The SportsTurf Interview: Jeff Fowler

This month in “The SportsTurf Interview,” we meet Jeff Fowler, this year’s Harry C. Gill Memorial Founders Award from STMA. Recipients must exhibit dedication to the improvement of sports turf and outstanding ability and commitment to the sports turf industry, among other professional qualifications. Jeff is Senior Extension Educator-Horticulture for Penn State, based in Venango County in western PA. Fowler has been an extension educator for more than 30 years. He is on the board of directors of the Keystone Athletic Field Managers Organization and has been a board member of the national Sports Turf Managers Association.

Fowler also is known for his many years of service to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, where he annually organizes a group of 30-40 volunteers to help prepare and maintain the playing fields during the internationally televised event.

SportsTurf: Working in a university extension program you meet a lot of turf managers. What are they saying are the biggest obstacles to overcome for them to be successful today?

Fowler: Remember I work with every level of field manager, from the volunteer at the local rec field to the highest level of athletics. The discussions I have with sports field managers that repeat themselves over and over are about money, human resources and cooperation/understanding of field users. Most of my clients/customers are volunteers that went to a meeting and someone found out they liked to mow, so they were put in charge of the fields. Budgets are made based on the amount of stuff donated to the concession stand, and on workdays the same two or three people show up. Certainly, this is different for higher levels of athletics but nonetheless many of the same struggles exist. The solution? It all comes down to communications, with parents, coaches, players, board of directors, GM’s, owners and staff! Communicate your wants, needs and desires to anyone that will listen. 

SportsTurf: What advice would you offer managers at lower-budget facilities to make their fields safer?

Fowler: Learn as much as you can about field care and then prioritize your spending. Network with other sports field managers on social media, at field days, meetings, events sponsored by organizations about making fields safer. Ask questions, research answers and then figure out what needs done first. Some people say spread out your resources to improve all the fields. I have long been an advocate of putting your resources into a showcase field to allow people to see what you could do if you had more money and/or more resources. Make it shine and have people asking “hey, why don’t you do that to my field?” and be ready with a quick reply, “I can, but I need enough money and support to make it happen.”

SportsTurf: Please tell us about the roles you and your father have had in establishing the Little League World Series crew as a much sought-after volunteer position.

Fowler: In 1994, Little League decided they wanted to renovate Lamade Stadium for the 50th LLWS. Dad (Don Fowler) had just retired after 32 years working for Penn State Extension. Little League reached out to a newly formed group, the Keystone Athletic Field Managers Organization, to see if they would lend support to what was a monumental renovation at the time. Alpine Services Inc. (Grove Teats) had been hired to redo the stadium. Dad volunteered to go be the “clerk of the works” for Little League. After the renovation they didn’t know what to do with this “gem” of a field, so Dad put together a fertility and maintenance plan, and then he was asked to put together a few helpers to prepare the field for the LLWS that year, and thus the beginning! My first year would be 2 years later. The event became bigger and more popular on TV, and went from 8 teams to 16 teams and from one week to two.

The need for crew outgrew the handwritten invites that dad would send. He asked me if I could type out a letter and keep a mailing list on my computer. After all I had an apple 2E in my office that used 5.5-inch floppy disks! After a few years of my writing that letter and printing it on a dot matrix printer and shipping it to him to sign and send, he said “Jeff why don’t you just take care of this from now on!”  Since that time, we have more than 100 people in the database from 21 states that have come to help.  

SportsTurf: Is there a favorite on-field maintenance task that you enjoy performing at LLWS?

Fowler: While not field maintenance tasks, there are two on field events that I don’t like to miss. Opening Ceremonies, when all 16 teams are still winless and the coaches, players, umpires and fans see the fields for the first time all polished up and ready for televised play. But more special to me is the early morning of the second Saturday of the series. That’s when the crew and I move from the TV cameras of network television on Lamade stadium to prep the field for a game on Volunteer Stadium. This game has two teams from across the globe participating in the Challenger Division. A game just like the tournament, to show off their talents, in front of a stadium full of excited fans! The Little League Challenger Division gives special needs youth the opportunity to play baseball. If you haven’t ever seen or been a part of something like this, I would encourage you to find an organization in your community that offers such a program. It’s truly humbling.

SportsTurf: How do you think the profession and industry will change in the next 10 years?

Fowler: Think about where we were 10 years ago and multiple the change by ten! Technology has and will continue to lead the way, making us better and more efficient at what we do. The demand on field usage will increase and we need to position our fields to be ready to meet that demand. We need to continue to work hard to increase salaries and work even harder at reducing work hours for our industry. We can’t continue to have people working 100 workweeks for little to no pay and expect them to stay in the game. 

SportsTurf: How has your career benefitted from being a member of STMA?

Fowler: I certainly feel I have received more benefit than I have given to the association. I have a 2700 + person network of STMA members that I call friends from all over the world. Each of them has the same passion, providing safe playing surfaces for athletes and in many cases on limited budgets that are made up of registration fees, donations and hot dog sales! People that would rather look at your “shop” than watch the game. People that hate rain on game days but pray for it when the team is out of town. People that share their solutions and their failures. People that want to be “Experts on the Field and A Partner in the Game.” These friends are the very things that have made my career so very enjoyable. 

SportsTurf: How do you think the natural turf vs. synthetic turf issue will play out over the next decade?

Fowler: There are many readers sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for the @Trfguy to answer this one. I have met with thousands of field managers over the course of my career, and I am yet to meet one that doesn’t have a passionate answer to the synthetic vs. natural question.

Why can’t we have room for both in this discussion? Both play a valuable role in our success. I have visited places that don’t have space except for a field that serves ALL sports, practices, and school activities and is open for public use from sun up until someone turns off the lights at night. I have visited fields that are under maintained and over used. I have seen fields being used in seasons that we have no business even being played on! If you don’t believe me, look at the lacrosse schedule for the BIG 10.  On the other side of the coin, I have seen even more natural grass surfaces that tolerate wear, over use, and still look and play incredibly well. In my humble opinion it comes down to the priorities of the users. I have seen towns, schools and universities that don’t budget $10,000 for seed and fertilizer suddenly find $750,000 dollars to put in a new synthetic surface. @Trfguy scratches his head a lot!

I do believe that more research on traction, lower extremity injuries, concussions and larger health issues will help us in the future. I believe this research will bring the picture more into focus.

SportsTurf: What are your passions and interests outside of work?Fowler: You should probably ask my wife this question!  When I am not at work, golf, home improvement projects, kayaking, bike riding, and travelling take up my time. Oh yeah I almost forgot, I love working on our local Little League fields!