Going back to or keeping natural turf

M&T Bank Stadium

Sean Kauffman, senior manager/assistant head groundskeeper, Baltimore Ravens, says the biggest driving force in going back to natural grass were the players themselves. “Don (Follett, director of grounds) had been nudging the organization in this direction for years and when the players were told this was a possibility, they overwhelmingly voted in favor of having a natural grass stadium surface,” Kauffman says.

The initial grass chosen for the field was 419 bermudagrass. “It was one of those ‘if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it’ things,” says Kauffman. “The Ravens had tried some of the newer varieties over time at the training facility, but with 419’s track record along with some of the technology the stadium already possessed and would be possessing, 419 was an easy choice.

“Don ultimately made this decision before the conversion started and decided to get the sod from Carolina Green. We recently switched to Northbridge bermuda, also grown by Carolina Green,” he says.

Kauffman says the conversion started in February 2016 and they had sod on the ground 1 week into May. The first event on the field was a Beyoncé concert in early June of that year.

University of North Carolina

Casey Carrick, director of athletic grounds and turf management, University of North Carolina says, “I know that going to natural is a big deal in our industry right now. We have a little different situation than just changing from synthetic to grass. We’ve always had a natural grass surface in Kenan Stadium, but due to construction on our practice fields and lack of space, we discussed putting synthetic turf in. We ultimately decided to keep natural grass and re-sod as much as we needed to.

“Natural grass was the preferred surface by players, coaches, us, and trainers and it was the cheaper option,” Carrick says. “By the end of the season, we had only used half of the amount of sod we had budgeted for, a significant savings versus going synthetic.”

In an article he wrote for Recreation Management at the time, Carrick said:

“Initially, installing an artificial playing surface was discussed; this would allow the team to practice and play games during the construction. But that came with a hefty $1.4 million price tag. We explored the benefits of natural grass and its cost to maintain/replace worn areas throughout the year. Preserving the natural grass playing surface would also result in cost saving. In the worst-case scenario, replacing the entire field with new sod before every home game would cost $1 million. After meeting with the coaching and training staff to receive their feedback, all parties preferred natural grass, if possible.

“We now had the ability to provide players and coaches with their desired playing surface and save the university considerable amount of money. It was the best of both worlds. Our next step was to work with a field contractor to figure out the details, such as: how much sod we’d need, how we plant it and logistics associated with removing a weathered field and installing new turf. This was a 5-month long process with many phone calls, meetings and trips to the sod farm.

“Shortly after the decision was made to stick with natural grass, the tremendous challenge of undertaking this task really started to sink in. Although it was not an easy feat, we would make this work; we had no choice. After consulting with fellow members of the Sports Turf Managers Association, I received valuable input and insights, which was critical. The support we received from people all over the country in our industry was surreal; everyone also wanted to see this project succeed.

“Our judgment to keep Kenan natural grass worked, allowing us to keep a safe and playable surface for the entire season. If at any point we felt that a synthetic field would have been a better choice, we would have chosen that.”

“After completing the pre-season and 25 practices, it was finally game week; and time to replace the field. The weather forced us to adjust our plans but, because of extensive preparation, the re-sod was installed without a hiccup. Carolina Green, Indian Trail, NC arrived on Wednesday after practice ended and began removing the turf. Working through the night, we laid the last roll on Thursday around 8 am. The grounds crew then began laying out stencils and painting. By 12:30 pm the field was ready. It rained 1.25 inches on Friday, and the field played perfect on Saturday.

“After five home games, we’ve only needed to sod 88,000 square feet, well under the 335,000 square feet we’d budgeted for after five games. The weather has been unseasonably warm through October in Chapel Hill, and that played a huge factor in recovery time after practices/games. With two home games left, the sports turf crew work with the football staff each week to decide how the field is holding up and what areas of the field require attention.

“It’s vital to survey all possibilities and options. It may have been easier and less stressful to install an artificial field. But, by not settling and taking the easy way out, we provided our student-athletes with a safe and playable surface, but we did it at a third of the cost,” Carrick wrote.

Carrick added in an email to us in mid-July, “Overall we thought the field played great last year when you take into account all the traffic and wear it had on it. We felt it was as good of a natural playing surface that we could have asked for. It held up great, and we ended up re-sodding less than we originally thought we would have to during the season. Our players and coaches were also pleased with the results each time we sodded. “Construction on the new practice facility is a little behind, so the team will be practicing in the stadium for the first few weeks of this season. We plan to re-sod it again as needed until the new facility is completed.”

Rebels return to their roots

In 2003, the University of Mississippi installed synthetic turf at Vaught Hemingway Stadium. By 2015 their second synthetic field was nearing the end of its lifespan.

Ross Bjork, athletic director, said, “We think it’s the right thing to do for our program on many, many levels. Natural grass is the preferred playing surface of our players and our coaches. In the SEC West, Arkansas and we are the only two programs that have artificial turf. The rest have natural grass, so we think it’s the right move.”

The decision was made via unanimous vote to pull up the carpet after the 2015 season and replace it with natural grass.

A competitive bid process emphasized qualified sports field contractors with proven experience in projects of the size and scope of Vaught Hemmingway’s Stadium.

Sports Turf Company Inc., Whitesburg, GA (STCI) with four certified field builders on staff and an extensive background in natural and synthetic field construction, won the contractor job. Aaron McWhorter, founder and president of STCI, pointed out, “Very few sports field contractors could have performed the scope of work which included field demolition and construction, storm water, concrete and coach’s towers. It was realistically a 7 month scope of work, during the winter rainy season, with a 5-month timeline for completion.”

Bob Calta, certified project manager of STCI, recalls, “It took a lot of time and a lot of planning on all ends before renovation and construction could even begin. There were a lot of considerations. Disposal of the synthetic turf. Deep excavation and extraction of fourteen inches of sand, clay, stone and synthetic field drainage components. Twenty or more owner-requested change orders with no change in deadline.”

With a big project comes big challenges. Access to the stadium was limited to a very small entrance requiring low body single axle dump trucks to import and export all of the material at a painstakingly slow pace.

The schedule did not leave much room for problems encountered or weather delays. If a day was missed, other efficiencies had to be recognized elsewhere in the schedule to make up for it. By July the field had to be completely reclamated to allow the new sod time to become established before the first game.

The coordination of vertical stadium construction along with field renovation meant working closely with numerous other contractors and scheduling had to contemplate all activities. Silt washing down onto the field construction site from other contractors onsite further complicated construction activities.

STCI installed a complete natural grass field underdrain system including a 10-inch sand rootzone layer, 4 inches of gravel, and the drainage pipe itself.

The irrigation system for the stadium consists of a new booster pump and Hunter STK-6V’s with eight retractable heads spread around the perimeter of the football field. Each head produces 326.8 GPM and distributes water to a range of 165 feet, making eight of them the max that was needed to cover the entire football field.

Certified Tifway 419 bermudagrass was installed inside Vaught Hemingway Stadium and on practice field number two to form a dense and durable surface. 419 bermuda’s ability to recover from damage rapidly and its ability to withstand the rough and tumble nature of football makes it one of the most durable hybrid bermudas.

A total of 188,325 sq. ft. or 20 loads of sod, were delivered for the stadium and the natural grass practice field. After it was installed it underwent a growing period, where it rooted and knitted together during a 3-week process.

The success of this stadium can be attributed to the intelligent design and coordination of the many departments of the university. Short pile, high wear synthetic surface along the perimeter of the field will handle a lot of traffic from boom cameras, football players, referees and personnel. Overall this combination means the field will improve competition for players competing on a highly performing grass field while the perimeter of the field continues to look great.