Visit to the Michigan State University
As mentioned previously in the magazine, I was one of a band of men asked to go to the States to view a new pitch installation at Michigan State University. The pitch was to be a removable one, set in pallets and grown outside for the past few months.
Steve Patrick (Blackburn Rovers FC) and I travelled to the airport together where we met up with Richard Norton the head Groundsman of Bolton Wanderers. Then down to Gatwick where we met up with the rest of our party. In no time at all it was all aboard a DC-10 and off to Detroit in the good old US of A.
Once there Simon Jacob, ex West Ham United Groundsman and now working for Greentech, met us. The next three hours were spent travelling to our hotel, stopping in an all American pub for a meal on the way. Although feeling tired we decided to go out and enjoy the local nightlife (well someone has to do it?). On getting to my bed by 12midnight local time I was delighted…. until I worked out that it was actually 5AM in England!!!
Next morning we were at a breakfast meeting. From the very outset I have to say it was the most open, frank and honest debate I have ever had the privilege to attend.
The introductions were by the Greentech people themselves and soon the first speaker was on.
Dr. John N. Rogers III (Trey) gave us an account of why they had chosen to install an I.T.M. system. He gave us a comprehensive history of the university sports set up and why they had decided to change back to natural grass after having played on an artificial pitch since way back in 1969.
We were given a detailed picture show of everything they had done, planned to do and all the pitfalls and mistakes along the way. It was so open and honest we all warmed to this man stood before us, telling us just how it was and how it is to this day.
They had decided to go with this system because it gave them a pitch that they felt would stand up to the demands of American football whilst ensuring that given any weather conditions they would still be playing.
At this point he told us that they had been given next season's fixture list and that they would be home on 5 consecutive Saturdays! This would be one hell of a test for a new pitch being just placed in situ this summer. We then asked how many home games did they play? 8 was the answer! When does the season end we asked? By the end of November we were told!
Well at that time there were at least 5 Groundsmen who wondered just what the panic was. When you think that we play up to 60 times a season on our pitches through all sorts of weather it did raise a smile.
Trey was not too happy with our comments and pointed out that the wear and tear of an American football game was far greater than that of a soccer game. This led to a really good debate on all sorts of issues. We put over our points of view and Trey gave his. I cannot stress how good all of this was.
We went out onto the site, which had been specially built to hold the pitch while the stadium floor was prepared. Although very young it had a really good sward of grass. The site was cut in two for various reasons but the bulk of the pitch was in one place. We walked on it and inspected it for as long as we felt necessary.
We then went and watched them lift one of the modules. This was done with the help of a forklift truck. The first one lifted superbly, roots all the way out the bottom and solid around the sides.
They did admit that they had moved a few about last week and that this was one of them so they were not surprised at the ease at which it lifted. They then did one that had not been lifted before. It had sat there growing all spring undisturbed, until now. It lifted like a dream, it was perfect. The system had been shown to work - well the lifting part had!
It was firm and moist, not wet, not too dry, just a really good moist growing root zone full of root. This was impressive!
We then went up to the stadium. This was in the process of being made ready for the turf modules to come in. The floor was tarmac with an 8in camber. In the walls were set hot air blowers for any cold weather and into the floor were set the irrigation pipes, ready for the sprinkler heads. The turf was to come in at one end of the stadium where there was one large entrance. This was not going to be a problem, as the trucks would be running on tarmac.
For me the biggest difference was the fact they had no roof at all on the entire stadium! It had 80,000 seats and was in a bowl shape. Just think about it?
80,000 seats for a college stadium! We do not have a stadium in England for anyone with 80,000 seats let alone a university side! Amateurs with a stadium this big? Not having a roof they were sure they would not have a shade problem!
We adjourned for lunch with lots and lots of questions flying around inside our heads.
That afternoon turned out to be the most enjoyable one you could imagine. Of course, because I was there, it threw it down with rain.
Trey showed us around all the trial plots and explained just what they were up to. It was fascinating. They had trials in all sorts of grasses and every system you could care to name. Whether it is " Grass master", Strathayr or just sand carpet they had experiments going on every one of them.
Not only seed trials, but wear and light! They had built a dome in which they tested all sorts of grass seed in poor light and different temperatures. We walked around enthralled by everything we saw and everything we heard.
They had two machines to replicate wear. One was a greens aerator with metal boots and studs on it. Another was a roller with studs on it. In all my life I have never seen so much research going on, and in so many ways.
The rain was falling quite heavily but no one wanted our tour to end. We were shown yet another plot where a young lecturer had discovered a herbicide that he believes may take out poa annua species from any other grass areas while not causing stress conditions to other grasses e.g. rye grass and bent/ fescue mixes. This will be like someone finding the formula to Coca Cola!
We did an inspection of all the machine sheds. Once again they did not disappoint.
They were both vast in size and vast in the range of equipment they had available to them. Trey did say that every season the kit was replaced free of charge by local dealers who then sold it on as demonstration kit, having had it tested on the campus for a year.
On the morning of our last day here we listened to a talk by Dr David Chalmers from Virginia Tech. They had also chosen an I.T.M. modular system. He was very happy to speak about the installation and how well it had faired in its first season of full use. The Tech was in the process of extending the size of the stadium, and they would themselves be up to nearly 60,000 seats.
He was very positive and up beat about his choice. We questioned him at the end of his talk and his enthusiasm knew no bounds. We gave him a really hard time regarding his project but he had a positive answer to every one of our questions.
After this Martin Jones gave an address on behalf of the visitors. Martin set out to paint a picture in the mind of the Americans about what we have to contend with here in Britain. He went into great detail about the weather, the lay of the land and what our sports governing bodies expect of us. He was very complimentary about the good job that Green keepers and we Groundsmen do here in Britain.
By the time he had finished speaking there were one or two of us wondering just how we do it year in, year out. This really brought home to the Americans just why we were amused the day before.
A mutual respect for one another was very evident after this. The Americans thought we were mad to play such an amount of sport in such adverse weather conditions and for so many months of the year.
After lunch we had to leave. It had been the most fascinating two days. Every one of us, Groundsmen and agronomists alike had all learned something. I would like to think that we had taught the Americans a thing or two as well!
As for the I.T.M. Modular system - what did I think of it?
Well I have to say it is very impressive. Being able to drain water away and to see it running out of the bottom of the modular must have a great deal of plus points.
The two sites in America we spoke about both saw it as a permanent pitch with the capability to be removed if ever needed. Both also had enough room on site or near to, to grow extra modules if needed.
In Britain we do not really have the space near our big stadiums to do this. If you were to hold a pop concert or a motor show you would not really want to be loading the modules onto lorries to take miles away to store.
But, and it is a big but, there surely must be a place in our country for this to work! It is too good an idea, too good a system not to work. Used properly it must have a place in our business. What could be better than being able to replace a worn out pitch with a pitch ready for play with just the same high quality spec?
For my part I have thought long and hard about the whole idea but feel that it does not overcome my problem at Old Trafford, which is the lack of light inside my Stadium.
If I could run a pitch outside on a sunny day and leave it there for a week and run it back in time for the next game, all well and good. But that is not this system. As good as it is, I do not see it being a benefit for me at Old Trafford. Not as it is.
If and when we defeat the shade problem, then perhaps I would look at it a bit differently. I could keep it all season, watching it drain whilst carrying on as normal. Then, at the end of the season, put it on our biggest car park and let the pitch area be used for what ever they want to put on inside the stadium.
But not until we defeat the SHADE!
What a great experience the whole trip was. We all came back buzzing with what we had seen, heard and learned. Thank you Greentech for a really good three days.
How can they afford all of this I hear you ask?
Well, 80,000seats @ $35 each x 8 home games a year!
Then take in car parking, food and programmes and you can begin to understand it all.
Oh yes, the best bit - they do not have to pay the players!!! They are all amateurs!