Keep A Clean Complex

By Noel Brusius

Maintaining a youth-sports complex is not a 9-to-5 job. As sports-turf managers, we help generate revenue for the local economy and provide a venue for teams to compete on safe, playable, environmentally friendly fields.

The Waukegan SportsPark in Illinois (1.5 hours north of Chicago) attracts teams from throughout the Midwest and even across the country. As a result, local businesses receive a sizeable boost from teams and parents using county hotels, restaurants, gas stations, and shopping malls. The Lake County Convention and Visitor's Bureau recently estimated that the SportsPark has approximately a $10-million economic impact annually.

The park district converted the former Orchard Hills Golf Course, a 138-acre site, for use as its newest recreation destination. Construction began in April 2009, with the “grand opening” event on June 3, 2011. Construction was funded through tax proceeds authorized by a 1997 referendum. The Waukegan SportsPark is world-class and definitely meets the outdoor athletic needs of the community, especially for youth sports.

General Overview
The SportsPark includes 13 Kentucky Bluegrass/Perennial Ryegrass soccer fields, a championship synthetic-turf soccer/football field, four softball fields, two concession facilities, nine restrooms, a maintenance building, picnic areas, and a playground with water-spray features. The total cost for this phase was $22.5 million.

The fields receive most “play” on the weekends and, therefore, field usage is geared to sustain heavy traffic over two or three days. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, in 2013 there were about 6.61-million youth-soccer participants in the United States. Soccer is certainly the most popular youth sport in Waukegan.

One of the challenges lies in finding ways to maintain the natural-grass playing surfaces with steadfast activity, minimal rest days, and no off-season.

Routine Maintenance
Over the years, the grounds team and I have tested the waters to find the perfect routine. Each sports field is different, but we have found that the schedule below works like a charm.

Monday is cleanup. With a staff of two full-time employees, eight seasonal, and one intern dedicated to the SportsPark, we are lucky to have quality workers who are passionate about their job. Each employee is assigned to various areas. For example, someone cleans the restroom buildings, picks up trash around the park, and mows the soccer fields.

On Tuesdays, we mow the “in-betweens,” or areas in between each field. Usually, these are the sidelines where parents stand and other spaces that receive high traffic, although players aren’t competing on them. There are 50 to 100 feet between each field.

Wednesday is landscaping and common-area maintenance day. This includes mowing, edging, and detail work, including flower beds and/or tree rings. Additionally, weekly meetings are conducted with recreation department staff members to review scheduled league games or upcoming tournament events.

Thursday is a “rinse-and-repeat” day of Tuesday’s routine. It’s also a prime opportunity to paint the soccer fields.

Finally, on Fridays, we mow again and set up for the weekend. Throughout most of the season, the soccer fields are mowed three times per week at 1.5 inches.

Sticking to this routine has proven successful, although as noted earlier, each field is unique, making sports-turf management truly a time-tested practice.

With all of the activity, we have developed different tactics to preserve the fields and combat high traffic from ruining them.

Secrets To Success
One of the highest priorities and a real attribute to our success is field rotation. Although each field can’t be rotated every week, we employ this tactic as frequently as possible.

Typically, for league play, we utilize 11 or 12 fields while leaving three or four to rest. The fields with the worst conditions come out of play, and the best are used. Communicating this information each week to Richard Fibish, Recreation Supervisor at Waukegan SportsPark, is critical.

The city doesn't have dedicated youth fields, so teams compete on adult fields. To help alleviate wear-and-tear, we run the smaller fields in opposite directions and implement the same field-rotation policies. We also don’t allow clubs to practice on the natural-grass fields, thus limiting activity to weekends only unless there is a tournament, special event, or make-up game.

Another vital aspect to operations is overseeding to the goal-mouth areas and any other high-stress spots on a weekly basis. Perennial Ryegrass is hand-spread and left to be “cleated in” during play. This practice has proven to be crucial to maintaining adequate turf in goal-mouth areas.

Project Tips And Pitfalls To Avoid
Below are a few tips and pitfalls to avoid when maintaining a youth-sports complex:

  1. Plan for more space than is currently needed. This is important because the park may need to be renovated or expanded someday. Having the extra space can make or break a facility, even if it’s not needed right away.
  2. Have a full-time staff member solely dedicated to the process. Don’t leave this up to a general contractor. If there is not one on staff, hire a sports-turf manager. The Sports Turf Managers Association is a great resource.
  3. Always wait until there is enough funding before renovating. There is nothing worse than beginning a renovation only to discover it will have to be abruptly shut down due to insufficient funds.
  4. If a field or a youth sports park is to be torn up, only do it once. If a field is renovated properly, it won’t need to be replaced for an extended period. This is a good investment for communities and is smart in the long term. Otherwise, the community will be facing an expensive project every five years.

Sports Turf Management: Best Practices
Sports-turf management practices are also crucial to preserving field integrity:

  1. Have a maintenance program and outline. As noted earlier, craft a schedule and follow it religiously. Everyone’s field performs differently, so trial and error can be applied here.
  2. Conduct soil samples annually and use the data when creating fertility plans. Soil quality is necessary for any healthy field. Schedule an annual fertility test for a field to ensure it’s healthy.
  3. Maintain sound cultural practices. Staying on top of aeration, overseeding, and pest and weed control is imperative to help overall strength and appearance.
  4. Know the participants. Understanding users and their expectations often dictates how someone views a field. For example, field safety is paramount, so we make it a point to maintain safe fields knowing that adolescents are often competing.
  5. Communicate regularly and openly with all parties involved. I talk to my supervisor weekly, keeping him informed of all activity. As the only person on-site, I have to keep him up to date.
  6. Have a staff that buys into the concept. I'm lucky to have a dedicated crew and staff that aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty. I owe much of our success to them.

Going Green
Environmental sustainability was taken into consideration at every opportunity during the planning process of the SportsPark. To manage stormwater, bioswales are incorporated into the parking areas. Water from the retention pond is recycled for use in the irrigation system and a rain garden even catches stormwater from the maintenance facility.

Recently, we planted the 16-acre perimeter of the park with native prairie plantings and seed mix, creating a no-mow zone.

Have A Plan
With the demand for practice and game fields on the rise in America, sports-turf managers play a large role in providing safe and playable fields for athletes of all abilities.

Noel Brusius, Certified Sports Field Manager, SportsPark and Athletic Fields Maintenance Supervisor at Waukegan Park District, is a member of the Sports Turf Managers Association. All SportsPark maintenance operations are under the direction of Brusius. A 2012 and 2014 STMA “Field of the Year” award winner, Brusius maintains almost 20 playing surfaces at Waukegan, the host for various national soccer and softball tournaments throughout the year. Reach him at