Maintaining school athletic fields on limited budgets

Secondary school athletic administrators today face great challenges in maintaining sports fields. One of the 14 legal duties of coaches and athletic administrators is to provide a safe environment for student athletes that includes playing fields, yet athletic administrators are facing budget cuts that challenge the ability to do so. In an effort to maintain playing fields, the athletic administrator must be creative in field management and must develop ways to acquire the needed resources with less money.

The limited resources experienced by most athletic administrators fall in one or more of the following areas: (1) Knowledge—a large number of athletic administrators do not have the knowledge or training relative to the care and maintenance of natural or synthetic turf fields. In addition, a growing percentage of principals and superintendents have little or no background in athletics and do not realize the importance of supporting the athletic administrator in maintaining safe playing fields; (2) Finances/Resources—many athletic administrators are being asked to cut budgets in these challenging financial times for school districts; (3) Personnel—in many situations, the athletic administrator may not have a grounds manager for the sports fields or at best there may be a grounds manager for the entire school district of which the athletic fields would be a part of that person’s responsibility.

The NIAAA has made strides in addressing the limited knowledge of some athletic administrators. The NIAAA Sports Turf Committee composed of both athletic administrators and individuals from the industry corporate side has developed a number of programs to educate athletic administrators relative to management of sports turf fields. Four courses have been written on the care and management of both natural and synthetic fields. These 4-hour seminar classes are taught across the country by the NIAAA. In addition, the committee writes articles for the NIAAA’s quarterly publication, Interscholastic Athletic Administration.

A third education program created by the committee is the annual sports turf seminar conducted at the National Athletic Directors Conference. All of these initiatives provide training for the athletic administrator in the area of care and maintenance of sports turf fields. Athletic administrators are encouraged to take advantage of other educational opportunities such as seminars or field days conducted by regional STMA chapters, by university agronomy departments or by companies in the turf industry. The NIAAA encourages its member State Athletic Administrator Associations to partner with an STMA chapter in their state to conduct sports turf seminars at state athletic administrator conferences. There are many more educational opportunities available to the athletic administrator today than there were 15 years ago.

It is not easy to address the limited personnel available to maintain the fields. If the athletic administrator is faced with a lack of staff to properly maintain the fields, there are some options. One is to designate funds in the athletic budget to hire personnel. This is usually not a viable option because the athletic budget is already stretched far too thin.

Another option is to ask the school district to allocate more funds to employ necessary grounds maintenance personnel. This is also a challenging option because of tight school budgets and the need to hire academic staff first. There is also the educational gap in many districts where the superintendent and/or school board does not understand the importance of maintaining safe fields. Unfortunately, too many school leaders learn the importance of safe fields the hard way when facing litigation due to an injury on an unsafe field. School districts then realize the cost of an additional grounds maintenance person would have been far less than the cost of settling the injury litigation.

The third option for the athletic administrator to address this need is to seek in-kind labor from either the booster club or companies in the community who specialize in turf products or services. In many schools, the booster club can be called upon to provide labor and companies in the community can provide the expertise.

Acquiring the resources necessary to maintain safe fields does not have to be directly related to the athletic department or district finance available. Yes, it would be optimal if the athletic department or school district budget allocated necessary funds to purchase the required products, equipment and services but that does not always happen. In many communities a partnership between the school district and the park department or golf course can result in a sharing of the equipment to meet the needs of all entities. Partnerships between the school district and local businesses can also be developed. The school district might offer some advertising opportunities to local businesses in the event programs, on the public address during events or on signage at the venues in exchange for products or services.

Athletic administrators face a greater challenge today to provide safe athletic fields, but it is something we owe to the students participating in our athletic programs. It is a challenge that can be met if the school, the community and the sports turf companies come together in partnerships.

Bruce Whitehead, CMAA, has 33 years in public education as a teacher and coach, and for the final 25 years was Director of Athletics at Crawfordsville (IN) High School. While an athletic administrator, Bruce was a member of the IIAAA board (Indiana Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association), the IHSAA Board (Indiana High School Athletic Association) and the NIAAA Board. Bruce has been employed by the NIAAA for 13 years and has been the executive director for the past 9 ½ years.


The NIAAA is located in Indianapolis and is the national organization for high school and middle school athletic administrators with 9,000 individual members. The membership includes athletic administrators from organizations in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and internationally. The NIAAA champions the profession of athletic administration through education opportunities, advocating ethics, developing leaders and fostering community.