0 ARE SYNTHETIC PITCHES THE FUTURE?

ARE SYNTHETIC PITCHES THE FUTURE?

By Dave Saltman

Day One

Last week Stadia magazine hosted their inaugural sports turf summit 2003 at the Amsterdam arena in Holland. Amid concerns over the state of natural grass pitches, both UEFA and FIFA have looked in depth at the advances made in the synthetic industry.

The two-day event featured leading experts from FIFA, UEFA, National football associations, players? associations, sports injuries professionals and speakers from both the synthetic and natural grass industries.

The event kicked-off with an official welcome chaired by Andrew Warshaw, sports writer for the Sunday Telegraph who talked about modern stadia, the conference and the speakers.

FIFA spoke first in the shape of Sepp Blatter (President) through a recorded video address. He referred to the improvement in stadia becoming bigger, taller and more enclosed, a "better place for supporters to come to." He went on the point out that due to the enclosed nature of many of the new stadia, the game had to consider the possibility of a re-introduction of synthetic playing surfaces. He said "I am confident that the synthetic industry will be able to provide one decent product for future football needs. Football is a traditional game that did not like change and that change is inevitably always slow, but football is the most popular game on the planet and has survived, despite intense media pressure for the last hundred years."

He went on to say that history would be made in Finland at the under 17's world cup when the first competitive FIFA match would be played on artificial turf. But he insisted that FIFA would continue to push forward in research and development of artificial turf and added that they would be fully committed to cooperating with all members of the football family.

There were presentations by representatives from both FIFA and UEFA following Sepp Blatter?s Video appearance.

Both organisations talked about their outlines and policies and their work to date on synthetic turf. Unfortunately it appears that UEFA and FIFA are providing different standards for the synthetic industry to follow.

These were followed by questions from the floor by the synthetics manufacturers who raised their concerns about the two different and conflicting standards being set by the two major football organisations.

One of UEFA?s main topics is the introduction of a pilot scheme at 5 stadium venues in Europe using synthetic turf for the next two years. The partner stadia are: Luzhniki stadium in Moscow, the Oerobro stadium in Sweden, the Denizlispor stadium in Turkey, the Heracles Almelo stadium in Holland and the Salzburg stadium in Austria. There will be a potential for use at these stadiums in UEFA?s top competitions.

The overall requirement of both sets of standards for FIFA and UEFA is that pitches must pass stringent laboratory and field testing.

Ernie Walker, head of UEFA?s stadia committee, said that the referee determines whether a surface is fit for play. These days the best artificial third generation surfaces are better than our average natural grass pitches. UEFA has been working diligently to prepare for what is coming, "when the right surface is manufactured it will be used from day one at the highest levels of football."

Eric Harrison, turf consultant to FIFA, said that it was up to the game?s world wide governing body to create a recognised single standard for football equipment from footballs to playing surfaces. There are certification programmes in place now to provide license agreements for manufacturers. This ensures that players benefit from consistent product quality and that clubs and communities can easily recognise these products. He finished by asking "with so many factors effecting turf in stadia, can a consistent and quality standard be provided for natural grass pitches ?"

After lunch, we heard the views of some of the national football associations starting with Steve Williams, national facilities manager for the English F.A., who explained that the FA were looking to introduce a two tier system of pitch standards which covered both synthetic and natural turf. The two tiers would include an elite standard for professional football and one for local authorities and schools providing access for younger players. He said there would be a review with the natural turf industry soon.

The FA and the synthetic industry need to create confidence of third generation products but are still short on addressing maintenance issues, cost of works and lack of available maintenance experience and training of staff. The correct maintenance equipment needs to be identified and the FA needs to ensure best price of products.

Norwegian FA spokesman Ole Myhrvold (facilities/construction manager) explained that due to the harsh climate they had played for 26 years on artificial grass and that testing artificials had been ongoing for the last 23 years. Currently there are 150 synthetic pitches in Norway with 20,000 teams playing 300,000 games per year upon them.

Because of the inclement weather experienced in Norway, the facilities gave everyone who wants to play football, access to good quality pitches for matches and training both in and outdoor. "The climate that we have in Norway is a real challenge, with half the country inside the arctic circle and receiving no sunlight for half the year." There are 50 new artificial pitches planned to be built every year in Norway. All football divisions below the Premier League have accepted the use of artificial grass since 1987. From this year , the Norwegian Premier League will also accept and use artificial turf, now that it has been proven to the players and trainers.

It made commercial sense for the Norwegian clubs to gain more use from their pitches, he said. ?Artificial pitches meant that games were unlikely to be called off which increased TV rights and brought more money into the game.?

Following the views of the national football associations, Jeff Perris, head of consulting of the Sports Turf Research Institute, UK, spoke of the natural challenges.

He opened with "in many cases we create our own problems of grass maintenance and there are options available to improve natural grass in stadia. The environmental effects upon turf grass include light levels, temperature, air movement over the surface. Fundamentally stadia provide shade to the grass which encourages longer shoot growth, poorer shoot density, shorter root action and disease susceptibility, the results of which make the grass more prone to wear so that it kicks out easily." He then posed the question, "how do you improve light levels?". The interaction of sports turf experts and architects in the stadium design can produce schemes to include lower south stands, translucent roof panelling and even transportable pitches. Latest developments include the use of artificial light within the stadia. Other positives include new grass cultivars that grow well and withstand wear in low light conditions.

Chris Gleeson, Facilities Manager at Chelsea Football Club, talked about the problems of the much highlighted pitch at Stamford Bridge. He said: ?the development of the stadium in particular the new 30 metre high west stand have compounded the problems of grass growth. The undersoil heating pipes had been laid too close to the surface making it difficult for cultural maintenance to take place.

The heavy rainfall through the Christmas period combined with a busy game schedule had led to the demise of the grass on the pitch.? This was brought starkly into view when the game against Charlton Athletic was televised. At the end of the season, Chelsea will be relaying a new natural grass pitch introducing a Fibreturf reinforced system. Chris Gleeson said ?we are looking at ways to get more natural light into the stadium. One possibility is draping large white plastic sheets from the roof of the east stand to reflect sunlight onto the pitch.?

A presentation followed by Henk van Raan, Stadium director of the host venue. The Amsterdam Arena is an inhospitable place for growing grass. It has a closing roof and wrap around stadium and there is no ventilation or sufficient light levels to sustain natural grass. The stadium was opened in the summer of 1996 and it soon became clear that they would have to develop a new pitch management strategy.

Regular re-turfing appeared to be the only solution and initially each re-turf took two weeks to complete. With four or five re-turfing exercises a year, for ten weeks the stadium was out of use for major events. By 1998, the turfing operation and the quality of the turf used was very good. Each re-turf operation could be done in half the time. Now other stadia were also employing similar tactics and there was shared knowledge and investment of machinery. By the year 2000 techniques had improved further and the pitch could be stripped and re-turfed ready for playing in as little as three to four days.

Today, the availability of shade-resistant grass varieties and minor improvements in the efficiency and quality of re-turfing have meant that the Amsterdam arena is only re-turfed four times a year resulting in only 12 days down time.

He ended by saying "There is no doubt that for the Amsterdam arena to become profitable, the introduction of synthetics is not only inevitable but welcome."

Following on from Henk van Raan, the Amsterdam Arena?s General manager, Ben Veenbink discussed his stadium?s design. It was not uncommon in all stadium?s designs that specifications were for increased spectator comforts rather than the provision of natural turf. Innovative but expensive solutions are required to retain natural turf in modern stadia. In the current economic climate, stadia are seen more as profit machines and as such, need to host more events.

The Amsterdam Arena seats 52,000 people and cost £100 million to build. Last year nearly 60 events attracted 1.2 million visitors. The annual cost for maintaining and re-turfing the pitch is approximately £350,000. The introduction of a synthetic surface would reduce maintenance costs, increase the stadium?s multi-functional use, providing almost unlimited playing opportunity and training on the pitch. With the artificial surface there would be no limitations to any future development of the stadium.

The cost of maintaining the synthetic surface would save the stadium approximately £300,000 per year, but the ability to host additional events would provide between £200,000 and £350,000 increased profit. There would also be a £100,000 saving on training costs. In total, there would be a total cost saving of between £800,000 and a £1 million.

The artificial pitch installation including under floor heating and covering would be between £800,000 and a £1 million. The cost therefore would be paid back in its first year of use.

In stark contrast, Jan van Merwijk, Stadium Director, of Feyenoord, asked the question, synthetics or natural turf? ?Is it nostalgia versus innovation?? he asked.

At Feyenoord?s stadium there was no commercial need for nor any obligation to play on a synthetic surface. The stadium hosts pop concerts and other events but football is the priority with both Feyenoord and the Dutch National Team playing matches. Positive exploitation of the stadium makes Feyenoord one of the few football venues profitable. He finished by asking: ?if you choose the synthetic route, do it for the right reasons, don?t just follow the herd.?

The final speaker of the afternoon was George Mullen, Director of Support in Sport. He said that it was a fact of life that football would progress to the use of synthetics. Re-turfing and other models are an option but at what cost ? But he added that there must be a hint of caution to the artificial industry that it could not afford not to get it right this time. Ultimately artificial grass, like natural grass, cannot beat the weather in certain situations.

I will be adding Day 2's proceedings shortly with some comments and questions that still need to be asked, if you have strong feelings, either way, about what you've read then please drop us an e-mail with your comments and we'll publish all responses that are appropriate. This is probably one of the biggest discussions to involve our Industry, the re-introduction of synthetics at the highest levels will cause many repercussions so get writing to mail@pitchcare.com

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