In this special edition of Talking Turf, we speak with Director of Turf and Grounds, Mike Kerns, at the brand-new Snapdragon Stadium. We discover what it's like to be involved in a new development and how he manages turf in a fixed warm climate.
John Marland, Head of Amenity at Agrovista, was the lucky correspondent and commented: "After what feels like a very long spring and summer, I decided to take a holiday and visit family in the USA - it just so happens Manchester United were playing a pre-season friendly against Wrexham just a short drive from where I was staying so, as a life-long red, it would have been rude not to attend! I don't consider working in this industry a job, I genuinely love what I do, so I jumped at the opportunity to chat to Mike Kerns at the new stadium."
"Once I had arranged the meeting - my introduction as a roving reporter for Pitchcare magazine (under Kerry's expert guidance), I started considering the differences in warm and cool season approaches and the type of questions I may ask. Whilst thinking, it made me reflect on the challenges the UK turf management community face, as opposed to those working in a fixed warm climate… OK call it what it is - HOT!"
Mike gave us a brief analysis of the current climate of his new pitch: "This field has been in since May 15th and the centre of the field to the six-yard box got repaired a few weeks ago. There are a number of teams who use the facility and we have to cater for all their requirements. We knew that we had an NWSL game on the Saturday and they decided they would like to reset it. We replaced the playing surface on the Sunday for a Concacaf Gold Cup semi-final match between USA and Panama. It took roughly twelve hours for contractors to come in, strip the middle and lay sods of turf, all within one day."
"In these summer months, nitrogen levels drop significantly low because we don't need it, but the new turf has knitted tightly. We've cut everyday and it feels like it is repairing itself. Our calendar ultimately dictates how we manage the turf and we can only do what is possible, but we do not want one soccer team playing to a high standard and another team playing on a lower standard."
Mike gave an insight into his routine as he prepared for his first visit of a Premier League side: "Ten days before the event, we contracted DryJect Southwest to relieve compaction. The water-based injection system blasts aeration holes through the root zone to fracture the soil at three-by-three spacing. We're trying to find new ways to incorporate sand into our profile because we have such a large soccer presence. This process allows increased water filtration, compaction relief and it also alleviates the dual process of stamping and then brushing back in. It cores and topdresses in one pass, which usually takes about five hours in total."
"We also have a tractor-mounted aerator that we use regularly to get oxygen in. It is my first time hosting a Premier League game and you want everyone involved to arrive and experience the same things as everybody else - high quality playing surfaces."
New stadium development
Back in 2017, when the NFL's Chargers decided to move from what was then SDCCU Stadium to the Los Angeles area, the focus began on building a new stadium for the Aztecs. Over the course of the next two years, the plan for what would become Snapdragon Stadium and the rest of the SDSU Mission Valley development took shape. Mike outlined what the experience has been like: "It's nice as I have input into the management of the stadium and the developments. To open a stadium is a unique thing; it has been a huge challenge and it's something that I don't know if I'll ever do again. The growing of the new pitch has been the trickiest part."
With the stadium playing host to a number of different sports including football, lacrosse and rugby - as well as a handful of concerts, Mike explained how he manages the transitions. "San Diego State owns the building and then we have an NWSL club and the rugby club. We could have a Saturday NWSL game at 7:00pm, followed by a 1:00pm kick off for rugby the next day and, in that that time, the team have to remove lines to the best of our ability. The biggest challenge we have here, is making sure every tenant feels at home!"
"It makes my job so much harder, as there are obvious playability and player safety issues to consider. Lacrosse for example does an immense amount of damage to the surface; this means that a lot of recovery and work has to happen to get the pitch playable. After a lacrosse game, we have to reset completely, and my personal opinion is that it should not be played on natural grass."
Stadium management is continually growing and Mike tips his hat to technology for being a key factor to his role. "The one difference I think here to overseas is that technology is more advanced; here, we have turf pods that read all of the information that we need. White pods provide the soil temperature - which allows me to monitor what the turf is doing, and salinity is important. We have two of these pods and four more currently on order. Once we have six of them, it can create a heat map on the playing surface to determine drier or warmer areas - allowing a full understanding of the turf. We also have eight irrigation zones that run north to south."
With the world of stadium management changing to a more business environment, Mike talked us through what that is like and how he has incorporated a money focus alongside pitch focus. "We would all love to have a pitch and a playing surface that stays in great shape all year round. Unfortunately, the stadium needs to make money and it's my job to adapt and facilitate events to allow a stream of revenue. It used to be all about creating the best surface for sport, but now we have to think about off-season concerts and events that can be held in the arena to increase revenue."
"It's not just agronomy anymore; it's agronomy inside the schedule of money-making. Look at what's happening in Europe in the Premier League. Some things are more important to me and you have to pick your battles. As long as it is safe for players, you know that you have produced a good enough surface. The aesthetics might not be top quality, but as long as it plays well and you know it's safe for the players, then that's the ideal."
My journey began with a summer job working at a golf course. I worked from 16 until I graduated, and I was like, well, what am I going to do now? I took a year off from school and then decided that this is what I wanted to do. I went to Rutgers University in New Jersey where I would stay in a hotel for ten weeks at a time during term.
I worked with the Seattle Mariners; changing their field from a baseball field to a soccer field and learnt everything about managing turf and pests, weeds, diseases etc. I spent a year up there before this opportunity arose and it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to build a stadium from the ground up… very few people get that chance, and I would encourage everyone to push themselves in their careers."