Synthetic Turf

The global demand for synthetic turf continues to grow by 15 percent or more annually. It is easy to understand why. The playing surface enabled the Barrow Whalers to become the first Arctic high school football team in northern Alaska, tripled the number of activities that New Jersey’s Sayreville High School held on its field last fall, and earned over $40,000 in rental fees from the community for Turpin High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. Synthetic turf also became the preferred solution for the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation to upgrade and augment its playing fields, making it the number-one municipal purchaser of synthetic turf in the United States.

The escalating need for durable fields that accommodate multiple sports teams and other school and community activities, coupled with the need to reduce water usage and field maintenance costs, has encouraged a rising number of football complexes, schools, municipalities and parks to turn to synthetic turf to balance their program needs. Demand has grown to the point where almost 1,000 multi-use synthetic turf sports fields are installed annually in North America. About half of all NFL teams currently play their games on synthetic turf, and the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) has recently called for at least six soccer “pitches” in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa to be synthetic.

Although synthetic turf was introduced with much fanfare in the 1960s, it wasn’t until the early 1980s when a vastly improved, second-generation product gained widespread popularity. Today’s third-generation synthetic-turf fields have redefined the term “artificial grass.” In fact, it is supported by the NFL, Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), FIFA and many international federations because it combines the playing characteristics, look and feel of natural turf, with the advantages of increased usage and safety, and all-season and all-weather play.

Increased Playing And Practice Time

If you want immediate gratification, you have it. Synthetic turf is supplanting its grass counterpart in record numbers because it can be used daily and in all types of weather, without worry of damage. In addition, while turf-grass managers recommend against using a natural field for more than 20 to 24 hours per week or 680 to 816 hours per year for a three-season window, synthetic turf can be utilized around 3,000 hours per year with no “rest” required, more than three times that of natural grass. Since it remains uniform and consistent, season after season it has become the preferred choice for many program needs.

For example, the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation reports that “synthetic fields may remain open every day of the year, while natural fields must, to survive, be shut down for at least four to five months a year. New York City is so densely populated that all players cannot be accommodated on our existing turf fields, which must be closed when muddy and for reseeding and turf establishment.”

Fewer Injuries

Because synthetic turf is infilled with resilient materials that provide a level of impact attenuation that is difficult to sustain on worn-down, over-used natural-turf fields, its usage can enhance player safety and reduce the number of injuries. Traction, rotation and slip resistance, surface abrasion and stability meet the rigorous requirements of the most respected sports leagues and federations. In fact, the NCAA published the results of a study among schools nationwide comparing injury rates between natural and synthetic turf. During the 2003-2004 academic year, the injury rate during practice was 4.4 percent on natural turf and 3.5 percent on synthetic turf. During games, the injury rates were 11.5 percent and 11.4 percent, respectively.

A five-year prospective study published by The American Journal of Sports Medicine cited higher incidence of zero-day time-loss injuries, noncontact injuries, surface/epidermal injuries, muscle-related trauma and injuries during higher temperatures on synthetic fields, and higher incidence of one- to two-day time-loss injuries, 22+ days time-loss injuries, head and neural trauma and ligament injuries on natural grass.

Environmental Impact

Synthetic turf is environmentally friendly in origin, application, use, disposal, sustainability and water conservation. A well-maintained natural-turf field requires consistent irrigation and ongoing applications of both fertilizers and pesticides. It is not uncommon for grass fields to require 50,000 gallons or more of irrigation water per week during growing season, and thousands of pounds of fertilizers and pesticides annually.

Overall, synthetic-turf fields substantially decrease water usage, essentially eliminate chemical treatments, and reduce the man hours and power equipment operation needed to maintain a grass field. Just ask the El Paso Independent School District, which installed at least 10 synthetic-turf sports fields at a projected annual savings of 80 million gallons of water and $832,000 in water and maintenance.

Crumb-used-tire rubber infill--which has been safely utilized in synthetic-turf sports fields since it was introduced in 1997--has afforded the opportunity to recycle 25 million used auto tires per year that would otherwise end up in landfills.

Since its inception, the Synthetic Turf Council has gathered and continues to collect much independent, credible research about synthetic turf. Reputable governmental bodies and scientists in Norway, Sweden, Canada, Great Britain, New Jersey, California and Connecticut, international sports organizations such as FIFA and trade institutes have examined the health and environmental aspects of synthetic turf. Their exhaustive efforts have concluded that there is every reason to use synthetic turf, while perceived or proposed environmental and health problems are insignificant.

Transforming Communities

These fields are changing the lives of the athletes who play and practice on them year-round. Entire communities are benefiting from having a place where everyone can gather for football games, fundraising walks and more--like the Thanksgiving Turkey Bowl in Cincinnati, Ohio, where families get together to see who can score the most touchdowns on a full stomach.

Not only are people having fun as a community, but fields now have a life after football season. “Of the 11 away games we played in 2007, only two of the teams played on natural turf. Synthetic turf is a desirable product because so many of us want our facilities to be multi-use,” says Mark Wilson, athletic director at Tennessee Tech. “We have a facility that the football and soccer team can practice on. The band can practice on it too, if needed. We’re stretching our dollars by being sound fiscal managers.”

When it comes to football complexes in particular, synthetic turf is proving to be a terrific fit. With significant enhancements in performance, drainage, durability, quality and safety, the syntheticturf market is now booming in its three major segments--athletic fields, landscaping and golf, and athletic fields--which represent about 60 percent of the overall market. Synthetic turf is also adding to the overall experience and athletic performance of those who play on it, while helping drought-ridden communities save water and bringing neighborhoods together to have fun.

Rick Doyle is president of the Synthetic Turf Council, which was founded in 2003 to serve as an objective resource to assist buyers and end users with the selection, use and maintenance of synthetic-turf systems in sports field, golf and landscape applications. STC members produce and install most of the synthetic-turf sports fields in North America. Membership includes builders, landscape architects, testing labs, maintenance providers, installation contractors and other specialty service companies. For more information, visit