SIS Conference highlights the role of synthetic turf
By Sue Meeken
Artificial turf surfaces should not be seen as a direct challenge to conventional grass pitches. They are complementary and are particularly well suited to use in situations where a specific standard of playability has to be maintained, or where heavy or multi-usage is anticipated for maximum revenue opportunities.
That was the main conclusion of 'Artificial Turf - Is it the Future?', a conference held recently in London, organised by SIS (UK) Ltd (Support in Sport) in association with Greenfields Sports Turf Systems. Greenfields have developed a man-made turf called United, one of only two such products to have met stringent standards set by UEFA for soccer usage at the highest levels. SIS, who design and build both natural and synthetic pitches throughout Europe, are distributors and approved installers of the United system and the Greenfield range of synthetic products.
United is a 'third generation' synthetic which offers a standard of playability and uniformity that was previously impossible to achieve. The first systems that appeared about 40 years ago were simply carpet-like products without any infill material. Second generation systems appeared with infills such as sand to give better ball bounce. Using the latest technology, third generation synthetics feature sand/rubber infill or 100% rubber infill which allows the full-length studs of normal sports boots to be accommodated, as up to 15mm of the fibres show above the infill. In practice, the playing characteristics of the pitch can be controlled, and its resilience compared with natural turf means that clubs can use the pitch for major revenue-earners like concerts and exhibitions.
Speaking at the London conference, SIS Chief Executive Officer, George Mullan, explained how natural and synthetic pitches had different roles. He suggested that natural grass could typically accommodate 300 hours of play per year, with reinforced turf (systems incorporating plastic fibres with real grass) achieving around 800 hours. However, artificial systems could provide over 3,000 hours of play annually, making them the obvious choice for heavily used local authority pitches, and for clubs requiring a resilient multi-use surface for non-sporting events.
"Clubs have to decide which sort of surface will suit them best according to their individual circumstances," said George Mullan. "Besides the obvious consideration of funding, they need to consider the requirements of sporting governing bodies in terms of pitch quality, the return they expect on their investment, and the running costs in terms of pitch care and personnel, since good quality artificial turf is not maintenance-free."
George Mullan suggested that constructing a United pitch could be down in 12-16 weeks, but that it was essential to ensure that high-quality materials meeting the appropriate performance criteria were used. The sub-base of crushed stone or lava material, and the pitch infill, had to meet standards of uniformity, and levels had to be scrupulously maintained at all stages of construction. SIS has developed special machinery to sure these criteria are met.
George Mullan predicted that real and synthetic surfaces would coexist with each other. "Proper maintenance could allow many natural grass pitches to achieve high standards but the commercial reality is that, in many cases, third generation systems represent the only way forward to maximise playability. To date, the UK has proved more reluctant to adopt artificial turf, but more clients are now doing so; and it is likely that in mainland Europe, many major stadiums will be incorporating synthetic turf to increase levels of performance and revenue opportunity. And in the future, perhaps as many as 50% of school and council pitches in the UK could be synthetic. This is achievable if high-quality systems like the Greenfield range are adopted."
Hugo de Vries, Joint Managing Director of Greenfields, explained to conference delegates how the United system had been developed to meet the requirements of soccer at the highest level. Its performance achieved standards of playability laid down by governing bodies, such as UEFA, based on the characteristics of the best natural turf and on the preferences expressed by professional footballers.
He described how man-made systems had to resemble natural turf and that they must be devised in a way that enabled them to meet the required performance standard in any location. The pitch had to be durable, environmentally safe, able to retain water, and easily maintained. United achieved this by utilising a synthetic made from polyethylene and soft nylon monofilaments, with an infill comprising clean-cut pieces of rubber/elastomer compound.
Alan Ferguson, Head Groundsman at Ipswich Town FC, provided delegates with a turf manager's view of synthetic pitches and their maintenance. He said that the degree of maintenance work required was in direct proportion to the amount of usage the surface received. "A maintenance regime has to be established that recognises the level of use. Essential tasks include brushing on a daily or weekly basis, which helps keep the fibres standing upright and maintains a natural grass-like appearance.
"Intense daily use of the pitch will require light brushing at least every second day. A pass with a machine on a full-size pitch will take around 2-3 hours. More intensive brushing will be needed on a surface subjected to even greater levels of wear, perhaps more than 50 hours per week, and this brushing operation could take 6 hours." He pointed out that the revenue potential, however, was enormous, given the pitch's ability to withstand training and community use, as well as top-level matches, along with non-sporting events.The interest shown in the SIS conference, and the vigorous question-and-answer session that ensued, confirmed the high level of interest in the natural/synthetic pitch debates. As George Mullan comments, "There is obviously a tremendous amount of knowledge and skill amongst UK Groundsmen, maintaining natural pitches to very high standards. It's also striking that individual European countries currently show different levels of interest in synthetic pitch provision. Both systems will continue to be in demand, but for heavily used, multi-use stadiums, third generation synthetics like United are a sensible, and economically essential, way forward".