Looking back on 2022, it is hard to believe that it was just this year that the association changed its name from the Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) to the Sports Field Management Association (SFMA).
“This change had been discussed for years leading up to that moment with the primary focus being inclusivity,” stated SFMA President James Bergdoll, CSFM, CPRP.
According to Bergdoll, replacing the word “turf” with “field” better captured the work sports field managers do, and helps avoid confusion with the synthetic turf industry.
“We also felt that word ‘manager’ was restrictive to those working at a higher level, while ‘management’ encompasses everyone and the work being done at all levels,” Bergdoll added. “As we all know, it takes a number of people to maintain sports fields and facilities – from volunteers, coaches, part-timers, full-time staff, and even administrators.”
But from challenges to successes, 2022 was much more than just the association name change.
“I would sum up 2022 for sports field managers in one word – resilient,” said SFMA Vice President, Commercial, Paula Sliefert, senior manager of commercial business at The Toro Company. “Sports field managers had to successfully overcome many difficult and/or challenging experiences this past year. They demonstrated flexibility to meet both external, and likely internal, demands. They demonstrated tenacity and creativity in getting the job done even when faced with challenges brought on by a supplier community that was affected by the global supply chain constraints. I admire their fortitude, persistency, and perseverance to deliver high-quality playing surfaces despite the numerous new challenges they faced brought on by the pandemic.”
According to SFMA Academic Director, Adam Thoms, Ph.D., assistant professor of commercial turfgrass in the Department of Horticulture at Iowa State University, 2022 was challenging but rewarding.
“Between weather and labor, it was a struggle for turfgrass managers this past year,” said Thoms. “With that said, as usual turfgrass managers did an amazing job on their fields. When you attend a game or watch one on television the fields have never looked better. That doesn’t just happen, it takes field managers’ determination to make this happen, especially when weather doesn’t want to cooperate.”
According to Bergdoll, one of the biggest challenges SFMA faced in 2022 was the retirement of longtime SFMA CEO Kim Heck.
“Having to be flexible and able to manage changes as they come, the board had to pivot and go work on making sure we had a sound plan to put into action to begin the search for the next CEO and maintain operations in a manner that would not be noticeable to membership,” he said. “Immediately, a small group of past, present, and future leaders of the association were assembled to begin working on the transition, search, and selection of our next CEO.”
Bergdoll added that the board and SFMA staff stepped up and assumed additional responsibilities to maintain operations as normal as possible.
Thoms added that the biggest challenge faced by the industry as a whole has been finding trained labor. “There are so few turfgrass students in school across the U.S., and many athletic fields have openings that would train people on the spot,” he said. “We will have to solve this moving ahead.”
Bergdoll echoed that sentiment, stating that it will be important to get younger people interested in the industry, fill gaps in the labor shortage, and recruit potential employees from underrepresented groups who might not know this is a viable career opportunity. He added that the Sports Field Management 101 education program, Apprenticeship and Ambassador programs are all targeting this challenge.
Sliefert said the biggest challenges facing the industry short term are labor, supplier constraints (supply chain) and budget, and long-term challenges included finding future leaders and an educated/dedicated workforce. “We need to continue to engage younger field managers to be involved in SFMA,” she said.
With regard to the ongoing supply chain issue, Bergdoll said, “We are by nature a very resourceful group of people who find ways to make things happen in the absence of resources.”
He added that increasing environmental issues – from climate change and creating a more resilient landscape to state and local legislative changes – are creating challenges for the industry.
“With the new BMP document and work being done by the Environmental committee, we can try to get ahead of the game, but there is still much work to be done in that we need to have a larger collective voice,” said Bergdoll. “Right now, finding the right partnerships is our best angle for combating legislative issues.”
According to Bergdoll, synthetic turf versus natural grass continues to be a big topic of conversation, as well. “From an injury and safety side, this has been a big topic recently in the NFL, as well as some major soccer organizations,” he said. “There are also things happening in regard to the environmental impact and public health related to materials used in making synthetic turf. While our responsibility is to maintain a safe playing surface regardless of the makeup, these topics will certainly have some implications for how we do this in the years to come.”
Thoms said he is excited to see more players caring about safe playing surfaces, and being vocal about wanting safer playing surfaces.
“It seems like every week you see several different NFL players mention how they prefer natural grass and how it is better for their body,” he said. “Hopefully this will trickle down to other levels of play and action will start to take place.”
Challenges aside, Bergdoll said he was excited to serve as SFMA President this year and begin work on the SFMA’s new 10-year strategic plan, which focuses on growth.
According to Bergdoll, SFMA’s accomplishments include development of a conference education program that includes opportunities for learning soft skills and other professional development, including diversity, equity, and inclusion; a new SAFE scholarship that is diversity focused; development of strategic partnerships with sports governing bodies and related industry associations to communicate the expertise of the sports field professional; and ongoing work to create an Ambassador Outreach Program where ambassadors speak or participate in career days at local schools and present to leadership groups about safety and the expertise of sports field managers. Also, the SFMA Certification Committee has been working on the creation of an apprenticeship program that is ready to be registered with the federal government, he added.
Thoms added that the future of the sports field management industry in 2023 and beyond is bright.
“The pandemic showed us that sports are a chance to get away from the crazy world and enjoy the simple things, as well as the importance to get outside and be active,” he said. “There are tons of opportunities in this industry, and they are waiting to be taken.”
Sliefert said she excited about the advancement of women in the industry; and, from a technology/manufacturing standpoint, the advancement of electric and autonomous solutions.
Said Bergdoll, “As we begin to onboard the new CEO, there are a lot of opportunities for growth and improvement already identified as priorities.
“As an industry, we certainly have some challenges ahead,” he added. “However, one thing that we as a group have that will keep driving us forward is passion. We are, without a doubt, some of the most passionate people who care deeply about what we do, providing the safest and best-playing surfaces for all users. Knowing that gives me hope, and working alongside so many passionate people to move us all forward is not only gratifying, it turns hope into reality.”
John Kmitta is associate publisher and editorial brand director of SportsField Management magazine.