Indoor Sports Fields
By Randy Gaddo
Since it’s December, some locales might be very, very cold, while others are very, very wet; in some places, it might be both. Either way, it’s always “nice” to have indoor, temperature-controlled sports fields for parks and rec teams to keep their skills honed.
However, not everyone has the luxury of being able to enjoy “nice-to-have” facilities, at least not with their in-house inventory of “necessary” fields. The decision to install an indoor sports facility shouldn’t be an emotional one; several factors need to be weighed in an objective “cost-benefit” analysis.
It is difficult to say exactly how many parks and rec departments have indoor sports fields; there are more and more every year as the industry improves products, service, marketing, and affordability. Nationally, it is estimated that there are about 750 indoor soccer fields alone, according to United States Indoor Sports Association (USIndoor) (www.usindoor.com), an organization founded in 1998. That number doesn’t include multi-purpose, indoor sports fields.
Decide What’s Needed
“Some municipalities are able to build very large, expensive indoor facilities, but in my world that isn’t always what’s needed,” says Don Shapero, president of an association whose members represent the many diverse players who contribute to making the right decision about what kind of indoor, public facility is needed, or if one is needed at all.
“You have to consider what is driving the project,” Shapero suggests. Is it being driven by a local politician who wants to leave a legacy, or by local parents who have children they want to provide for, or is it to compete with a neighboring municipality or to bring in tournaments? “There are many motivations that I hear about from all sides, including the people who are actually running the facilities, and not necessarily those who are driving it,” he says.
Regardless of where the idea comes from, when someone suggests that an indoor sports facility is needed in any given location, there are a host of factors to consider. There are several questions to ask:
- Exactly what sort of facility is being suggested? Is it a totally new facility that requires land and a ground-up construction process, or does it involve retrofitting an existing facility?
- Will it include just a field or will it involve associated amenities, such as restrooms, concessions, spectator seating, locker rooms, maintenance areas, etc.?
- Will it be a single-sport field or multi-purpose one?
- How will usage be decided? In other words, who will have priority use?
- Can high usage be anticipated from recreational and other sports groups due to a high number of rainouts or other weather-related game cancellations?
- Will this be a self-supporting profit center or will it be subsidized?
- Are there other commercial entities in the area that are or can provide a similar service at lower cost?
- Most important, who will maintain the facility, how will it be staffed, and how will it be funded, especially in the years to come?
- Will it require additional maintenance staff and if so, how will the members be funded?
- How will the indoor field be kept sanitized and safe for play?
Shapero, who has been in the business for 20 years, says his organization works more with commercial groups, but it also has large and smaller municipalities that are members. USIndoor acts as a hub of experts who specialize in indoor sports facilities. “Our members represent every aspect of the business, from conception and business planning, feasibility studies, implementation, marketing, operations, procurement and so on,” he says. “We offer a menu of benefits and services, and each member can choose which they need according to the scope of their particular project.”
Perhaps the most important part of an indoor project is the feasibility study, also known as the cost-benefit analysis. This entails all the factors that are relevant to the project. “The devil is in the details” so it pays to delineate all of the items of building, operating, and funding an indoor facility. There are so many intricate factors involved in making a decision to go indoors that the issue has to be approached in a thorough and organized way.
To save money, some municipalities prefer to conduct such a feasibility study in-house. This can be effective, but it normally means that existing staff with already full plates are being asked to do more with less. While they undoubtedly do their best, their experience and focus may not be totally on only that task, so the final result may not represent a true picture that gives decision makers a solid basis on which to act.
“Sometimes municipalities may just want to have their study validated, so they can have a firm that specializes in that area [to] review their study and provide critical input,” says Shapero.
He notes that USIndoor is a “place to start, to learn about the industry, about the resources, the publications, and the information available.”
He concedes that working with commercial sports groups is somewhat different than working with a municipality, due to the structure and extra layers of organizational oversight that the local government often imposes. However, he emphasizes that, more and more, that difference gap is closing.
“As you know, more and more nonprofits (i.e., municipalities) are conducting business as if they are for-profits,” he says. Municipalities often try to use local contractors; however, Shapero points out, “they are taking the chance that those local contractors, even though they may be good at what they do, may not have the experience they really need in the very specialized area of indoor fields. Consulting with companies that specialize in indoor fields gives owners confidence that the partners they choose are knowledgeable and experienced in exactly that type of business. Being able to pick up the phone and call someone who will answer their questions is very important to the process of understanding what they are getting into.”
That being said, Shapero says that when most municipalities come to the association, they have already made the decision, they have already approved the budget, and they are all-in for the project. This approach may be effective if the municipality has a valid process to make its decision; however, oftentimes a budget amount for a project proves to be insufficient when ground is broken or renovations to an existing building are started.
“Some owners think they have to build very large and expensive facilities—and some do—but in my world I’ve found you can build a very adequate facility for much lower cost,” says Shapero.
A Winter Necessity
Staff and officers of the Foothills Park and Recreation District (FHPRD) in Littleton, Colo., were looking for more than just adequate when they made the decision to go indoor. Littleton, on the southwest border of Denver, is part of the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood Metropolitan Statistical Area. The population of 46,000 includes many sports and fitness enthusiasts who like to play year-round; however, it can get quite cold and stormy in the winter and quite hot, rainy, and windy in the summer, so an indoor facility was deemed necessary.
FHPRD encompasses 24 square miles and serves a population of about 93,000 citizens and interest groups, many of whom had input into the indoor facility. Officials say the indoor field was facilitated by the parks department, but driven by community need.
The facility, newly constructed in 2005, features a 100- by 60-yard main field and a 60- by 45-yard artificial turf half-field. The building hosts a variety of events that include, but are not limited to, youth and adult soccer leagues and camps; youth and adult leagues and camps of various other sports; adult flag football; rugby; field hockey; field rentals for practices and tournaments; facility rentals for other events such as after-prom parties and dog agility.
“Foothills wanted to provide a facility for youth and adults that could accommodate leagues, practices, and training during winter months in Colorado,” wrote Kate Dragoo, FHPRD Communications and Marketing Supervisor, in an email responding to questions. She compiled her answers from various local parks department experts. “It was a needed facility, as the closest indoor facility was 13 miles away. Since opening the facility in 2005, the arena has covered expenses while generating revenue for the district.”
The arena does not have permanent seating but does feature a five-yard perimeter where spectators can stand or sit in chairs they bring. There are also full-service restrooms and snack-and-drink vending machines.
“We were approached by a group that wanted to build an indoor sports arena on our land,” Dragoo reports. “As part of the vetting process, they provided to us the profitability information they generated. Based on that research we determined that this was a facility we wanted to build and operate to fulfill community needs.”
Foothills didn’t have an indoor field and it was running out of field inventory to fulfill the league and rental requirements. The district also didn’t have outdoor, lighted fields, so an indoor field allowed the district to program at all hours, which helped maximize use and revenue streams. With the wide range of uses, it is predictable that the facility will be in use, almost literally, 24-7.
“Our leagues are first priority,” Dragoo notes. “All other rentals are first-come, first-served. During our busiest time of year from November through March, we request that rental groups submit their requests in the summer so we can sort through them and assign dates and times so no one group monopolizes all of the facility time.”
In that case, the process to get the facility approved was fairly short; officials did a site-approval process that included community involvement, which didn’t meet with any opposition. It isn’t always that easy.
Keep It Clean
Thanks to exceptionally high maintenance standards, the facility has aged well. The life expectancy of the turf was eight years; the facility is on year 12 and is still going strong. “The longevity is due to our staff sanitizing, grooming, and re-distributing the rubber we pick up after the grooming,” Dragoo emphasizes. “Our installer is very complimentary every time they inspect the turf for firmness. They say it is due to our excellent maintenance routine.”
The maintenance is performed in-house by the FHPRD sports staff members, who are trained to work on the field. Dragoo notes that the sports staff takes pride of ownership in how the field looks and feels to players, and that is a major factor in the field’s longevity.
The staff spends at least 90 minutes twice weekly working the field with a “greens groomer” with tines and brushes to loosen the rubber granules. Workers also sanitize the field with an antibacterial spray and use a “litter cat” machine to sweep the field for smaller particles of trash.
Keeping indoor, artificial-turf fields hygienically clean has been a topic of discussion among parks and rec maintenance professionals. Players’ blood, sweat, and tears can introduce unhealthy bacteria. However, Dragoo reports that, again, consistent maintenance practices are the key to keeping fields healthy. The greens-groomer cart has a 25-gallon boom sprayer filled with a specialized field disinfectant and a hand wand for hard-to-reach places.
“We are actively disinfecting the field at least two times a month, more if the field is busy,” she writes. The cold Colorado weather can be a deterrent to the mission. “We may not get to sanitize it as often in the winter, depending on the temperature of the field. We do not have heat, so if it is close to freezing, we cannot put the disinfectant on the field.”
Think It Through
Dragoo and the FHPRD staff have some suggestions for parks and rec professionals who may be looking at including an indoor field into their inventory.
First, the staff advises that, while in the planning and design phase of the project, try to figure out how the field will be used, how many sports it will accommodate, and how the lines will be done. For example, the FHPRD field was permanently lined for full-field soccer and men’s lacrosse. Then, using a specialized paint that costs about $200 for five gallons but lasts 10 times longer, the staff painted lines for sports such as girls’ lacrosse. This gives the district great flexibility in how the field is used.
A key suggestion is to ensure that input is gathered on design and functionality from the people who will be running the facility. This will provide those very important details that architects may not consider, for example, the placement of entrances and exits. “For main entrances, mainly if it’s a colder climate, you do not want those entrances to face the north side of the building where it doesn’t receive much sun to help naturally with the melt-off during snow season, which is when the majority of business typically is,” the staff suggests.
Planning storage areas for goals and maintenance equipment is another item that can be lost in the design phase due to budget constraints. “Many of these things could have been in original plans but become budget casualties as the build was in process,” cautions the FHPRD staff. Many times those cuts can’t be avoided, but those who have to operate the facility after architects and contractors have left know how important those things are, and that they are worth fighting for.
No matter what kind of climate that parks and rec department professionals operate in, an indoor field might be an excellent addition to their inventory. The key is to determine if the field will simply be “nice to have” or if it can truly be a cost-effective “necessity” that serves the public need.
Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, Ala.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.