Marking Fields For Functionality

Raise your hand if your fields have an identity crisis.

Oh, come on. You know what I mean. With all the games that take place on an athletic field--soccer, football, lacrosse, field hockey, softball, kickball--fields have many roles to fill, and depending on where you are geographically, they may be in use year-round.

It's no surprise that there is an increased demand for sports facilities--economic setbacks have led many people to drop gym memberships and take advantage of local programs, and more parents have explored sports opportunities provided by parks and rec departments as an economical alternative to high-priced sports camps. In addition, more students than ever are participating in school athletic programs (many of which hold games on local municipal fields), and the trend shows no signs of slowing down. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) Athletics Participation Survey, during the 2009-2010 school year, there were 4,455,740 boys and 3,172,637 girls involved in high-school athletics, for a total of 7,628,377. And that doesn't take into consideration the countless sports and social programs for adults and youth, the Little League, the travel and club teams, the home-school groups and others, in which players lace up their shoes and head out onto the field on a regular basis.

Having fields that serve multiple uses means that, with efficient scheduling, one set of fields can see action for an array of sports. Unfortunately, it also means that those fields have to be marked for varying uses. Soccer, football, field hockey and lacrosse (to name only a few) require different field sizes and different markings. Having lines for all those sports means a field becomes not only an aesthetic problem (being visually cluttered and crisscrossed with markings) but a confusion to athletes and officials (a potential for more than a few challenges and arguments).

So there you have it--a field with an identity crisis. Now, how do you get it off the therapist's couch and back in action? Easy--just listen to the advice of those who design, build, and mark fields for a living.

"With respect to field markings, it will be dictated largely if the fields are natural or synthetic turf," says Devin Conway of Verde Design in Santa Clara, Calif.

Natural Or Not?

The choice of whether a multiuse field should be made of natural grass or synthetic turf is best left to the municipality. While there is no official recommendation (and each side certainly has its fans and foes), it is essential to remember that this is a field that will get a great deal of use by a large number of athletes, all of whom have different needs and styles of play. Another important thing to consider is the geographic location and weather conditions.

Unlike its synthetic counterpart, a natural-grass field needs to rest between heavy uses (to avoid looking skinned and bare), and may not be able to be used in muddy or wet conditions, whereas synthetic fields have a drainage system that allows for less downtime after a rain. On the other hand, a natural field is less expensive to build, remains cooler during play, and is less expensive to repair. Ultimately, there is no ”right” facility--but there is a facility that is right for a given situation.

Drawing The Line

Dan Wright of Sports Turf in Whitesburg, Ga., notes, "There are really two options to lining a natural-turf field: the old method of chalk and/or the method of painting. Using chalk to mark a football field is still the method for most recreational and high-school natural-turf fields. However, some fields have painted lines so they will last longer. In either way, as the turf grows and fields are mowed, the lines have a tendency to fade. Chalk usually will not kill the grass, whereas painting a field will have a tendency to kill the grass or thin it out over time."

Synthetic-turf fields are a different animal entirely. They don't grow, so managers often will have lines permanently installed. But, says Wright, the age-old problem remains--the more sports being played, "The more confusing the field gets."

Solving The Identity Crisis

There are several ways to address the problems, no matter whether the fields are natural or synthetic turf. First, there's the priority method. Decide which sport each facility will host most often. That sport then is designated the “primary,” and those playing lines should be marked in the brightest color. The primary field colors are typically white and yellow if there are two sports on the field, such as football and soccer.

"If this approach is taken," Conway notes, "then the 'secondary' sports typically receive muted line colors, such as blue or brown. Another option for field lines is, instead of providing all the permanent field lines for a sport, provide limited field markings, or 'points' inlaid into the field that will facilitate string lining for temporary field-striping. This is a good compromise that makes marking of the field easier but does not have permanent field lines for the entire sport."

There's also the color method: Wright recommends using different colors for each sport. In general, he adds, specific colors tend to be chosen: "For instance, most football fields are marked using white markings and lines. For soccer on the same field, yellow lines and center circle are used, and for lacrosse, blue lines and markings. If women’s field hockey is also played, then red lines are typically used."

The field also must allow for flexibility in terms of sports equipment, Conway adds. "Something to consider in a multiuse field are the in-ground furnishings for a given sport. For example, football goal posts, baseball bases and netting poles are typically in-ground components. In a multiuse field, these furnishings are usually sleeved into permanent footings, so they can be removed and a cover can be installed over the foundation to allow for play of another sport.”

A field that is to host multiple sports must be built to the standards of the governing body for the sport(s) requiring the largest possible space. For example, if a field will host football (which has a standard length of 360 feet and a standard width of 160 feet), as well as field hockey (300 feet long and 180 feet wide), the field must be, at a minimum, large enough to satisfy the standard length for football and the standard width for field hockey. (Note: Dimensions are set by the governing bodies for sports at various levels; always check to make sure you are working with the most up-to-date set of rules prior to beginning construction or marking.)

In addition, there's more than just the space defined by the playing lines to consider. Minimum safety zones must always exist beyond the dimensions of the largest playing field. No matter how many lines a field has, after all, the bottom line is that everyone is safe.

Note: The American Sports Builders Association (ASBA) is a non-profit association helping designers, builders, owners, operators and users understand quality sports- facility construction. For more information, call (866) 501-ASBA (2722), or visit

Mary Helen Sprecher has been a technical writer for more than 20 years with the American Sports Builders Association. She has written on various topics relating to sports-facility design, construction and supply, as well as sports medicine, education, health and industrial issues. She is an avid racquetball and squash player, and a full-time newspaper reporter in Baltimore, Md.