There has never been a more important time than now, when the natural turf Industry needs a rallying call. The synthetic lobby is back with a vengeance, and this time the business is at the sharp end. In the next issue of our hard copy magazine, there is an article written by the European Seed Association on the risks associated with artificial surfaces but, for all those whose passion is living, breathing grass, there has never been a greater need to stand together.
To quote a leading artificial grass manufacturer on their new generation carpet, "The result is a football field with playing characteristics that are indistinguishable from the properties offered by natural grass". This is a serious statement that needs to be countered, but who's offering their whole hearted support? Well, it should be the bodies responsible for the welfare of Groundsmen and Greenkeepers - shouldn't it?
Yes, you say, but the reality is no.
The fact is that, for more than a decade, the IOG has been headed by non-Industry people who have no passion or understanding of our work, their remit being to make the Association more profitable. So, in that time, we have watched a 'turf show' decimated, where the clamour for money meant that every Tom, Dick and Harry has been allowed to present their wares, and we now have an 'Open Space' show increasingly populated by synthetic surfaces, playground manufacturers and nurseries.
In that period, the Association has also sidled up to SAPCA, and is an active sponsor of synthetic conferences. Indeed, the CEO is speaking at the Technical Sports Surface Conference, a conference entirely about the synthetic revolution and whose aim is 'to focus on further developing the use of synthetic turf within the sporting market'.
For all of you only interested in golf, perhaps you should be asking the question as to why your Association, BIGGA, is listed as a supporter? Maybe this is the thin end of the wedge for golf too. Can't you see tees and greens (and why not fairways) covered in 'indistinguishable from natural grass' plastic in the not too distant future? All year round golf, 200,000 rounds a year - the coffers will be full to the brim!
We all said it would never happen in mainstream sport but, over the last few years, synthetics have crept into Eastern and Western Europe, at first in countries that suffered severe inclement weather, but now it's at our doorstep - Widnes RFL, Gosforth RFU and Maidstone and New Saints football clubs play on it, and there is a motion within the Football League by some Chairmen (Wycombe Wanderers to name one) to bring it back.
Recently, I read an article by Mark Hughes advocating its return, and the blogs on the BBC Sport website are abound with opinion, much in favour of the new 3G and 4G surfaces.
We accept that there is a place for these surfaces, for example, areas suffering high use in urban and built up areas, schools, even as a back up at Premiership training grounds, but now the threat has become reality and the re-introduction into stadiums is on the cards.
You've studied sportsturf management, gained qualifications, managed multiple sites, and learnt from every experience. I assume that you're still learning each day, as new research data becomes available, the climate and legislation changes, and new products are brought to market? If you were in the position of say, Wayne Lumbard at Wolverhampton Wanderers or Darren Baldwin at Tottenham Hotspur, and the club decided to look into the feasibility of an artificial pitch at the stadium, how would you feel? What would you do? Where would you turn for help and support in stating your case to keep a natural turf pitch? How would you piece together a counter-argument for the sales pitch being made by the carpet supplier and/or contractor? And, if the club pressed ahead and installed the artificial pitch, how would you feel about your job and what would you do next?
There are stadium Groundsmen in the UK right now in that situation.
It's not that I don't understand why clubs are looking at artificials - they see an opportunity to increase revenue and, in some cases, to continue trading. But the IOG isn't there to represent the choice of surface - it's there to represent the Groundsman. That said, the IOG's income and provision of services is dependent upon the mower manufacturers, seed houses, fertiliser companies that make up the natural turf industry and, for them, trading in the sports market is critical. The IOG cannot continue to take these companies' money and not commit to the ongoing use of natural turf. Sadly though, that's exactly what they have been doing.
I can't blame the CEO at the IOG, as I said, he has no affinity with our profession. The past and present Boards of the Association, many of whom are supposed to be dedicated and passionate Groundsmen, must accept responsibility for failing to remain focused on the people they represent - groundsmen. I'd hang my head in shame for allowing even the slightest murmur of approval towards artificial, let alone allowing my own body to support them financially and speak at these conferences. And don't let me stop at Board level. Recently, an independent article written on our website was criticised by some members as 'just another pop at the IOG'. It wasn't a pop; it was a wake-up call.
For over 75 years, the very existence of the IOG has been wholeheartedly supported by the seed, turf, fertiliser, chemical and machinery companies. Every single one of those long standing supporters must be now feeling at a dead loss as to which direction the IOG is going, and questioning why any financial support is even heading in that direction. We'll no doubt hear that the IOG is an 'all encompassing Association' that has to cover all bases, but on the subject of artificial surfaces in professional sport they have manoeuvred themselves into a position that has left them backed into a corner facing the most embarrassing of U-turns.
They had remained silent on the subject, until the news broke that members of the Football League were putting synthetics back on the agenda. Suddenly a press statement emerged about their "serious concerns about any replacement of natural turf with artificial turf in professional sport".
They've worked behind the scenes for years with the FA and RFU, and said nothing when other clubs already mentioned made their decisions. Don't be fooled by this political shifting of saying the right things when necessary to avert criticism. There is a clear agenda in place, and it doesn't currently include much of a future for professional sports Groundsmen or natural grass.
Here is a quote left on the Pitchcare website from the organiser of the synthetic turf conference. Regardless of whatever natural grass sport you are involved in, the future could start looking bleak if you don't stand up and be counted. "No one in their right mind would choose to re-carpet, for example, a beautiful natural facility like St Andrews... however in that particular market segment, for example, there is a quantifiable market for synthetic within the borders, practice areas and greens. So it logically follows that where synthetic is identified as being able to add further playability and value to a sporting facility - be it rugby, football, cricket, whatever - then well thought out and product specific maintenance also needs to be carried out by competent professional Groundsmen, and the important bodies within the industry generally are now looking to the future and identifying that aspect as a relevant part of the provision of well rounded and comprehensive training to their members."
Let's get the Institute of Groundsmanship back to what it was devised to do - look after the interests of Groundsmen. If it is allowed to continue in its present direction, then those time served years gaining all your knowledge and experience will have been wasted and your job replaced with a janitorial role. Mind you, the current hierarchy will just move with the times, so be prepared to see disinfectants, mops and brooms coming to a SALTEX near you!