On November 6, 1869, Rutgers and Princeton played the first college football game in history. The game took place at College Field, a makeshift grass field on the campus of Rutgers University in New Jersey. Football in the 1800s was played much differently than the game we know today – it looked more like a game of rugby than football. Nearly 150 years since that first game, American football has seen a number of changes in the way it’s played: the rules, the equipment used, and the stadium environment. Another aspect of football, not often realized, is the advancements made over the years to the turf on the fields.
Natural Turfgrass Football fields were historically made up of natural turfgrass, probably the same kind of grass you have in your own yard. There are a number of varieties that can be used, depending on geographical location. In cooler climates, Kentucky bluegrass, Fescue and Rye grass are used. In warmer climates, fields are usually made up of Bermuda or Zoysia. Since football is one of the most destructive activities to natural turf, the maintenance required to keep it looking green throughout playing season can be a challenge. Typically, a turfgrass manager oversees sports field maintenance, and determines a schedule for when to mow, fertilize and aerate a field to keep it looking pristine. However, there is much more involved in natural turf fields than surface maintenance. Under the turf is a root zone layer with a sand/soil mixture and a drainage system comprised of filter fabric, interlocking grid cells, and perforated pipe. This layer allows the field to drain quickly and prevent standing water, which would be detrimental to the turf and limit field use. Natural turfgrass was used exclusively on fields for nearly 100 years before a new option, called artificial turf, was introduced that completely changed the sports field industry.
Artificial Turf In the 1960s, domed sports fields grew in popularity, and the costs and challenges associated with maintaining a natural turf field in low light conditions escalated. The increased demand for a better turf product led to the birth of the first artificial turf in 1964. It was developed by the Chemstrand Company and named “ChemGrass.” Chemstrand was trying to develop strong synthetic fibers for use in heavy-duty carpeting and decided to take a stab at creating an artificial playing surface for athletics. What the firm created was a surface material that could withstand heavy use, be installed in most any climate and would not demand the maintenance of natural turfgrass.
Two years after development, ChemGrass received its first major installation at the Houston Astrodome in Texas. At the time, glass panels in the dome inhibited sunlight streaming onto the field, which was causing the natural turfgrass to die. Thanks to its well-publicized debut at the Astrodome, Chemstrand decided to re-brand ChemGrass to the trademarked name people are more familiar with – AstroTurf. This brought about a boom in artificial turfgrass in the sports industry, and AstroTurf was soon being installed in stadiums across the country. In 1972, for the first time ever, the Super Bowl was played on AstroTurf at Tulane Stadium in New Orleans.
Just like the sport of football has evolved, the artificial turf of today has changed significantly over the last 40 years. Newer artificial turf fields are using polyethylene fibers, the same material used in the production of pipes, bottles, hard hats and composite lumber. Some new fields also use tiny granules of rubber as infill in the turf to create a soft cushion, which evokes a more natural feeling turf without the harsh skin abrasions caused by the original AstroTurf. Beneath the surface of an artificial field is a robust drainage system, similar to that of natural turf, which is composed of materials such as sand, gravel, perforated pipe, geotextile fabric and even permeable paving. Since artificial turf does not have the root zone layer of natural turf, it typically drains more quickly which allows for immediate field use after a heavy rain.
Currently there are approximately 11,000 artificial turf fields in use in the US today with approximately 1,200 to 1,300 new fields being installed at schools, colleges, parks and sports stadiums in 2013 alone. But even though its popularity has grown tremendously, artificial turf has some downfalls. Here are a few pros and cons to consider when deciding between natural or artificial turf fields:
Natural Turf Pros:
Lower installation costs (approx. $2 – $8 per sq. ft. depending on base material)
Cooler Surface Temperatures (typically <85 degrees)
Natural filter for environmental pollutants
Easier disposal when restoring/renovating a field
Lower maintenance costs over the life of the field (approx. $5k – $15k per year)
Preferred by more athletes
Requires frequent watering
Robust irrigation system required
“Recovery” time needed between field use
Numerous fertilizers and pesticides required for typical maintenance program
Artificial Turf Pros:
Can handle more wear
Can handle more activity more frequently
No watering required to keep alive
Drains quickly for immediate use after heavy rain
Higher installation costs (approx. $8 – $11 per sq. ft.)
Hotter Surface Temperatures (95-140 degrees)
High costs associated with disposal of material at end of field life
More abrasive to skin
Higher maintenance costs (approx. $5k – $25k per year, more for highly visible/televised fields)
When determining which type of field is best suited for each application, it is important to understand the pros and cons of both. Artificial turf has become extremely popular for sports fields, but is not always the best choice. The impacts that technology has had on artificial turf development will continue to improve cost and performance of the material. These impacts can have huge changes not only on design and construction of artificial turf fields, but also on how the game is played in the future.
About Jonathan Bullard, RLA
Jonathan Bullard, RLA, is a Project Manager in the Greenspace + Land Design Division at Foresite Group. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Georgia. Jonathan recently completed design and construction administration for UGA’s practice footballs fields. He has a special interest in land planning and green infrastructure projects.