Industry Trends

Sports Field Management Trends: Part 1

In an effort to keep the pulse of the industry, SportsField Management recently reached out to industry professionals for their insights regarding current trends in the industry, challenges being faced, feedback they are receiving from others in the industry, positive developments, and their overall outlook for the industry. The following are comments from those who have responded thus far:

One of the biggest trends that I see sports field managers dealing with is the manpower shortage and, in particular, lack of a sufficient number of skilled workers. The COVID-19 pandemic has only amplified those issues, with many workers choosing to stay at home or choosing to take higher-paying jobs in other industries (jobs that offer things that things that many sports field managers can’t afford, such as a bump in starting salary, a bonus just for applying, less labor-intensive responsibilities and air conditioning). Some sports field managers rely on the addition of part-time summer help, but they have trouble finding people interested in these kind of jobs and then worry about who will keep showing up for work. Some that I have spoken to blame the heat, the hours and labor-intensive work for the struggles to find employees. Others blame a lack of work ethic, and many point to generational shifts. Let’s be brutally honest, a lot of young Americans don’t want to do manual labor anymore when they can get $15 an hour working fast food. Struggling to find entry-level workers and to pay them a competitive salary will be a challenge to many, and some sports field managers may leave the industry if they are burned out by the extra workload. I believe the key is to improve time management, offer competitive compensation packages to keep the best workers around, and provide an environment that workers enjoy.

– Paul Hollis, executive vice president, Redexim North America

Based off of everything I am seeing, labor is the main issue that everyone is having. More games to make up for the ones missed, and not bringing back staff that was laid off. Trending wise, I think people are looking at robots more. The painting robot has been on more and more Twitter pages. Autonomous equipment will take off with the labor shortage. That turns into GPS and drones taking off more if they can afford them. Everything else is the same thing we have always had. Some people don’t know what they can use, and are asking questions because they never have before. I think people would like more information on things like recycle dressing, shockwave, and fraise mowing, but they don’t have the time and are scared.

– Weston Floyd, research associate, Texas A&M University, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences

There are two major issues facing sports field managers as a result of the pandemic.

The first is labor. For example, I consult for the City of Detroit, and they have more than 50 positions in their parks maintenance division they can’t fill. Wherever I travel throughout the country, securing labor is a problem. Aside from the pandemic, believe it or not, those in the position of hiring feel one of the major problems is the legalization of marijuana. Potential employees aren’t even applying because they won’t or can’t stop smoking long enough to take a drug test. I understand it is also a major problem in the trucking industry as many drivers with Commercial Driver’s Licenses have lost their licenses or let their licenses lapse because they failed, or don’t want to take, a drug test. My understanding is that there are seven to eight loads available for every truck in the U.S. If you weren’t aware, freight costs in our industry have nearly doubled. For example, a full trailer load of infield conditioner to New Jersey was $2,800.00 in 2019. The same load costs $4,800.00 this fall. That’s an increase of $2.50/bag.

Second is material availability. Many products used in our industry are simply not available, or won’t be available for a long time. For example, Triplex ryegrass is not available in New Jersey, and most alternatives have doubled or tripled in price. This will affect sod prices and field quality, because many fields simply won’t be overseeded. Additionally, other products – such as field tarps, mats, pitching rubbers, home plates, base sets – are all in short supply.

As an industry we need to do a better job finding future potential sports field managers. We need to get more kids into two- and four-year turf programs, then get them into schools and municipalities. The program going on in Arkansas is a great start.

– Scott Bills, CSFM, Sports Field Solutions, LLC

The rise of robotics and battery-powered equipment/tools (pros and cons, as there are plenty of benefits and pitfalls with both). We currently use a small assortment of battery-powered trimmers and blowers. I recently purchased an automower to use on a area of campus that’s less than a quarter an acre.

Also training and retaining employees. We are a work-based college (our students work for their tuition). Training is vital to what we do, but it’s also difficult to properly train all the students because they all have different class/labor schedules.

With managing both the main campus and our athletic complex, it is difficult to fully train our new students in all that we do throughout the year. Retention is a primary focus to help offset the training of so many new students every year.

– Eric Harshman, grounds superintendent, Berea College

The past 19 months have disrupted every aspect of manufacturing, supply chain, and logistics. On top of the disruptions, the demand for products and supplies has skyrocketed due to federal funding and increased revenues for spending.

Manufacturers are months out being able to supply the products and supplies to customers. Commodity pricing has skyrocketed with many doubling, tripling, or even worse. Many manufacturers and suppliers are trying to manage the astronomic increases in costs, and are being forced to take multiple price increases. Logistics for moving products has impeded the ability of manufacturers and suppliers to get the product as expected. For example, air freight items taking up to two weeks, containers waiting months to get offloaded at the port, and over-the-road trucking struggling to get drivers to haul product. The outlook now for improvement on availability and pricing is anticipated to last well into the fall of 2022 or early 2023.

It is also becoming increasingly difficult to find people to fill open positions in the sports turf industry. There seem to be several circumstances that are contributing to this. The life of a sports turf manager continues to be a “thankless” job. Long hours, increasing workloads, and lack of recognition all contribute to growing stress for many sports turf managers. The work/life balance continues to be stretched and many are trying to figure out how to juggle their career and families. Another factor is the fact that wages are not increasing at the rate that attracts new sports turf managers into the industry. A look around many communities will show that many, if not all, industries are struggling with labor. Many turfgrass programs continue to struggle to attract new students into their programs, which contributes to a lack of educated sports turf managers to fill open positions.

Product interconnectivity is growing, and electrification is helping advance that. Smart connected products will be the future where machine maintenance and operation will change from a “reactive” to a “proactive” approach. Autonomous products continue to gain interest as labor shortages and advancements in technology improve. Products such as autonomous line painters and mowers are beginning to hit the market. Many communities are facing increasing regional regulations requiring the need to switch their fleets to electric options. A focus on reducing carbon footprint, utilizing “green” technologies, and noise reduction are driving these regional regulations. Battery technology continues to advance as lithium batteries continue to replace lead-acid batteries.

– Boyd Montgomery, CSE, CSFM, regional business manager, sports fields and grounds, North America, at Toro

The issues I hear the most are the following:

Labor shortage: How do we get people to want to work in the industry, and how do we keep people?

Stagnant budgets: How can we increase budgets as more is asked of athletic field managers?

Sustainable turfgrass management: Using fewer chemicals, having more natural areas (in parks and high schools), lower nitrogen rates, etc., due to city/school regulations.  

– Adam Thoms, Ph.D., assistant professor specializing in commercial turfgrass management, Iowa State University, Department of Horticulture

[Editor’s Note: This is the first in a planned series identifying and discussing various trends in the industry. If you would like to share your insight, please contact John Kmitta at jkmitta@epgmediallc.com.]

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