The SportsTurf Interview: Brad Park

This month in “The SportsTurf Interview,” we meet Brad Park, sports turf research and education coordinator, Rutgers University. Park currently performs traffic stress research on cool-season turfgrass species commonly established for sports fields, and routinely visits athletic facilities in New Jersey to assist turf managers in solving problems associated with high-traffic sports fields. He was elected to the Sports Field Managers Association of NJ (SFMANJ) Board of Directors in 2003 and is a member of the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA). Park was the recognized by SFMANJ for his “Continuous dedication and service to the Sports Field Managers Association of New Jersey” in December 2013, and was recipient of the New Jersey Turfgrass Association’s Recognition Award in 2016. He earned a Master of Science in Agronomy from Penn State University, and worked for Penn State as a research support technician prior to his current position at Rutgers, which he has held since 2003.

SportsTurf: What attracted you to the turfgrass industry?

Brad Park

PARK: In addition to mowing a very modest number of lawns growing up in suburban Pittsburgh, most of my springs, summers and falls were spent working around golf, and finding extra time to play golf. I spent a number of years caddying and working in the bag room at South Hills Country Club (just south of the city limits), which culminated in working on the grounds staff of the golf course. I envisioned being in a career that involved working outside in some sort of hands-on capacity — that led to two degrees and a full-time job at Penn State University prior to my current position at Rutgers University, which I have held since 2003.

I was asked to talk about my “story” to a group of interns at the New York Botanical Gardens this past summer; it gave the opportunity to think about this question as well as make a “pitch” for turfgrass. I used the opportunity to note that the pragmatic nature of turfgrass management — sports turf management, in particular — continues to attract me to the business. There is a mindset, and I think it’s growing, that turfgrass is nothing but an exercise in aesthetics. Turfgrass is a surface on which athletes at all levels compete, not just the ones on television. Passive recreation is a big part of it too. Turfgrass fills that need. Being a part of the research, education, and public consulting side of the turfgrass industry remains rewarding. 

ST: What are your main responsibilities? And what does a regular working week entail?

PARK: Like any other position in this business, particularly in regions of the United States where it gets cold in the winter, my job responsibilities vary significantly from one season to the next. It keeps the job interesting; my position does not entail doing the same thing every day. One day I may be outside fertilizing a trial area; the next day I could be in front of a group giving a talk. 

During the growing season, a significant portion of my time is spent outdoors performing various research functions: applying treatments, collecting data, preparing for and seeding research trials. Additionally, I will make a handful of site visits to sports field facilities in New Jersey in a public consulting capacity. The vast majority of these visits are with schools and towns. I am most frequently asked to provide a general review of a public entity’s inventory of sports fields and make recommendations for improvement. I almost always include soil testing as a part of the service. In addition to sports fields, I routinely visit managed residential communities, and have worked with the municipal golf sector as well. 

As fall transitions into winter, I spend a lot of time on data summarization and report generation — specifically those research trials performed during the summer. I annually attend various state, regional and national conferences during the late fall and winter season in a number of capacities including presenter (research poster and/or oral presentation), session chair, audio/visual coordinator and coach/chaperone for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA)-sponsored Turf Bowl. I am very active as an instructor and in-class course emcee for several Rutgers continuing education courses, including our 2-Day Athletic Field Maintenance and Construction Course. The class has been running continuously since sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s and was developed and emceed by Dr. Henry Indyk, a longtime faculty member at Rutgers and influential STMA member. As someone who has a penchant for history and nostalgia, being able to continue in the same role as Dr. Indyk relative to this class has been a great honor.

ST: 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? 

PARK: I think sports turf managers working at professional facilities are challenged by the number of events their field(s)/facilities are hosting above and beyond the sport in which their field/facility was originally intended. For natural turf surfaces, re-grassing has become routine for many managers. From my perspective, suppliers have attempted to respond to this demand. Turf milling equipment and contractors performing turf milling operations have made removal of existing surfaces more streamlined. Moreover, growers are now providing “game-ready” sod options where installed sod is managed more closely to professional standards at the sod farm than previous.

Managers working at schools and towns are struggling on a number of fronts. The quantity (and quality) of labor and budget always seem to be at the forefront. At a more macro level, I’m not convinced that many school and municipal officials truly realize the labor and expertise needed to maintain sports fields and grounds to standards that those same officials require. How can sports fields at a school be managed at an acceptable level when the grounds staff is constantly being taken away from managing outdoor assets to set-up the cafeteria for an assembly? Towns contend that the resources are not available to support STMA chapter memberships or registration at chapter field days for municipal sports field and grounds employees; however, resources are invariably found for a myriad of other discretionary expenditures. Ultimately, this is what motivated me to author the article, “The Importance of Sports Turf Managers for Schools and Municipalities,” which appeared in the January issue of SportsTurf. There are schools where sports (and sports fields) are a very low priority relative to reading, writing and arithmetic. In my opinion, that’s okay, and acknowledging those priorities is a good thing. However, if sports and quality sports field surfaces are a very high priority and integral part of the culture of a school or town, then competent managers need to be hired and retained. My goal for that article was for it to serve as a sort of white paper that can be distributed among school and town officials that have authority over personnel and hiring decisions.

ST: How should turf managers deal with the increasing number of municipalities banning herbicides, etc.?

PARK: Let’s first acknowledge that the ban (or severe restriction) of EPA-registered pesticide products is happening at both the municipal and school sectors. Several states, including New York and Connecticut, have applied these regulations to schools statewide. 

In many cases, schools and towns faced with these bans will not attempt to adjust their practices to compensate for the removal of synthetic pesticides from their programs, in part because they are not making the applications in house, and are subsequently disconnected from the agronomic details of the applications. While outsourced broadcast pest control applications are often generic and lack site-specificity, these applications may be the only reasons fields are relatively free of weed and insect issues. 

The end result of pulling the plug on EPA-registered pesticide use will be greater insect populations and weed encroachment. Pest pressure may not balloon within the first year or two, but left untreated and without any adjustment to cultural practices, turfgrass pest populations will develop. I’ve seen it firsthand. Summer annual weeds such as crabgrass, goosegrass and knotweed will become problematic. Dandelions, white clover and plantains will become the perennial broadleaf weeds of note. While weed encroachment may or may not render a field “unsafe,” I certainly think it’s fair to say that playing surfaces can be made more uniform where weeds are kept in check using threshold-driven application decisions (i.e. integrated pest management). Ignoring white grub populations can render a field unusable. 

Back to the importance of a sports turf manager: He/she will be necessary to orchestrate cultural practice changes necessary to compensate for a loss of EPA-registered pesticides; namely increased overseeding, cultivation and fertilization. Necessary increases in these practices will be dramatic compared to what is happening (or not happening) currently in many situations. Surface milling followed by re-sodding is a non-pesticide strategy for addressing fields that exhibit severe weed populations. The cost of these services and the prospect of field downtime will dictate the plausibility of this option. 

In most situations where resources are limited, fields will require prioritization to determine which receive elevated cultural inputs compared to others. A competent sports turf manager is necessary to explore the options (including whether alternative products are a pragmatic option), work with all parties involved to communicate a plan, and ultimately try to do his/her best with the reduced set of options that these bans present. 

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

PARK: Being a member of STMA, and, in particular, attending the STMA Annual Conference each year has been beneficial to me for a number of reasons. First and foremost, as a regular presenter of sports field and grounds topics at local, state and regional meetings, it is very useful for me to hear what other academics (and non-academics) are presenting. It serves as a sort of barometer in which I can assess what I’m presenting relative to other academics and industry professionals.

As a member of the Sports Field Managers Association of New Jersey Board of Directors, I help to guide educational programming content for both SFMANJ Field Days, as well as our annual New Jersey Green Expo in Atlantic City. Attendance at STMA serves as a sort of brainstorming exercise for educational topics and speakers for Atlantic City. 

The networking possibilities at the annual STMA show are almost endless. I have forged many contacts and friendships with fellow STMA members who are actively involved with their state-level chapter or state turfgrass association. It is extremely beneficial to interact with other STMA chapter board members and absorb how their chapter handles events and “keeps their buses running.” 

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

PARK: The nature of sports field management is different than some other industries in the sense that a surface is ultimately required for a sport to be played. A brick-and-mortar bank is not necessarily required for personal finance needs to be met. A mall is no longer needed for shopping to occur. Printed media is not required for information to be disseminated. How do you play baseball without a field? Skinned surfaces will need to be groomed. Pitcher’s mounds and batter’s boxes will require repair. Grass will require mowing. Lines will need to be painted. The list goes on. Ten years ago, the hands-on labor required to complete these tasks was necessary. Ten years from now, that labor will still be necessary. Synthetic turf fields play a big role in filling labor voids; however, natural turf and skin surfaces will never go away completely.

There is a lot of discussion right now in the green industry about labor needs. In some regions of the golf market, there is a shortage of assistant superintendents. This shortage has translated into a bidding war for talented people and increased wages. Will this ultimately develop in some spheres of the sports field market? Time will tell. 

I’m routinely evaluating cool-season turfgrasses, including commercially available varieties (new and old), as well as experimental selections that have yet to be commercialized. Turfgrass breeding continues to produce improved varieties with better turfgrass quality, enhanced tolerance to disease, and greater traffic tolerance. The future is always promising in this regard.

ST: What are your passions and interests outside of work?

PARK: Golf has always been my sport. I find myself increasingly enjoying the participatory nature of the game and deciding how to navigate the golf course, what club to hit, how to hit a shot, etc. I rarely take a cart when I play, so it’s great exercise. 

While I play most of my rounds at a local muni, one of my hobbies involves identifying “value” public golf courses that are architecturally interesting. I’ve played a number of courses built prior to 1940 designed by the likes of Charles Banks, A.W. Tillinghast, Donald Ross and William Bell. Robert Trent Jones came along a little later, but he’s another one of my favorites. Not all these courses have been immaculately groomed — but that’s certainly okay. Experiencing interesting putting surface contours, green surrounds, bunkering, and tee complexes is what it’s all about. 

I play a lot of walk-up golf where I put my name on the starter’s list and play with whoever is looking for a game or an extra player. I’ve encountered a lot of interesting people along the way, and I have a large bucket list of courses remaining.