International sports field management
Germination trial at Manchester City Football Training Academy. Photo provided by Marcela Munoz

International Sports Field Management

By John Kmitta

During the past year and a half, countries around the world have been impacted to varying degrees by the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, sports field managers internationally have felt the effects in different ways, and are still at different stages, dealing with a range of situations depending on their location. 

“Nobody was not affected,” said Marcela Munoz, technical manager for turf and landscape, EAME (Europe, Africa and the Middle East) for Syngenta. “Everybody was affected at some level. Nobody in this year and a half could tell me, ‘I’m the same as before.’”

Munoz said the three continents with which she works, as well as South America (where she is from), were at different speeds at the beginning of the pandemic, and some went into lockdown faster than others. How each country was affected was diverse, and a lot depended on the authorities and regulations or restrictions in those countries. Sports teams didn’t know what would happen with games, tournaments, the players, and the stadiums, she added. As a result, sports field managers didn’t know what they could or couldn’t do, and whether they could even maintain their fields. 

“People were improvising and waiting for the governments to tell them what they could do,” said Munoz. “In some countries, the groundsmen were able to go with all their crew to do the work. In other places, they had to absolutely stop doing everything.”

Munoz added that it took time in some countries for sports field managers to be considered essential workers, but all are now in that category. After the initial shutdowns, most countries realized that recovery from the pandemic was going to take a lot longer than initially expected, and many sports field managers were able to continue working. However, in some countries, sports field managers were hit hard because they had to stop doing what they were doing, reduce their labor force, and reduce costs.

Trinity Grammar School in Melbourne, 14 days after sowing (Thrive Perennial Ryegrass).
Photo provided by Peter Griffiths

“We have found that there was not one rule for a sport, or even a country, on the response to COVID,” said Leah A. Brilman, Ph.D., director of turf products and technical services at DLF Pickseed and Seed Research of Oregon. “It was very hit and miss. Even in the U.S., each state – and sometimes each county or school district – handled things differently.”

A key focus, especially early on in the pandemic, was decreasing the amount of mowing because of the restrictions. Munoz said she received a lot of questions about plant growth regulators (rates, how to use them, and the benefits), as well as questions about wetting agents and slow-release fertilizers – essentially anything that could decrease labor and provide some insurance for the fields.

According to Peter Griffiths, DLF seed sales manager, in New Zealand, during the first lock down (nine weeks), all golf courses, stadiums and parks were closed, and there was no mowing. 

“Superintendents who lived on site or within walking distance were inspecting grounds and trying to keep an eye on disease pressures (March here being early autumn),” said Griffiths. “Quite a few put down a protective fungicide before they were sent home. After a lot of discussions with Parliament here, they were finally allowed back to mow only. This was staggered with staff, 2-meter distance at all times, no sharing machines, same people working together, no crossover.”

Said Brilman, “At the high end of professional sports, in most cases the managers were able to pivot due to resources. It is at the lower end of community, schools and other places that some felt it much more due to monetary and staffing concerns. With no revenue generated for some of them, it was a skeletal staff.”

Widespread impact

As a solutions provider, Munoz said Syngenta tried to continue on as normal with research and development during the pandemic, but there were some delays with research conducted by universities as students and professors were not allowed to go back to greenhouses or labs at the beginning.

Contractors, in general, could continue as essential workers, so the impact was lower, especially for registration trials. 

STRI trials site at Bingley in Yorkshire set out for the “Lockdown Trial.” Weekly drone images and photos gave an evolving picture of the results’ progress (5-day plots at top and 1-day plots at bottom).
Photo provided by Marcela Munoz

“I came up with a new concept of reporting trials online, trying to adapt to the current situation and in a search for quick answers that could help the community of groundsmen and greenskeepers,” she said. “We developed a trial ‘live’ called the ‘lockdown trial,’ reported online once a week, in cooperation with ICL and STRI (Sports Turf Research Institute) with the objective of minimizing inputs and maximizing outputs. We addressed the use of growth regulators and minimal maintenance. When lockdown resumed, we started right away another trial called ‘unlock and play,’ addressing how we can come back quickly to play, so lowering height of cut and focus on playability and traffic.”

Munoz added that the registration of products was impacted. There were delays with registration because the authorities in various countries had other priorities. 

The supply chain was affected as well, she added. However, digital tools allowed companies like Syngenta to provide customer support and offer online meetings and webinars. 

“At the federation level, government level and industry level, we joined together, trying to keep people safe, and balance business and safety,” said Munoz.

On the positive side, the lack of play on the fields relieved some of the pressure, resulting in less wear and traffic on the fields, and ground crews had longer windows in which to work, Munoz added.

“In some situations, the grass was looking really healthy to be honest with you, because nobody was stepping on it,” said Munoz.

However, according to Brilman, as sports began to resume, sports field managers often had little time to prepare for events after maintaining fields on basic care with lower levels of staffing. 

Said Griffiths, “This autumn [in New Zealand], a lot of customers/councils have had to increase the areas that have been over sown, due to higher-than-expected wear on fields last year, with limited maintenance and catch-up from last year.”

Looking ahead

With regard to restrictions easing and things starting to reopen in various countries, Munoz said there is more clarity now regarding policies. 

“At the beginning, there was uncertainty of what was legal or possible,” she said. “Now I think that’s more clear, because they have special permits, workers know what they can do or not, so the groundsmen and their crew have a system already in place.”

Said Griffiths, “New Zealand and Australia seem reasonably positive, especially with the Trans-Tasman bubble open, even with the setbacks of the outbreak in the state of Victoria.

“Staffing is a problem though – both qualified and trainees,” he added. “It seems to be getting harder to attract young talent into the industry, and when we do it’s hard to keep them. Having moved from the UK (Wales) six years ago, I thought it was a UK issue, but realized soon after it’s a global one. Turf managers are looked upon as glorified grass cutters. The United States seems to have sorted this out more than other areas. New Zealand relies on overseas travelers and greenkeepers wanting to travel here for 12 months work experience. Interesting times ahead.”

According to Munoz, the COVID-19 vaccines brought optimism, but the European Union has been very slow with rollout of the vaccines, and some countries are not doing well with vaccination rates.

“There is still a lot of uncertainty,” said Munoz. “I think everybody is assuming that this is going to last for at least two years. I think there is awareness now that this is not over. It’s going to take longer.”

Added Brilman, “The whole world was making this up as we went along. I think we will continue to find out how things went.”

John Kmitta is associate publisher and editorial brand director of SportsField Management magazine.