By Mary Helen Sprecher

One of the biggest advantages of public facilities such as municipal fields – whether they are diamonds or rectangles – is they are open to the public. However, that is one of the biggest risks they face as well. 

And with the pandemic, you can bet a lot of fields saw a lot of parents and kids spending time on the turfgrass – and the artificial turf in some cases – for batting practice, lacrosse drills and other activities. Unfortunately, it is those “other activities” that tend to cause the most problems. Here are a few of the challenges with managing fields open to the public:

Dog Use: Dogs got lucky with everyone home and quarantined. They got lots of walks, lots of attention, and lots of trips to the park with their owners. Not so lucky for field managers who have had to deal with the problems of owners who use their facilities as makeshift dog parks without cleaning up. It is bad enough when it happens on natural grass, but it is even more unsavory when it happens on synthetic turf. (Although there are synthetic surface products that are dog park-specific, they are different from those used for sports fields).

Misuse: Another problem with public fields is their ability to be misused. Whether that means malicious vandalism in the form of someone spray painting a synthetic field or driving a vehicle such as an ATV across a turfgrass field, or whether that means someone ripping up a field by wearing cleated shoes where they shouldn’t, it creates an enormous problem.

Litter: A lot of unattended users means nobody was telling people to pick up their trash. That resulted in a collection of empty water and soda bottles, food wrappers and even leftover food abandoned and now attracting ants – and worse. When some users refuse to pack out their trash, it creates a problem for the whole facility.

Turf wars: This particularly became a problem during COVID-19 when families wanted to keep to themselves, but there simply was not enough space available for multiple families to have their own space in order to adhere to social distancing mandates. As things start to open (and if programming has not rebounded yet), we can prepare ourselves for turf wars among groups of people who want to have activities such as ball games or practices.

Track issues: Rectangular fields often include a running track around the perimeter, and these often are subject to misuse as well. It is not uncommon for unattended tracks to be damaged by individuals with spiked footwear, skates, skateboards and more. Parents who come to run on the track will often bring children who have bicycles or tricycles and encourage them to use the track – to the detriment of the surface.

These are just a few of the problems field managers encounter with public facilities, and we can count on these issues to be exacerbated by the COVID-19 situation. The good news is that, for now, some states are reopening and that may mean field managers are able to work on keeping order in the area. Unfortunately, habits have been formed, which means users are going to have to learn to follow the rules. Some recommended solutions are as follows:

Fences: We are assuming your field is fenced. If not, well, it needs to be – and we mean it really, really needs to be. The higher the fence, the more secure the facility becomes. Having fence mazes (Google it if you are not familiar with the term) at the entrance can help deter people from bringing in bicycles or trikes.

Motion-activated lights: After-hours use, including vandalism, might be less desirable if the facility has lighting on a motion sensor. And now, thanks to apps, someone can be alerted if the field is being used in an unauthorized fashion after hours (criminals do hate an audience). 

Watering: If you are watering the fields, set the timers for after closing; it makes the environment even less hospitable to those with mischief on their minds.

Put it in writing: Make sure there is signage posted around your facility, not just at the entrance, but throughout. Make sure signs include the following:

• Running shoes only (this means smooth-soled running shoes rather than footwear with spikes or cleats)

• Use garbage cans for any refuse

• No bikes, trikes, wagons or other vehicles (and no skates)

• No dogs in the facility (including the track, field and stands)

• Paying users have priority for the facility, and reservations are needed (This may or may not be a factor in the area yet, but as youth sports return, along with camps, clinics, leagues and other activities, you’ll need to make sure your users understand the field schedule).

• If there is a track, post a sign encouraging walkers/runners to alternate their use of lanes; often, individuals will gravitate toward the inside lane of the track, which leads to premature wear there.

• The hours of the facility should be posted; these may be specific hours (for example, 6 a.m.-9 p.m.) or more general (dawn to dusk). Include a note that any use outside of those hours is considered trespassing and that violators will be arrested.

• Post a number people can call if they see the facility being used in an unsafe manner

Although no sign is foolproof, you should be laying out the rules for all users to see; this, in turn, provides a framework for enforcement.

Community meetings may or may not be happening in your state, but, fortunately, online meetings using platforms such as Zoom are available. It may become necessary to remind your users in person (or through the magic of online presentations) why the rules exist and the kind of damage the facility has sustained in the interim. 

Be prepared to hear arguments about “our tax dollars,” but be ready to point out the tax dollars now have to be spent on repairs (and be ready to provide the price of those repairs, if need be). Tell people how much the field costs to build, and how much it typically costs to maintain. Ask those who insist the field be kept open at all times whether they are personally prepared to foot the bill to repair damage resulting from inappropriate use.

Is there a perfect solution and a really great balance between having a facility open to the public 24/7 and having it stay perfectly manicured, perfectly green and always ready for play? Not in this lifetime; however, by establishing good lines of communication between you and the community, you can set the tone for a good working relationship.

Mary Helen Sprecher wrote this article on behalf of the American Sports Builders Association (ASBA), a non-profit association helping designers, builders, owners, operators and users understand quality construction of many sports facilities, including sports fields. To get up to speed on all the aspects of sports field care, ASBA publishes Sports Fields: A Construction and Maintenance Manual, an excellent resource with extensive (but user-friendly) information on design, construction, maintenance, repair, accessories, amenities and more. The book is available from the ASBA website at sportsbuilders.org and can be purchased in either hard copy or as a downloadable pdf.

SportsField Management