In this edition of the SportsField Management Interview, we meet Brad Thedens, CSFM, park caretaker for the City of Sioux Falls (S.D.) Parks Department. Thedens earned his bachelor’s degree in Horticulture with turfgrass emphasis from Iowa State University. He is an appointed director at large on the SFMA Board of Directors, and is also a member of the Iowa SFMA (an association for which he has held multiple board positions). Thedens attained the Certified Sports Field Manager (CSFM) designation in 2017, and is currently working toward Certified Park and Recreation Professional status from the National Recreation and Park Association.
SportsField Management (SFM): Please tell us about your background, what attracted you to a career in the turfgrass industry, and your overall career path.
Brad Thedens, CSFM: I grew up in Rock Rapids, Iowa, a small town in northwest Iowa. That is where I got started wanting to work outside. I grew up a couple doors down from a funeral home, and the lawn and grounds were always well manicured. The director’s wife was the one always outside mowing, trimming or watering flowers, and I would go over to talk to her and offer to help. As I got older, she would ask me to take care of things if they were gone, and I think that is what really got me hooked on grounds maintenance and working outside.
Growing up, I was always outside doing something – whether it was riding a bike around town, playing or watching sports, or helping work on my friend’s sprint car. So, when the time came to think about college, I started out wanting to be in landscape architecture, but quickly realized that wasn’t going to be for me. So, I moved toward horticulture and turfgrass management at Iowa State. Dr. Nick Christians and Dr. Dave Minner were great mentors, and really helped me toward this career.
I graduated in 2001, and started working for S.W. Franks Construction out of Cleveland. They were a sports field construction company that built and renovated sports fields, and they need a grow-in supervisor to maintain the fields for a set amount of time after construction was finished. That was my job, so I was usually the only one left after construction to handle everything from mowing and fertilizing to topdressing and punch list items. It was a great way to see a lot of neat facilities all across the country. But after about three years of nonstop living in hotels and out of my truck, l decided to move back and start a lawn care business in my hometown.
The lawn care business was going alright, but I was missing the sports field aspect of where I had been. Then a position opened up at the City of Sioux Falls in Parks and Recreation, and I got hired in 2005 to maintain their soccer park complexes. I have been here ever since.
SFM: What does your staff/crew look like and what is your typical role or your day-to-day approach?
Thedens: My staff is myself and one other full-time employee to manage our three park areas. Then we usually have a seasonal staff of 8 to 10, depending on the time of the year. A typical day is never typical. We always have great laid-out plans for the week; then, like everybody knows, Mother Nature determines whether that plan is going to happen or not.
The day typically starts with an assessment to figure out if anything happened over night that we need to fix. Being in a public park setting, you never know what can happen overnight. So, the first part of the day is figuring out which fire has to be put out first, and make plans to get that taken care of. If nothing unforeseen has happened, then we move on with our normal daily routine maintenance. During peak season, we will have approximately 43 soccer fields of various sizes that need to be ready for play most every night of the week. We try to mow all of our soccer fields two to three times per week, so it’s a lot of mowing and painting to make sure things look good and are safe and playable for all of our user groups.
Besides all the soccer fields, we also maintain restroom facilities, playgrounds, shelters, two nine-hole disc golf courses, tennis courts and a dog park, which is probably the most challenging part of my job.
SFM: What is the best part of your job?
Thedens: The best part of the job is being able to work outside and enjoy the weather most days. It’s also seeing the job our team accomplishes – especially when we have big tournaments, things go well, and kids come in, enjoy themselves and have fun playing a game they love; knowing that my staff and I helped put that on is the biggest reward.
I’d also have to say that I work at a great place with a lot of individuals who are dedicated to making not only our sports facilities but our entire park system one of the best.
SFM: What are the biggest challenges that you face on a regular basis, and how do you approach those?
Thedens: I want every field I produce to be championship-quality level; I want it to be the best of the best. Being in the public park setting, that is challenging based on finances, staff and equipment. So, it’s trying to produce the highest-quality product possible with the resources that we have.
SFM: What are the biggest accomplishments of your career, or what are you most proud to have achieved?
Thedens: Achieving my CSFM is one of the things I wanted to do in my career. It is validation that I know what I’m doing, I belong in this industry, and I can do this.
Another achievement was being elected to the SFMA Board of Directors, and being able to represent my peers. Knowing that my peers believe in me enough to elect me to help guide them and direct them moving forward is a great accomplishment.
SFM: You serve the Iowa SFMA, and you currently serve on the national SFMA Board of Directors. What is the biggest benefit of being involved with those industry associations, and giving back to the industry though service?
Thedens: One of the biggest benefits is getting to know everyone in the industry. If you have challenges or questions, the benefit of this industry is that you are able to give someone a call. If they haven’t dealt with a similar challenge, they may know somebody who did. Those connections help you to problem solve and move forward. The more resources you have, the better able you are to do your job, and the better the product you are able to produce.
For people who aren’t members, that would be my biggest push – getting to know people locally and nationally. You never know what might happen. No matter what you need, somebody might know something, or they might know somebody who knows. It’s a great industry that way.
It has also gotten me out of my comfort zone. I’ve never been one to want to talk in front of a large group, and it opened me up to being able to do that. It has made me a better person at work, and probably outside of work as well.
SFM: As a member of the SFMA Board, you were involved with the new 10-year strategic plan and the association rebrand. What was that process like for you, and what are you most excited about with regard to the future direction of the association?
Thedens: The strategic plan was interesting to be involved with, and, thankfully, I was part of the strategic plan with the Iowa chapter. On the national level, it was obviously much larger. A lot of us are not accustomed to looking long range. Long range for us is a 10-day weather forecast. Being a part of the strategic plan pushed us to look five/10 years or more out. It’s great to know that this group is in good hands with a good plan in place moving forward.
As for the rebrand, I’m excited, because I want it to reenergize us as a whole, and get us exposed to the younger generation, get them involved, see what we can do, and get them into the industry. One of the biggest challenges in the industry is getting them to come here. And I think we can do that with the rebrand, the excitement of it, and some of the new things we are doing. I would also hope that with the rebrand we can reach and gain exposure with others outside of what we do. We are great at talking among ourselves, but if we want to be the true leader and expert in sports field management, we need to be known to parent groups, coaches, athletic directors or anyone with interest in the fields.
SFM: On that note, how do you get the next generation not only interested in the industry, but aware that this is a potential career path?
Thedens: I know there are kids who are interested in the industry. I’m not tech savvy, and I’m not a Twitter or Instagram guy; but the next generation is. Hopefully, we can get the right young people involved so that generation sees what is going on, and what we really do. So many kids love sports and love to be around their sport, but they aren’t going to play professionally. I don’t know if they realize this industry is an avenue to stay involved in that sport. They are not playing, but they are still involved. I think once they see that, we can grow.
SFM: Along the lines of the 10-year plan, where do you see the industry in 10 years, and/or what would you most like to see in terms of industry advancement over the next decade?
Thedens: I believe player safety is going to become a much larger portion of our job. With the money that is being spent on players, not only team owners but also parents are going to want to make sure those players aren’t going to get hurt. As sports field managers, we need to prove to them that we can provide safe facilities and safe playing surfaces. I know not everything is a guarantee, but that is where this industry is going to have to be on the forefront 10 years from now. Player safety is big now, but I think it is going to be even bigger 10 years from now because of the dollars that are being spent.
I also think it is important that we are environmentally savvy. We need to follow best management practices and make sure that people are environmentally aware, while also educating the public that we are doing things the right way.
SFM: Can you tell us about yourself outside of work?
Thedens: I have a wonderful wife, Erika, and we have three children; our oldest, Clay, is 14 years old, and we have twin 9-year-olds, Zack and Zoe. When my wife and I are not at our real jobs, we serve as unpaid Uber drivers for our children – which is probably like most parents.
I enjoy sports, and you can catch me watching football, basketball or golf if I’m not attending one of my kids’ sporting events. I really enjoy spending time with family and friends.
SFM: Is there anything I might not have touched on, or anything you would like to add?
Thedens: I know I had mentioned Dr. Christians and Dr. Minner as being some great mentors I had getting me into this career, but I just wanted to say that almost everyone I have met at conference, committees or events has helped me grow and become a better sports field manager. This is truly a great industry filled with many dedicated and genuine people who love what they do.