Is playing surface quality a trade-off?

David Ormsbyin Football

PoorFieldWet winters create significant challenges, both in providing quality playing surfaces and dealing with the public backlash when sportsfields are closed or not up to standard.

The best response is to upgrade to either sand-based or artificial surfaces. These elite surfaces have the advantages of providing:

- Greatest certainty of availability, despite rainfall
- Generally the highest quality playing surfaces, hence the reason for this technology being the standard at major stadiums and other elite sporting venues
- Increased use levels, a major consideration in areas of high population densities or where there is limited available green space

Upgrading to these types of sportsfields may not always be possible or practical, as these options require considerable investment (capital, increased annual maintenance costs and eventual asset replacement costs). This financial requirement often acts either as a barrier or at least a delay to adopting such technology.

These barriers often exist and we need to consider alternative options. What are the range of options that will enable turf and asset managers to get the best results from their situation and resourcing levels or, as a minimum, provide a more acceptable 'stop gap solution' whilst the preferred options are being assessed and/or resourced?

Key Considerations

In many situations, there are alternatives that can provide acceptable playing surfaces in most climatic conditions, especially where land area is not limiting and GrassCovermoderate usage levels occur. However, unlike the ideal all weather sand or synthetic options, these alternatives (compromises) require trade-offs between quality, availability and level of investment into the field.

With these alternative options, it is important that the compromises are understood and adequately communicated with user groups.

Return Period

The "Return Period" refers to how long it will take before a field is playable once rain stops. At one extreme, there are the sand or artificial fields, which are playable during rain or immediately after it stops, whilst at the other extreme you may have to wait several days after rain stops before play can occur. Improving drainage performance is about reducing the length of the Return Period. In most situations, there will be a range of improvement options that will reduce the Return Period. Options that reduce the Return Period the most will almost certainly be the most expensive.

Site Specific Management of Parks and Sportsfields

In order to get the best performance from the field, the strengths and weakness of the field's site characteristics must be fully understood. This will enable an appropriate site specific management programme to be developed. This may mean that there is a range of different management strategies in place for pitches under the council's control.

Depending on the site, there are a number of management strategies that can significantly improve the winter performance of a field. For example:

Irrigation management

- Irrigation enables the field to have a complete turf cover to start the winter season
- However, correct irrigation management, specifically drying down the profile in autumn is essential to provide capacity to "store" the early winter rains, i.e. a soil profile that is saturated from irrigation in the autumn has no such capacity, and the field rapidly fails with the lightest of rains

Surface acidification

- Use of acidic fertilisers and/or a sulphur programme can, on certain soils, create firmer, more stable surfaces

Earthworm control

- Although the chemical options are now limited, there is little question that reducing earthworm numbers earthworm cast sealing on turfcan provide greater surface stability and improved winter performance. This is particularly important where ryegrass is the dominant grass species present

Grass density

- This is often taken for granted but is paramount for protecting the soil surface and maintaining infiltration. Management programmes, particularly fertilising, reseeding and usage control, are essential to establish and preserve turf density. The key goal is to establish a complete and, ideally, perennial grass cover before the winter season commences

Nitrogen fertiliser

- programmes to promote turf recovery and density. The key is to match nitrogen programmes to playing intensity, and maintain recovery before significant cover loss (wear occurs)

Soil aeration programmes

- Correct selection for the soil type and intended purpose is critical, for example;
- Promoting infiltration
- Allowing water to bypass surface layers to a free draining subgrade layersMoleLines
- Encouraging lateral water movement to installed drains or outfalls
- Addressing localised hollows can make a big difference to improving the quality and availability of fields during winter. Not only is ponding avoided or reduced, but these low areas are the first part of a field to 'collapse' when the winter conditions occur

Targeted venue closure

It is common practice for a standard maintenance programme to be adopted across all venues regardless of soil type, playing intensity, grass type etc. Where the approach taken is not based around the specific site features and particularly the soil type, the full potential of a soil is unlikely to be realised.


Interestingly, the sportsfield industry is facing the issues that the golf industry has dealt with for many years, namely that the general playing public increasingly expect the same elite playing conditions seen at international stadiums and on television. Where the budget and other 'drivers' (reduced risk of closure, increased use capacity, etc.) are present, then playing quality comparable to our elite sporting surfaces is achievable on club grounds.

However, where investment is unavailable, it doesn't preclude traditional soil based fields being fit for their intended use. They can still meet the requirements of the game, but may not be as good as the 'Rolls Royce option'. This is one of the compromises that is generally inevitable with lower investment in development and maintenance.

To summarise, unusually wet winters are a 'nightmare' for administrators and turf managers. Where barriers prevent or delay the long term upgrading solutions, then a site specific management solution(s) needs to be developed that will optimise the winter performance of the fields, given the available level of resources.

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