Beauty Is More Than Just Skin Deep
By Randy Gaddo
Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.
When it comes to maintaining outdoor tennis and basketball courts, beauty is more than skin deep. Parks and recreation professionals who care for these facilities are painfully aware of this.
Cracks in courts that sprout weeds, low spots that hold water, shaded areas that collect leaves, and debris that makes the court slippery—and a few more common travails of tennis and basketball courts—are the challenges maintenance practitioners face each year as spring turns to summer and people take to the courts.
Consider this: Nearly 70 percent of tennis played in the U.S. is played on public courts, according to information from the U.S. Tennis Association. It is the only traditional sport that has shown growth over the past 8 years.
If resources are not allocated to maintain the courts, a major percentage of patrons will not be served; unfortunately, over the past few years rec departments have mostly seen a decline in resources.
“We have always tried to allocate a set amount in our annual budget to repair and resurface courts,” says John Turnbul, sports division director for the city of Bloomington, Ind., parks and rec department. “But we’ve lost that money in the last three or four years. At this time, we have a couple of courts that are well below our standards, but we haven’t closed them, yet.”
When it comes to prolonging the life of courts, preventive maintenance is critical, says Mary Helen Sprecher, technical writer and marketing coordinator for the American Sports Builders Association.
“A tennis or basketball court is not unlike a car; if you don’t take care of all the preventive maintenance items, it’s not going to last,” she points out. “You wouldn’t let your car go 9 months without an oil change, or if it’s making a clunking noise, you’d take it right to the mechanic. It’s the same with courts.”
Sprecher stresses that simple tasks can make all the difference, such as blowing the leaves and pine needles off the courts so the debris doesn’t eventually leave stains and slippery spots. Fixing cracks correctly when they are small can also prolong life and extend times between costly resurfacing.
“You can’t just paint over cracks, low spots, and mildew and hope to provide the best-quality court,” Sprecher notes. “A lot of people want the quick fix. If there’s a crack, they go right to their local hardware store and get a tube of stuff that’s made for filling cracks in driveways, which is a totally different product.” The patch won’t last, it will make a mess on the court, and there will be more complaints.
The material used to construct a court also will have an impact on the type of maintenance needed: asphalt, concrete, clay, carpet, artificial grass. Each has its advantages and drawbacks that should be considered when planning long-term maintenance.
For example, concrete is more durable and tends to crack less than asphalt, but it is harder on players’ joints, especially those of older players. Clay is easier on the joints but requires specialized time- and staff-intensive maintenance. Grass or carpet is shock-absorbing, but can change action on the ball, and also requires special handling.
When considering overall cost and playability, asphalt is generally the most widely used on public courts; however, patching cracks in asphalt is a constant maintenance task.
There are only so many effective ways to fill the cracks with any expectation of making the repair last. Cracks start under the surface of the court, generally from frost or moisture pushing up, so just covering the surface won’t work.
In reality, tearing the court up and starting over is the only sure-fire means of eliminating the cracks, but this is excessively cost-prohibitive; however, products have been developed by different companies that improve longevity of repairs.
Turnbul hires qualified contractors to make these repairs. “They grind the cracks and put a cement compound deep into the cracks,” he explains. “Then they go in with special materials that seal the crack pretty effectively.”
But crack filling only lasts so long, and eventually, to keep the court playable and looking decent, total repair and repainting are required. This means competent contractors need to repair cracks, level low spots, and re-paint and re-line the courts. In a perfect world it is nice to have this done about every 3 or 4 years, possibly more often depending on the climate.
Whoever does that work makes a difference in the quality and durability. The job can be bid out, but it’s important to find qualified and competent contractors; companies that pave only highways and parking lots probably won’t have the experience, equipment, or patience needed to properly resurface courts.
Turnbul says he has a preferred contractor who has helped maintain the department’s 20 courts for years.
Dealing With Vandals
No matter how high the quality of construction or maintenance, vandalism can damage even the best courts.
“We’ve had vandals light garbage cans that sat on the court and burned the paint, which is nearly impossible to repair,” says Turnbul. “No matter what material the court is made of, it can be vandalized or damaged through misuse by bikes, dogs, skaters, skateboards, and other unauthorized use.”
Locking gates and limiting access to courts can be an effective method of protecting them; however, parks and rec departments face a conundrum: Deny public access because of the stupidity of a few, or attempt to eliminate vandalism and assume the risk to maintain public access.
This is a tough choice that applies to more than just public tennis courts, but for any public facility, such as ball fields, skating rinks, etc. Anybody considering either option should obtain public input and support from elected officials to uphold the decision. If any reader has limited the access effectively, please let me or the editor know so we can share your experience.
Focus On Fencing
Another maintenance aspect of tennis courts associated with surfacing is the fence that surrounds courts.
Fences can often suffer damage from balls, racquets, or even bodies slamming into the fences or sliding under them. Mostly, this is an aesthetic issue, but over time it can become a safety item.
When the lower edge of a fence is not secured with the proper-gauge wire, the fence can become misshaped and separated from the court surface, enabling a foot to slide underneath. There have been reports of players suffering sprained or fractured feet or knees because of improperly attached fencing. This maintenance item is best fixed immediately to avoid injuries.
“The bottom line is that the longer you defer the maintenance, the more it’s going to cost you in the long run,” Turnbul asserts.
Deferred maintenance will also mean you will get complaints from the 70 percent who play on public courts. With those odds, getting courts in shape should be considered “preferred” maintenance instead.
Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email firstname.lastname@example.org .