” for synthetic turf. Many of us natural grass proponents studied and apply the science of turfgrass management, so we don’t like artificial grass using the word. I get that. The problem is players, coaches and media have all adopted “turf” to denote artificial turf. Until we change them and come up with a single syllable alternative, that’s pretty much what it is.
Sand-based grass field technology began to take off and the success of the P.A.T system was the beginning. In the 1980’s we had a long way to go, but we began learning the unique management strategies required for successful sand-based turfgrass management. Older turf fields were beginning to be replaced by new sand-based grass fields. The tide had turned, grass was the new cool thing in the 80’s and the P.A.T. system was pretty much the only choice for those wanting sand-based, natural grass athletic fields. The cost was prohibitive for most facilities though, except for professional and large university stadiums.
Engineers that had been designing and building sand-based golf greens under the USGA specifications faced a challenge when trying to adapt this less expensive, gravity drained system to the scale of a sports field. The USGA specifications for sand-based putting green construction began after World War II and really took off in the 1950’s. Originally, there was a specification of a thin (2-inch) “Choker” layer of a medium sand separating the pea-gravel drainage layer below from the 10-12 inch finer rootzone sand above. The intent was to prevent rootzone sand migrating downward into the drainage layer and clogging things up and to properly “perch” the water table. It had become a little controversial whether or not this layer was needed on golf greens and why the specification was ever adopted.
This choker layer spec, in my opinion, precluded any larger sports fields from this significantly less expensive design. Can you imagine trying to spread a 2-inch layer of sand over a pea-gravel layer, then add a 10-inch deep layer of rootzone sand on top of that, on the scale of about 2 acres? On smaller golf greens, this layer could be raked out by hand or smaller, lighter equipment. That’s fine on a 2,000 sq. ft. golf green but on a 2-acre sports field, that just wasn’t possible.
By the late 1980’s the late Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen (should definitely be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame!) had begun planning only the second ever NFL training facility specifically built for such a purpose. Back then, teams moved into old schools or whatever place they could retrofit to their needs. Mr. B, as he was affectionately known, wanted to have the same surface at the new facility as the team played on at Mile High Stadium, the P.A.T. system. Once he got the cost estimates for 2 ½ fields, he challenged Dan Almond, the project’s lead field designer from RBI in Littleton Colorado to do better. Dan had been designing landscapes and golf courses for years. He dug into the USGA specs. He knew many golf greens had been successfully built without that intermediate layer. He dug into the changes in the specifications over time and realized that if you had the right particle size distribution in the rootzone sand and the right sized pea gravel layer below, you could “bridge” the two successfully keeping these two layers separated. In 1989 I was brought on by Mr. B as the owner’s rep for the field. Managing this 4 acre sand-based ‘golf green’ was a bit tricky, but the project and design were proven successful at this scale by 1991. Four years later Dr. Norman Hummel, the venerable soil scientist, argued for these very adjustments in a 1993 paper in the USGA Green’s Section.
This was huge for grass. By the end of the 80’s there was a viable design for an affordable sand-based, natural grass sports field system. Dan Almond had designed and built a natural grass race car, and I got to drive it for 10 years. He patented the “10 over 4” system in a product RBI called the GraviTurf System.
1990’s 3G Turf Regains Momentum, Grass Goes High-Tech
The cost of this gravity drained system was significantly less than the cost of the P.A.T. system and soon sand-based, gravity-drain grass fields were replacing artificial turf fields at many facilities across all outdoor sports. In baseball, this design hit at just the right time with the start of the baseball’s stadium boom, kicked off in Baltimore with the new Oriole’s Park at Camden Yards and the age of the “retro” ballparks.
Grass was on top again, but there was a problem. Sand-based fields drained well yet sometimes had issues with the stability of the surface. Fields would wear-out before the end of the season and we had no way to instantly re-sod them and play the next day, like we do now. We were treating them like golf greens, but using them for 300 lb. linemen. Chunks and blowouts were not uncommon. We didn’t really know how to sod-over these sand-based fields. We let perfect drainage get in the way of surface stability. We tried things like washed sod to prevent any layering. Not good for surface stability.
In addition, music in the 90’s went digital with the invention of MP3 compression and other technologies. CD disks first, then along came Napster. Peer-to-peer sharing almost killed commercial music. Then the industry, realizing they couldn’t stop anyone from quickly and easily sharing their music, realized that live music was now the best way for artist to make money. Stadium concert tours began to grow. The high-tech event flooring systems tailored to any application that we take for granted nowadays were not yet commercially available in the US. All this made managing these sand-based grass fields even trickier because we did not have the right sods for repair, nor the technologies to best install them for a sand-based playing surface.
And even as the seeds of this new grass revolution were establishing in the early 90’s, a new artificial turf technology was being developed that used a longer fiber held vertically in place using an incorporated crumb rubber and sand infill. This new technology looked and played much more like natural grass than the Gen-1 synthetic turf technology. After successful installations and a high-profile install at the University of Nebraska, the Seattle Seahawks came calling in 2001. They were planning construction on their new football stadium in Seattle. Part of the plan, is that the club would play its home games at the nearby University of Washington’s stadium during construction. Imagine this, there were a few rain games on this new type of synthetic infill surface in Seattle during this period. Players raved about the footing when wet, a common complaint against some of the new sand based fields. ESPN’s Chris Berman called it “Flubber” after the 60’s Disney Movie of the same title. After some debate on which type of surface was the best fit for a new stadium this wet climate, Seattle’s Century Link Field opened in 2002 as the first NFL game field with this new type of infill turf. Since then, thousands of infill turf fields have been installed all over the world, allowing playing fields to be built and used where overuse and climate issues precluded some grass installations.
Turf had pulled off a reversal, grass was back on the mat, but by the end of the 90’s, after some hits and misses, we found ways to better stabilize the surface of sand-based natural grass fields.
In 1996, scientists at Michigan State University developed a modular grass playing surface that allowed part or all of the field to be moved in or out of the stadium as needed. After years of research, MSU was able to successfully prove concept and install a temporary, modular grass system over the Gen-1 synthetic turf inside the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan for the 1994 World Cup. Soon there were portable tray systems commercially available and we felt like there was now a solution to overworked grass. However these modular tray systems never really caught on. There was the issue of how many replacement trays to keep ready and where do you keep and maintain these trays? They created a huge amount of seams where the trays butted each other. This took a lot of time to mitigate.
Grass stabilization systems began to take off in the 90’s as well. There were different kinds of systems from all over the world, all coming into the market with success stories and issues to deal with. Some of them were even incorporated into modular systems. They were fairly expensive to install, but they could also save a significant amount of costs by precluding the need to re-sod for wear and tear. This article from 2000 in Athletic Business tells what an exciting and crazy time it was for both grass and turf at the turn of the century.
2000’s Grass and turf both get stronger.
The baseball park construction boom of the 90’s was soon followed by a professional football stadium boom. To some extent, if not all, these new stadiums were publically funded. They were amazing, but not cheap. Non-sporting event revenue, and a lot of it, was needed to make the budgets work for the clubs that now operated these stadiums. Up until now, almost all stadiums used in pro sports were municipally owned and operated. The teams just rented the venue, more or less. It wasn’t long before amateur sports facilities and venues followed. Non-sporting event revenue was the perfect thing to satisfy the stadium’s promise as the people’s stadium for community use, as well as make the finances possible.
The 3G turf infill systems developed in the 90’s took off in the 2000’s and is still strong today, branching out into different products for different sports and climates. There have been issues without question. Almost universally the new synthetic turf fields were preferred by everyone over the first generation artificial turfs yet player safety concerns, temperature concerns, environmental and epidemiological concerns have been in the news since they hit the market, just as it was when G1 artificial turfs hit the market in the 70’s.
Grass is also much improved but has also had concerns reported in the media about environmental and safety issues. New growing and installation technologies used for grass surface repair using big-roll, thick-cut sod has taken off. Trade has become more global. New technologies and equipment like fraze mowers came over to the US from Europe and elsewhere. Lighting systems coupled with turfgrass climate data collection were introduced from Europe. Advances in grass field coverings both for protection from precipitation and to enhance environmental conditions took off. In Arizona, they built a one-piece roll-out grass football field in Glendale. Combined with an excellent maintenance program, it truly is a design and engineering marvel.
2010’s: Performance Testing Evens the Field.
Ten or so years ago, the NFL began its field certification program. The concept of performance testing had been around for some time in other countries, and in bits and pieces in the US. The idea is catching on and while the NFL cautions that its program is only applicable to NFL stadiums, many field management operations and leagues are beginning to do their own formal or informal field performance testing.
Ideally, we find a science based consensus about what makes a quality playing surface for each sport, with risks minimized to an acceptable level and easy ways to measure it all. As much as practical, grass and turf should be treated the same in these programs. In other words, don’t tell me which you prefer, grass or turf, tell me the parameters and metrics and I’ll manage to it, grass or turf.
We continue to develop new turfgrass genetics. If you’ve been around as long as me, you are amazed at the difference the new varieties make. New turfgrass management strategies, like “Bluemuda” for example, are being developed by researchers and field managers alike.
While there are still problems, playing surfaces today are light-years ahead in quality to where they were 60 years ago. You may have strong feelings and preferences for one over the other, but you have to also acknowledge that this seemingly never-ending competition has benefitted athletes and our communities in general.
I would like to thank Steve Wightman and Dan Almond at Millennium Sports Technologies for contributing to this story.
Posted May 20, 2020