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Synthetic Turf: Wave of the Future© More from this issue
Chances are very good that your team has either a) played at least one road game on a synthetic turf field or b) installed a synthetic turf field at your home facility. If neither applies to your program, expect that to change in the near future. • The “New Generation” synthetic turf fields, once considered a luxury only NFL teams or high-profile universities could afford, are being installed at high schools and colleges from Maine to California. The trend is so strong that industry leaders expect that within 10 years well over half of all football games played in the U.S. will be played on an artificial surface. • What’s driving this trend? Certainly the products have improved since the days of the oft-maligned original carpet-style turf of the 60’s and 70’s. Costs have come down as well. Yet, at $500,000+ for a new installation, these fields are still a significant investment, especially for a cash-strapped school district. But, increasingly, coaches, AD’s and administrators are recognizing that synthetic turf provides significant long-term benefits to their schools and their communities and can even save money compared to natural grass. • AFM asked synthetic turf industry leaders Mark Nicholls, president and CEO of Sportexe, John Gilman, CEO of FieldTurf, and Charles Fleishman, Director of TigerTurf, to share their insights about the synthetic turf market and explain why so many programs are switching from the real thing to faux grass.
AFM: What are the most significant reasons so many high schools and colleges are installing synthetic turf?
Nicholls: Every facet of a school’s athletic and extra curricular activities can utilize and benefit from a synthetic turf system. The system can be used 24 hours a day seven days a week. Not only do the schools benefit from the investment of a synthetic turf system, the communities win as well. More often we are seeing multiple recreation leagues and schools utilizing one facility, providing a location for entire community to perform. Increased multiple usage, low maintenance, added safety and revenue opportunities from field rental are a just a few examples of the many benefits of installing a synthetic turf system. We have raised the bar on the standards and technology with our synthetic turf system.
Gilman: In terms of cost, we’ve found that over an 8-year period, synthetic turf is cheaper than natural grass. The key issue to look at is the “cost-per-use”. Because natural grass has less playable hours, the cost per use is much higher. On average, a cost per use for a facility is $15/hour for synthetic turf and $45/hour for natural grass. Synthetic turf is playable virtually 24/7. A natural grass field simply is not. The field can also be used no matter what the weather conditions. In snow, a field can be plowed. In rain, a turf field drains as fast as the subbase beneath.
Fleishman: Synthetic field systems are now, without a doubt, affordable, proven field surfacing solutions. The volume of installed fields is growing because middle and late adopters of new technology no longer believe it risky to recommend and pursue synthetic alternatives for their stadium. The systems have stood the test of time. In addition to providing predictable surfacing solutions - and thereby piece of mind for owners – it is now politically and competitively acceptable to desire or need a better sports surface.
AFM: From a coach’s point of view, what are the major considerations concerning playability and player safety on synthetic turf?
Gilman: Synthetic turf fields provide consistent and good flat surfaces to play on, whereas grass fields have divots and develop ruts. In terms of safety, in a head-to-head comparison, FieldTurf outperformed natural grass in several major categories. In particular, a 66% reduction in neural injuries, a 50% reduction in cranial/cervical injuries, and a 33% reduction in third-degree injuries. Coaches are seeing a greater level of intensity of performance on synthetic turf. They tell us they’re seeing kids lay out for balls on our turf that they wouldn’t dream of doing on a bad grass field. The kids are also more comfortable with their foot plant and drive, so they play with a much higher level of speed and abandonment.
Nicholls: The new synthetic turf systems also provide safety. A consistent playing surface and low G-Max rating (a measurement of the shock absorbing properties of synthetic turf) is essential for a safe playing surface. Sure footing is key to preventing any type of foot, ankle and leg injuries and a flat and consistent synthetic system can provide that type of surface. The G-Max rating is an important testing process for the final completion of a synthetic turf system. The proper G-Max rating will provide a safer playing surface to reduce the risk of head injuries often associated with contact sports.
Fleishman: Playability and safety are relative and subject to a number of considerations depending on coaches, athletes, equipment, level of competition, etc. From a surfacing standpoint, playability and safety can be maximized by providing a well-designed and constructed base, a high-quality manufactured synthetic turf, proper installation and seaming techniques, clean and properly applied infill, and proper maintenance.
AFM: With the up-front costs of a synthetic turf field, what other considerations can help justify such a large investment?
Nicholls: The initial investment of a synthetic turf system goes far beyond the life expectancy of the field itself. A school will spend far less money and time maintaining the synthetic playing surface while increasing the ‘on field’ practice and playing time, not just for the football program but for other sports and activities as well. Plus, there may be other considerations unique to your area. In arid regions of the country, for example, we’ve had Sportexe turf systems save over $20,000 per year in water bills.
Fleishman: Actually, the up-front costs of synthetic turf aren’t high – and they have a very short payback period, given their 24/7 performance and low maintenance costs. Compare that to other facility building costs and see which is more costly in the long run. Synthetic turf is actually a good financial investment, as it is more predictable than grass and other natural elements – somewhat akin to having a paved versus dirt parking lot. Of course, the ultimate justification for a synthetic turf field is simply providing a better place for kids of all ages to play and compete.
Gilman: Three main areas need to be looked at - cost, playability, and safety. Although the upfront cost is significant, it is the cost savings needs to be taken into consideration. Another major benefit is the opportunity to turn a field into a multi-purpose facility. No longer just a football field, the facility can now host a multitude of sports and non-sporting events. We know of several facilities that have paid off their field by hosting concerts and championship games. The investment is large, but the key word is just that - “investment”. With the proper plan the field can turn into an asset for the athletic program and even possibly a revenue generator.
AFM: What advice would you give to a coach or administrator who wants to start the process of getting a synthetic turf field?
Fleishman: First, take time to understand what “apples and oranges” – or attributes – you’re comparing. Comprehend the evolution and scope of synthetic turf in the market without being distracted by the non-turf noise. Second, don’t be afraid of new technology. When you buy a new car, you consider new technologies, from higher gas mileage to safer brakes and computerized suspension. The same should apply to synthetic turf. This industry, like others, is evolving rapidly. TigerTurf is constantly reviewing and applying new advancements to improve every element of synthetic turf. The turf available today is nothing like the fibers or systems available five years ago or even last year. Most importantly, do not cut corners or take only the “cheapest” option. It rarely pays off for the program or the players.
Gilman: Once you have decided that a new field is needed and you’ve made the move to low maintenance, high performance, artificial turf, get your team working together. Don’t wait to start the lengthy process of securing funds for the project. Speak to your representative to discuss timing so your board and decision makers can prepare a financially sound game plan. Talk to your turf company about leasing and financing options which may be a smart alternative.
Nicholls: Do your homework and be diligent on the information you require. Ensure you have a complete understanding on what you are buying and never refrain from asking questions. The synthetic turf products are all different and vary on performance and quality. Not all synthetic turf is created equally in this industry. Every individual, including athletic directors, coaches, facility managers, trainers and athletes must do their research and be completely involved in the decision-making process. They must ensure that they leave no stone unturned. Remember, this is a long-term investment.
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