Grass is great, but when it comes to sports fields, an artificial turf field is the natural choice for just about every sport. Artificial turf surfaces are replacing natural grass for training, competition, and multi-use sports fields at every level of play. As the differences in quality and playability between the two grass types get ever smaller, the comparative advantages of turf when it comes to cost, revenue potential, ease of maintenance, and sustainability are increasing.
Whether you are renovating an existing turf field, converting grass to turf, or building a new sports facility, this guide will answer all the big questions you have and get you started on each major step of the planning process. Ultimately, you’ll work through the details with the team of specialists and vendors you’ll assemble to fulfill your vision for a turf field.
Let’s kick things off.
Ever wonder why we call artificial turf “AstroTurf?” Use Bing or DuckDuckGo to Google it. AstroTurf is like that, the brand name of a product that’s become the all-purpose, go-to word for an entire family of products.
AstroTurf was the pioneer of artificial turf. Like Gatorade – another brand name that people use to refer to a range of products, including competitors – Astroturf takes its name from where it all started: the Houston Astros’ old home, the Astrodome. AstroTurf launched the artificial turf industry in the late 1960s, as sports teams recognized the advantages of less maintenance and greater longevity that artificial turf has over natural grass fields.
Over the next 50 years, artificial turf fields have evolved with advances in materials science, manufacturing, structural engineering and sport science. Sports facility owners can select the appropriate size and composition of the fibers used for the turf. They can choose from a variety of infill materials, ranging from all-natural cork to environmentally friendly post-consumer plastics. These visible components and the underlying supporting layers are customized for the sport (more shock absorbent for a football field, “faster” for a soccer field or baseball infield), while the base layers are built to facilitate efficient drainage and long-term structural strength.
Artificial turf looks, feels, and “plays” like natural grass. In many cases, it’s a step up from natural grass.
The infill granulate is applied to the entire surface of the pitch and is incorporated using special machinery. The required amount of infill is usually between 3 – 5 lbs per square foot allowing the pile of the artificial turf to stand up freely. The combination of the synthetic turf with an elastic layer can reduce forces from 45% – 70%.
The density of infill granules is an important factor when playing on artificial turf systems. The infill granules contribute significantly to the field’s cushioning, as well as how the ball bounces and rolls. Too little artificial turf infill granulate can negatively affect the ball’s sliding, rolling and bouncing; and increase the risk of injury. If too much infill granulate is filled onto the artificial turf, additional costs are incurred that every club and municipality would like to avoid.
The granules are weather- and UV-resistant and require regular maintenance. In order to maintain the quality of the artificial sports pitch at a high level over the long term, heavily used areas should be regranulated at regular intervals. By checking heavily-used zones (penalty area, penalty spot, etc.) on a weekly basis and maintaining these areas accordingly, facility managers can avoid damage and extend the life of the field.
Whether substituting a grass sports field for artificial turf is worthwhile in the end depends on many factors, with money being an important one – as always – but not the only one.
Synthetic turf sports fields are becoming increasingly common across the country. The biggest advantage of an artificial turf playing field is that it can be played on year-round. The maintenance and upkeep costs are also significantly lower than for a natural grass field.
A new synthetic sports pitch can be “game-changing” for a club or town. It can turn a run-of-the-mill sports field into a destination, attracting tournaments, sponsors, and more and better players. But if, for whatever reason, those are not on the horizon for your facility and only a small number of teams will ever use the field, the artificial turf field may not fulfill its potential and may not be worth the investment. The club should take an in-depth look at the sales, marketing, and user impacts that a new artificial surface will have before committing to construction.
Why more high schools are choosing artificial turf for their sports fields
For a long time, a cloud hung over artificial turf fields. Many coaches and players believed that these surfaces increased the risk of injury. Early studies produced mixed results, which confirmed more negative perceptions than positive.
As artificial turf has improved and more detailed studies have been conducted with larger groups of athletes, the data shows that the playing surface is not related to the rate or severity of injuries. What will happen on grass will happen on turf, in about the same amounts. There are lots of things the sports industry should account for to reduce player injuries, but playing surface selection does not appear to be one of them.
Like a lot of environmental impact questions, it’s complicated.
On the one hand, you don’t need to water, fertilize or mow artificial turf fields. That’s all pretty pro-environment: water conservation, not using hydrocarbon-based fertilizers, and not revving up the engine on the lawnmower once or twice a week. On the other, artificial turf fields use a lot of rubber and plastic. Just about everything from the fibers on down until you get to the foundation are rubber or plastic, which counts against environmental friendliness. Then again, these components are increasingly made of recycled materials; and natural cork is an option for the infill.
Assessing the environmental footprint of an artificial turf field comes down to the details. Add that to the list of things you can talk to your contractors and vendors about as you decide exactly what you want!
Anyone planning a new artificial turf field needs one thing above all else: time. This is not a process that can be rushed, and every time you think you’ve solved everything, someone will appear and ask about another detail one step deeper than the last.
One way to start is by laying out your “planning to plan” process. These are the overarching topics that will each have a family tree of checklists. Here are a few that come to our minds.
Legal and regulatory
Financial: What’s your budget, and how will you pay for it?
Knowing your site
Field usage plans
These broad topics all overlap: you can’t do a site survey until you know the size of the field, which you won’t know until you decide on the sports and check with the federations… But as the process plays out, you can get into the details of turf types, lighting, and maintenance equipment, all of which will let you and your contractor develop an estimate and a timeline.
Another useful part of the planning process is talking to other facility managers in your area or in your sport. No doubt they’ve learned a few lessons the hard way over the years, and could be a valuable source of real-life advice on what to do and what not to do.
Once everything is planned out, the contracts are signed and the money is in the bank (well, at least enough to get started – fundraising never ends!), you can give the green light to begin construction on your new artificial turf field.
Like any major construction project, you can outline the process in as many or as few steps as you want. Some of the major milestones include:
Of course, your construction project may involve more than just installing a new artificial field. In tandem with each of these steps, you may be upgrading the lighting, expanding your seating sections or any other number of projects – each of which has its own checklist.
Artificial turf fields last a long time, but they don’t last forever. After 8-10 years, you’ll need to resurface the field. Fortunately, unless there has been some significant change in the ground (e.g., a result of extreme flooding, earthquakes, sinkholes in the area) only the top few layers are affected by the renovation process.
The main task in resurfacing is taking up the field “carpet” itself. Depending on the equipment you use, this can involve removing the field in large sheets that could be refurbished and reused; or grinding and chopping it up into little pieces that can often find other “afterlives.” Once the field is gone, the renovation crew will take up, clean and replace the infill. This ensures the new field has the same playing characteristics – the all-important consistency, safety and playability – as a new field.
The refurbishment will take your field out of service for a few weeks. That means it’s a great time to do any other maintenance that you’ve put on the back burner because you didn’t want to interfere with the field’s operational schedule. While the field is torn up, take care of any major repairs, replacements or upgrades to the lighting, irrigation, fencing, spectator areas, electricity or anything else on the to-do list.
Artificial sports fields don’t require much maintenance, but they do need some. The main piece of upkeep your grounds crew is basic cleaning. At least once a week – more if your field sees many hours of up-time each week – you need to remove debris, leaves, sticks… anything that doesn’t belong there. If these build up or are allowed to remain over time, they can damage the playing surface.
Less frequently, artificial pitches need to be brushed to ensure an even distribution of infill. This is a task that many facilities do themselves, but some will hire a specialized contractor.
For end-of-season or annual maintenance like intensive cleaning, infill replacement or spot repair of heavily-used areas of the pitch (or any area that’s been damaged by the weather), you’ll need to bring a turf field specialist. They have the equipment and expertise necessary for these tasks, and that is impractical for most facilities to have in-house.
Check out our artifical turf field maintenance guide for further information about sports turf care tasks and equipment.
Different machines can perform different functions in the maintenance of a pitch. Clubs can maximize their cost strategy by purchasing a few versatile machines instead of a fleet with many overly specific machines. Clubs should also account for the distinction between equipment for regular maintenance and those for advanced maintenance. Machines for regular maintenance should be owned by the club and can be operated by the groundsman or a trained club member, while it’s not cost-effective for clubs to own those from the latter category.
Some equipment clubs should consider buying for their regular in-house maintenance include:
The cost of the appropriate maintenance tools starts at around $12,000 for a wheeled trailer. Prices go up from there to all-in-one solutions that are more likely to be used by professional contractors and specialized sports field builders. Finding the right machine for the club depends on the maintenance responsibilities the facility owners assume for themselves. If the municipality maintains the city’s sports fields, a few machines are sufficient for the club. However, if the club, school, or university is entrusted with maintenance, the purchase of one or more specialized pieces of equipment may be worthwhile.
In addition, the size of the pitch and the infill of the pitch plays an important role. Turf fields with artificial granules require more intensive maintenance and different maintenance equipment than fields that are filled with quartz sand.
The costs surrounding a fleet of equipment for clubs and municipalities should be calculated at the beginning of the planning phase and factored into the overall costing.
Once the artificial sports pitch is reaching the end of its service life (around 8-10 years) it’s time to start thinking about what to do with the turf. Many questions typically arise: “how can I remove the old sports turf?”, “where can I dispose of it?”, “how much does it cost to remove and recycle a turf field?” or “can the turf field be recycled or reused?“.
Strange as it may sound, the costs of dismantling the synthetic surface and disposing of it at the end of its life should be factored into the initial budget. When an artificial field is renovated, the elastic layer can often be reused, reducing the cost of the new one. Older systems did not use an elastic layer at all, but the introduction of this component has enhanced the performance and affordability of these sports field systems.
Many times it is possible to reuse the old turf field on a secondary pitch or a training field. Sometimes the old turf has been worn out by heavy use or damaged by bad weather and therefore it can no longer be used as a playing surface.
In the latter scenario, the only option is to remove the synthetic grass surface, recycle as much of the turf system as possible and dispose of the rest of the components that cannot be recycled.
Professional construction companies offer guidance and services for the removal, reuse, recycle and disposal of sports turf components.
Finding financing depends on many external conditions and prerequisites for the club or municipality. The process and prospects for success can change greatly on a case-by-case basis.
In addition to grants for the construction of sports facilities and taking out loans, clubs can raise funds directly from club members or via crowdfunding projects.
Some frequent fundraising concepts we have encountered over the years are:
For further reading, we have compiled an article listing 12 tips for financing your artificial turf field.
How can club members get their hands dirty?
As part of the construction process, certain tasks can be carried out by members of the club under the guidance of the sports field builder or expert planner. This can quickly save up to $35,000, and actively support the financing of the artificial pitch. Areas where members can lend a hand range from dismantling the existing equipment, barrier systems, and ball-catching fences, and paving the path areas around the field.
In addition to saving money, clubs also benefit from a positive side effect of member involvement: The members take ownership of the project and identify with its success. This collaboration is like the sport itself: it’s one more factor into a broader and deeper sense of club cohesion. The club members come to know each other better, become part of the project and actively strengthen the togetherness within the club.
Seeking outside help for sports facility construction
When building a new synthetic pitch, club managers and project leaders should gather information about funding sources at an early stage and apply for funding with plenty of lead time. Most sports field builders and manufacturers offer advice on all aspects of sports facility funding, and can provide tips on how to apply to the relevant sources.
Before applying for funding, it is always worth taking a look at the use concepts of the sports facility. Which clubs and institutions will use the new pitch? Will the facility be used by local schools or universities, for example, or can companies be brought on board to use the field for company sports? Particularly in the context of school sports, there may be opportunities to obtain funding from other outlets. The first step is ensuring the project is eligible for funding and, if so, how much, what requirements must be met and what deadlines must be observed.
We have listed the most important funding programs in sports facility construction in the following overview:
Depending on the location, the respective responsible authorities at the city and state level offer their own further project development programs through which grants for sports facilities are possible.
In addition to government funding programs for sports field construction, financial support from private organizations for new construction or renovation of sports facilities is also possible. In the first place, the various sports associations should be mentioned here. For example, the following are eligible:
Turf fields may not grow or dry out like a natural grass field, but that doesn’t mean they are static. You will need to maintain them over the years, which means that, yes, you will continue to pay money for maintenance, upkeep, and repairs.
Fortunately, barring any unforeseen near-catastrophe, those costs will be less than the analogous costs of operating a natural grass sports field. Artificial turf requires less maintenance equipment and labor, and does not need major refurbishments or replacement as often as grass does. And artificial turf fields open the door for you to generate more revenue via memberships, events, sponsorships, and grants than natural grass fields.
Lower costs + higher revenues = Everybody’s happy.
Let’s walk through the lifecycle of an artificial turf sports field from the perspective of your accountants.
The major cost of the planning process is the site survey. In this case, the survey is not just measuring out the dimensions of the field, but getting an understanding of what needs to be built in all three planes. Yes, we’re going sub-surface here.
Once you know what you need to do to make your site capable of handling your field, the preparatory work can begin. The results of your site survey will tell you how deep you have to excavate, what the base layer will look like and, overall, how much work your contractors will need to do – that is, how much it’ll all cost – before you can start installing the field itself.
For the turf field itself, the two main cost drivers are size and quality. A full-size soccer pitch that hits FIFA’s standards for national-level competition will cost a lot more in total and per square meter than a high school’s multipurpose sports & recreation field. The fibers that make up the field and the type of infill are the two most important “surface level” components that go into the size * quality equation.
Finally – from a financial forecasting perspective – there are the maintenance and operational costs. Depending on the use patterns of the field and the availability in your area of specialized maintenance companies, it may make more sense for you to buy the necessary maintenance and repair equipment, and train your employees in these tasks. More likely, you’ll decide where you want to draw the line between things you’ll handle in-house with equipment you already own and what you will contract out.