With the identity crisis they face, multi-sport fields could spend the entire playing season on a therapist’s couch. At the very least, they could wind up in a sports-medicine clinic from over-use injuries.
One day, they’re hosting lacrosse. Later that same day, it might be soccer or field hockey. The next time, maybe the field is used for rugby, flag football, Ultimate football, or some other sport. These fields are the multi-tasking marvels of the park system, and as such, they get plenty of use.
In past decades, most of these fields were natural grass, so within a few weeks of the season opening, the fields were skinned bare from all of the foot traffic. These days, the combination of more demands on fields, the shortage of open space, and a limited budget for regular maintenance has resulted in a gradual increase in the number of park districts choosing to install at least one synthetic field.
“Multi-purpose fields are becoming a standard fixture in many schools and public settings,” says Darby McCamy of Synthetic Turf International in Dalton, Ga.
“The technological advances associated with the use of synthetic turf have allowed these fields to be used all year for multiple activities without the downtime associated with natural grass. Environmentally friendly aspects, cost efficiency, low maintenance, and the looks of these fields are also added benefits.”
Make no mistake–there are plenty of natural fields out there. In fact, they still outnumber synthetic facilities. In no way is grass an endangered species, and plenty of people still prefer the natural surface. (We’re not even going to get into that argument today; each type of field has its fans and its foes, and each side has plenty of compelling reasons.)
But a spike in the number of synthetic facilities is difficult to ignore, and it has created two main questions in the minds of park managers: how to mark facilities for the many sports they host, and how to do upkeep so the park district’s substantial investment pays off.
On Your Mark(s)
The natural grass of the past could simply be marked with temporary lines or paint, and changed for various sports. Synthetic fields require more planning. The challenge facing the field owner is first to decide which sport or sports the field will be hosting, and second to determine which sport will be the most popular. This may vary according to the region or player demographics.
It may also depend on whether a municipal field is being used by local schools for recreational and sports purposes, as this will increase the demands on it. Input from all users should be considered.
“In the scholastic market (high school and college) we are seeing demand for football fields that can also be used for lacrosse and soccer, as well as intramural activity and even band practice,” says Chris Cote of XGrass in Dalton, Ga.
“Many municipalities are looking to turn over their multi-use natural-grass fields to synthetic as the natural grass fields just cannot accommodate all of that use.”
McCamy says that football, soccer, and lacrosse have become his main concerns in terms of marking.
“While these three sports still hold the most demand, baseball has created a new dimension in multi-purpose fields, and that is growing tremendously,” he adds. “The combination of sports for multi-purpose fields does not create challenging design issues, but it can create a busy look, which is all about user preference.”
Synthetic-turf builders can inlay lines when turf is installed; in general, the brightest colors can be used for primary sports, with darker colors for additional sports. For example, one field might have white lines for football and yellow for soccer or lacrosse, while lines for other sports might be made in navy or silver.
The ultimate goal is to allow players and officials to have a clear sense of boundaries at all times.
In addition, line paint (temporary and permanent) is marketed for use on many artificial-turf fields; before applying anything, park managers are advised to obtain recommendations from the company that installed the fields. In the right circumstances, a temporary paint can be used to great effect, says Cote.
“A common practice with synthetic fields is to cut in permanent ‘tick marks’ or small squares that denote certain distances for respective sport lines and then paint those lines on in season. This practice eliminates having multiple sets of permanent lines.”
While synthetic fields can be designed and built with a specific sport in mind (for example, a GMAX rating would be essential to a football field, and FIFA standards for ball roll and bounce would play into the design of a soccerplex), a multi-sport field will serve many purposes, and as such needs to provide a safe playing surface with uniform results for athletes. Those who are looking into adding a synthetic field should work with the builder to provide all information on sports that will be hosted in order to have the best possible outcome.
One of the major bonuses of the synthetic field is that it is, well, synthetic. It doesn’t require mowing, weeding, fertilizing, and so forth. But that can lead to a sense of complacency, say builders.
“Synthetic-turf fields are not maintenance-free,” says Cote. “Rather, they are a lower-maintenance alternative to natural grass. Many manufacturers will include maintenance equipment such as groomers and tine rakes in their price.
“Managers should follow the manufacturers’ recommendations for frequency of grooming. Ensuring that they have the proper equipment to clean, groom, and maintain the field is critical.”
McCamy recommends a periodic walk-through of the facility to look for problems.
“Make sure to check infill levels of high-traffic areas,” he notes. “It is recommended to brush/groom a field once or twice a year as well. Keeping excess debris off of synthetic fields is the only job you should have to worry about for a longer-lasting, better-looking field, and this can be done with a simple leaf-blower.”
Remember too, that synthetic surfaces have a definite lifespan, and they will someday need replacement. A builder can help you look for signs of problems, and discuss how to prolong the useful life of the turf.
The multi-sport field is the all-season athlete of a park system. With proper care, it can continue to provide all-star performance for seasons to come.
Mary Helen Sprecher has been a technical writer for more than 20 years with the American Sports Builders Association. She has written on various topics relating to sports-facility design, construction and supply, as well as sports medicine, education, and health and industrial issues. She is an avid racquetball and squash player, and a full-time newspaper reporter in Baltimore, Md.