4 Will artificial pitches become footballs latest substitution?

Will artificial pitches become footballs latest substitution?

By Colin Ashman

(Edited by Alex Vickers)

Introduction:

The on going debate about the possible replacement of natural grass surfaces with artificial surfaces for football has given rise to many opinions on the subject. This article attempts to look at the broader issues relating to artificial grass surfaces and attempts to examine the different roles such surfaces may play in the future of the sport.

Where did it all go wrong for the first artificial football pitches?

In the late 70's and early eighties 1st and 2ndgeneration artificial pitches (which in some cases incorporated materials such as sand into the carpet pile) were being installed to increase surface usage and reduce maintenance costs at grounds across the country. Three such installations included the now notorious pitches at Queens Park Rangers, Luton and Oldham, which were eventually replaced by natural turf.

The poor performance of these earlier constructions proved that natural turf was still the best surface for football, because artificial pitches at that time with a high ball bounce and fast ball roll had failed to improve upon or even match the performance of natural grass.

During the eighties events happened that would change the future of stadia turf management. Already 'super stadia' were being erected but the Taylor Report in 1989 (a result of the Hillsborough disaster) produced recommendations that would make football stadia safer for future generations of football fans. The report included recommendations for all-seater stadia, which meant that stadia capacity would be lower and roofing would be needed. To increase or maintain the capacity most stadia are now built fully enclosed, restricting both light and air movement to the playing surface. All-seater stadiums have been one of the main causes for the loss of a suitable environment for healthy natural turf, and thus, its recent loss of favour with the managers of such "super-stadia".

During the past twenty years artificial turf surfaces have continued to be developed and 'revolutionise' sports such as hockey, whilst keeping a lower profile within football. Recently though, with the development of the new 3rd generation surface, changes in stadia environment and the subsequent amendment of the regulations pertaining to the use of artificial pitches in competitions, has caused the debate to resurface about the use of artificial turf in football.

Earlier artificial pitch constructions had failed in the past, partly because there was a strong but unfounded belief that man-made turf surfaces were superior to natural turf for providing the best performance. Nowadays though, the tactic has been to imitate natural turf, and the production of third generation pitches has given rise to the greatest threat to natural turf pitches since the beginning of the game over a century ago.

The UEFA trials?

Currently the 2-year UEFA trials on third generation artificial pitches are continuing, despite these trials not being concluded, UEFA have recently approved their use. No doubt the report on their 'success' in trials will be due out in time. Do we have to wait for the ballistics report whilst footballs governing bodies are holding the smoking gun?

Reading the UEFA standard recently I discovered that even before trials, artificial pitches were seen as the future of the sport, to quote Lennart Johansson 'new types of artificial turf are an excellent alternative to natural turf.' How does he know if the trials aren't even finished? He also states 'UEFA is in no way attempting to promote artificial turf to the detriment of natural grass.' Could have fooled me!

With even football's governing bodies behind a move towards artificial pitches, what can we expect to happen to natural turf pitches? What role do these two surfaces have in the future of football?

Natural versus Artificial:

These surfaces will still continue to be used for sport, but the role they play in football may differ in the future. In my opinion there are three roles that artificial pitches can take:

1. Successive

The role of the artificial pitch is the predominant surface for football and desired above natural turf. This would be similar to modern artificial hockey pitches, which have superseded traditional natural grass hockey pitches, and now provide a surface preferred by players and coaches.

2. Supportive

The role of the artificial pitch is to reduce the amount of wear caused to natural turf due to inclement weather or excessive training, however the preferred surface for football is predominantly natural turf. In this capacity natural turf pitches will be higher in quality due to the reduction in wear.

In many cases in the UK, artificial cricket wickets have provided a supportive role for natural pitches, but have not replaced them as being the preferred choice of surface amongst players and coaches.

3. Complementary

This role involves the use of both materials in the same surface. Systems such as Xtra Grass and Desso GrassMaster are not new but with further development in this area they could become a major advance in providing a higher performance 'natural' turf surface for football in a stadia environment.

The opinions of both players and coaches will be a major influence in deciding the future role of artificial pitches in the UK. With the artificial product better this time round it is almost certain that it will play a future role in football. Whatever the role, I hope that it isn't influenced purely by financial gain, causing the further loss of even more playing fields.

To give a more accurate opinion of the possible use of artificial pitches in the future I have split the next section into two categories:

  • · The future role of artificial turf at schools and clubs
  • · The future role of artificial turf in professional football

The future role of artificial surfaces at schools and clubs:

Many schools, colleges and sports centres have to accommodate a large number of different sports with limited space and a limited budget, therefore the use of artificials at these venues appears to be a viable option, but will there be a huge demand for artificials in the future?

Space costs money, and schools and clubs cannot afford to waste either, therefore the cricket outfield becomes two football or rugby pitches and most probably has a couple of Rounders pitches marked on the boundary. In this situation it would be very difficult or unwise to install artificial pitches. It is in this context that I find it difficult to associate Multi Use Games Surfaces with artificials, which are generally only developed for one particular sport.

Any school or club wishing to hire out their facilities will need to consider the added costs of administration, marketing and the services that are required after the installation of an artificial pitch to gain the maximum financial benefit. Contamination will gradually reduce the surface performance of the pitch, and could reduce its lifespan if left uncontrolled; therefore, measures to reduce or prevent contamination will need to be considered. Control measures such as suitable paths and fencing, as well as local car parking, changing facilities and a suitable warm-up area, will reduce contamination, prolonging the life of the surface and increase revenue, but also causing an increase in the cost of installation (which will need to be recovered). As more artificial pitch installations are completed, however, revenue generated by individual pitches may become reduced- a result of increased competition from multiple pitch installations for the same market.

We must also consider that artificial surfaces can be used at a frequency up to 10 times greater than natural surfaces, so it would be fair to say that schools and clubs would not need a great many artificial pitches to accommodate the same level of use. During high demand periods such as match days and tournaments many teams will find themselves without a pitch to play on unless they continue to use natural grass. It would not be financially economic to have artificial pitches simply waiting to be used during high demand periods.

It is with these points in mind that I consider the role of artificials at schools and clubs to be more likely a 'supportive' one. Artificial pitches will most often be used for training, and games played in dark evenings or in bad weather, allowing natural turf surfaces to be kept to a much higher standard, and providing an excellent facility to advance the sport on a school and amateur basis.

The future role of artificial turf in professional football:

How artificial and natural football surfaces will integrate together in the future is still open to much debate, but in the short term at least, I think that at football stadia more 3G pitches will be installed, to ultimately increase revenue, or consequently reduce costs.

Two of the challenges to these 3G pitches will be their resistance to contamination, and the legalities of player injury. It seems ironic that we had to develop a man-made solution to the man-made problems caused by poor stadia design, but if we are responsible for the manufacture of these surfaces, then we are also liable for the injuries sustained by players using them. Research into the long-term effects of using these surfaces is still only in its infancy!

It is worth noting that there does appear to be a superstition about injuries caused by playing on artificial surfaces. This negative feeling may cause players to be more cautious during matches and therefore affect the game. Spectators do not play the high gate fees to watch a game where players are playing cautiously.

In the long-term artificial surfaces may fail to dominate the professional game due to restrictions in their availability at the amateur level. High installation costs and increased competition for revenue from other installations and other facilities (such as sports halls) may mean that multiple artificial pitch installations become unviable at amateur levels, thus reducing availability, and resulting in the continued development of grass roots football on natural grass.

If however, the initial cost of artificial pitch installation is reduced or financial assistance is given by organisations such as football's governing bodies, then multiple artificial pitch installations could become more viable and more accessible for the future development of football at all levels. In this scenario it could be possible that a higher percentage of natural turf pitches will be replaced by artificials, which would then take on the successive role.

Finally:

Throughout the history of football, natural turf has always provided the playing surface. Football itself was developed on natural turf; however, recent changes in both modern stadia design, artificial surfaces, and rule changes have caused a serious threat to the future of football on its traditional surface.

Synthetic pitches have been around for about forty years, but have only evolved three times, natural turf surfaces however evolve everyday. When 3rd generation pitches are laid contamination levels and wear will begin to have an effect on performance, however, natural turf will continue developing and improving. Natural turf doesn't resist wear it recovers from it. Synthetic pitches are only maintained; natural turf is managed!

Stadia managers may be the people who decide to install an artificial pitch, but it will be economics as well as the opinions of the players, coaches and spectators that will decide whether they are a success or not.
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