Multi-Use Natural-Turf Fields
By Randy Gaddo
Whenever somebody starts to talk about natural turf, multi-use sports fields for parks and recreation use, I start to get a multi-level headache.
Why, you ask? Well, because the topic is layered with competing pros and cons that will make your head spin after a while. Before we embark on an exploratory discussion about the good, the bad, and the ugly of a multi-use field, let’s first define what all of this means for parks and recreation officials.
The term “multi-use” has become quite popular these days when discussing any parks and rec facility. Multi-use means more people with divergent needs can use the same facility. It’s all about getting the most “bang for the buck.”
Fighting For Field Time
Normally, when discussing a multi-use field, the field is used for sports that are compatible in field shape and size: soccer, football, and lacrosse, for example. To the casual observer, these examples sound logical. All of these sports use rectangular fields about the same size, so it makes sense they can all use the same field, right?
A closer look reveals several mitigating circumstances countering this naïve perception.
First, consider the seasons: in the example above, all three sports seasons generally occur at the same time of year (spring and fall). Teams generally practice at the same times (after school or on weekends) and play at the same time (evenings and weekends).
So, recreational sports teams are automatically at odds with each other in vying for field space and time. This puts rec department administrators in a pickle, trying to balance judicial field allocation with protecting the turf asset. This can also throw parks and rec maintenance pros into a no-win situation because the turf has no time to recover from the abuse. It is nice if departments have the luxury of many fields so alternate fields are allowed to rest; however, most municipal departments don’t have extra fields.
“Maintenance is the biggest issue because the more events you put on the field and the less amount of down time the field has to recover from any damage, the more maintenance is going to have to increase to compensate for the amount of damage that field will experience,” explains Dan Wright, vice president of Sports Turf Company in Whitesburg, Ga., and the Fields Division President of the American Sports Builders Association.
Wright notes that funding for maintenance items such as aeration, fertilization, top dressing, and re-sodding must increase for a multi-purpose field. “But it may also mean an increase in staffing, or outsourcing some or all of these items,” he emphasizes, adding that, depending on the intensity of use, it may mean doubling or even tripling the per-field maintenance budget.
A 90-Degree Approach
If a field has enough room on the sidelines, field lines can be moved from side to side so wear patterns shift, and worn areas can be repaired; generally, though, with the heavy traffic, worn areas are still beaten down enough that they never really come back during the season without re-sodding.
“We didn’t really have enough room to move fields around, but we tried to do it as much as possible,” remarks Steve Wightman, past president and current committee member for the Sports Turf Management Association.
Wightman reflected on his time managing 250 sports fields for the city and county of Denver in the 1980s before taking over as field and operations manager of Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, where he recently retired.
“Keeping the fields in good shape is the biggest challenge with multi-sport fields,” he says. “The best thing parks and rec departments can do to prolong the life of a field is to move the traffic around. If you can, move it over a little bit so the center of the field isn’t in the same spot all the time, or even turn it 90 degrees if possible.”
Shutting a field down is sometimes the only option to save it. “However, that doesn’t make you very popular with some patrons,” Wightman quips. “But most will understand because they want good, safe fields, too.”
If enough land is dedicated to a field large enough to hold two or more multi-purpose fields, periodically lines can be re-drawn and fields can be turned 90 degrees. Theoretically this should work. But realistically it requires a huge plot of land that most places don’t have available. There are also issues with constructing the fields for proper water runoff, orienting them to limit sun glare, and accommodating the placement of goals, bleachers, scoring stands, sidelines, and other sport necessities.
More Than One Master
In more and more cases, youth recreational field space is under pressure to serve more than one master. The schedule calls for youth recreation sports and/or school sports programs and adult sports, but many fields also support revenue-producing tournaments and sometimes special events that aren’t sports-related, such as concerts or festivals.
Wightman experienced this at Qualcomm Stadium. It is home to the San Diego Chargers and the San Diego State University Aztecs football team, but it also hosts special events ranging from soccer tournaments to motocross rallies, RV shows, and swap meets.
“That was a lot different there with major league teams,” Wightman points out, noting the difference between major-league operations and municipal parks and rec departments—a distinction that is often lost on local governments desperate to create new revenue streams.
“We had the budget to sustain that sort of broad use,” he says, noting that the field was natural turf because that’s what the players wanted. “We didn’t have the high-usage events that you have in a recreational setting; the teams don’t practice there every day because they have their own training center. We wait until the season is over to bring in the other events.”
For example, Wightman referenced the motocross event; about 10,000 cubic yards of dirt were hauled in in 50-ton truckloads to create the course—a process that would make most parks and rec maintenance managers cringe. “It wasn’t too bad because we knew we were getting a new field,” he concedes, noting that after the event the dirt was hauled out and the entire field was re-graded and re-sodded.
If a community decides to build a natural-turf field to double as a tournament (for profit) or special-event center, a new set of challenges is handed to the parks and rec department. More communities are trying this to provide revenue and promote tourism and trade. This approach can work harmoniously, but only if all parties—the parks department, the tourism branch, the city leadership, and users—are on the same page.
Before making this decision, however, a number of questions should be answered:
Who has priority of field usage: recreational teams, tournaments, or special events?
Since tournaments/special events and rec games are normally held on weekends, when do rec teams have field space?
What prevents tournaments/special events (revenue, tourism) from edging out rec teams over time for prime field space?
Who pays for the additional manpower, supplies, equipment, and materials needed to keep the fields healthy?
How will the community ensure that the budget can sustain proper maintenance?
Participants paying to enter a tournament have certain expectations about the playing fields. If those expectations aren’t met, serious tournaments eventually won’t return. Additional strain on fields after tournaments can leave the fields in poor shape for rec teams, so this demands careful consideration.
Going into the high-use, multi-purpose, natural-turf field territory doesn’t have to be a headache as long as due diligence is practiced by all stakeholders on the front end of the process to ensure a sustainable enterprise.
There are probably other pros and cons I haven’t addressed on whether to go multi-purpose or not. If you have some thoughts on this issue or can relate experiences about it, take a moment to share them with me or the PRB editor. Who knows, your input might be the deciding factor in someone’s decision.
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 email@example.com.