The silence is deafening - it's time to make a stand
Before putting 'fingers to keyboard' on this article, I'd like to firstly make it known that its contents are my personal view. I have chosen to publish it to raise awareness of what I see to be one of the most important issues to face the profession of groundsmanship.
I've worked in the UK turf industry for 10 years as a marketer and writer. My partner is also a groundsman, as is my son, the fifth generation of his family to join the profession.
Monitoring the progress of our industry, not just in the UK but globally, is a vital aspect of my work. New projects, products, people, companies and trends all influence the way we work now and shape the way we'll work in the future.
Artificial turf has been making its way into European stadia over the past few years, and when I came into the industry ten years ago I was convinced that it would only be a matter of time until it's installed in a major sports venue in the UK.
I'd worked in football as a Marketing Manager before coming in to the industry, where my role was to ensure that the stadium reached its full commercial potential, hosting weddings, parties, conferences and seminars, product launches, awards dinners and countless other events to draw in paying customers on non-matchdays.
Several weeks ago, I read in the online version of a regional newspaper that Rugby League Super League side, Widnes Vikings, have decided to install a synthetic pitch in their stadium.
According to the article, the third generation (3G) 'i-pitch' is being installed by Desso Sports Systems and will be ready for play in February 2012. The club has been granted permission to install and use it for matches by the RFL, and the RFL is now seeking permission from the Rugby League International Federation for it to be used for European matches.
You can read the article here:
In my experience of monitoring the marketing of artificial turf, the content of this article is typical of the one-sided 'spin' that companies disseminate in the hope of persuading venue managers that natural turf is not a viable option.
Major conferences such as the Turf & Grass Expo (www.turfandgrassexpo.com) and the forthcoming Technical Sports Show (www.technicalsportsurfaces2012.com) are being staged by artificial turf companies with the intention of selling the benefits of artificial turf over natural turf.
The second event, as you will see from the link, opens its homepage by stating that '…the show will focus on further developing the use of synthetic turf within the sporting market…' You'll note the IOG logo amongst the other sponsors logos at the foot of the page.
Whilst most people involved in the natural turf industry accept that artificial surfaces have their place in sport, they would also like venue managers to be similarly educated about the benefits of investing in the construction and maintenance of natural turf facilities and in the professionals who maintain them.
I believe that the Institute of Groundsmanship should be making a stand against the encroachment of artificial surfaces into professional sport in the UK because the jobs of professional groundsmen will be threatened.
I absolutely agree that artificial surfaces have their place and that their maintenance is part and parcel of modern grounds management, but I also believe that the IOG, as the representative body for professional groundsmen, should come off the fence and state, unequivocally, that it will not accept, support or condone the use of artificial turf in sports stadia.
To wait for it to happen until they react will be locking the stable door after the horse has bolted. Action needs to be taken now. Here's why:
Maidstone United FC has just begun work on its new stadium at Whatman Way, the first stadium in the UK to be built with an artificial pitch. It is due for completion in readiness for the 2012-2013 season.
Wikipedia states that: 'Rather than the traditional choice of grass, Maidstone will be the first team to build a stadium with 3rd generation artificial turf. The reasons for going with 3G turf were twofold, the first being to eliminate match postponements caused by waterlogging and freezing conditions, and the second is so that the pitch can be hired out, bringing in vital funds for the club. A major downside of the 3G pitch is that so far the club has only gained permission to use the pitch in the Isthmian League and the FA Trophy. The club have yet to receive permission to use the pitch for matches in the FA Cup and Football Conference (Conference National / North & South). Maidstone would be able to play FA Cup matches at a neutral venue or the home ground of their opponents but promotion to the Football Conference would not be possible until permission is granted from the league or the 3G turf is replaced with grass.'
The artificial turf company laying the carpet has undoubtedly done a good job of selling its benefits to the club's financiers. Who is providing the counter-argument on behalf of investing in a well-constructed natural turf pitch, the latest machinery and a skilled groundsman? I believe that this is the job of the IOG and the natural turf industry.
Maidstone FC is seeking urgent approval from the FA to play FA Cup and Conference matches on the new surface. If they get that approval, it will surely open the floodgates for other clubs seeking to maximise revenue by opting for synthetic pitches.
The encroachment of synthetic surfaces into professional sport in the UK poses a threat to the profession of groundsmanship and to the turf industry as a whole. There is no doubt in my mind that we must now state the case for natural turf within professional sport in a more robust manner.
The IOG said in a statement: "Over the last 12 months we have been putting plans in place to ensure the IOG is financially secure in the future". Does the IOG need to re-focus? Their role isn't about accumulating money; it's about groundsmanship.
This article is not about artificial v natural; after all, the IOG's remit is not to champion natural turf. It's about ensuring that groundsmen and their skills in producing and maintaining high-quality turf are represented and championed, particularly to those in positions of influence.
The IOG's strategy is called 'Challenging perceptions'. I'd like to share my concern about the perception of the IOG's current status in relation to synthetic turf.
I am concerned that, by sponsoring artificial turf conferences, by promoting the education of groundsmen in the maintenance of artificial surfaces, by the inclusion of multiple articles about artificial surfaces in its magazines, but mainly because of its failure to state otherwise, the governing bodies of sport - the FA, RFL, RFU - consider the IOG fully supportive of the use of artificial surfaces and the ideology that their use is the way forward for the future.
If you were the Chairman of Maidstone FC or Widnes Vikings, would you not mention in your meeting with the FA / RFL, that the IOG supports this type of playing surface?
But that's just me. I'm not a groundsman. It's your organisation, your industry, your profession, your future.