Weston Appelfeller, CSFM (certified sports field manager), turf manager for the Austin FC professional soccer team and director of professional facilities for the Sports Turf Managers Association, Lawrence, Kansas, tells us what it’s like to keep the field in play-ready condition.
And when sports are involved, there’s much more than meets the eye. The smallest imperfection could take a player out of the game if the groundskeeper isn’t careful. It’s a type of pressure only surpassed by the players and coaches who take the field.
It seems as if the difference between a residential or commercial turf managers’s job as opposed to someone who manages the turf for a pro athletic field is the pressure. Is that correct?
Yes. Whether you’re in charge of an HOA, a parks and rec department, a golf course or a sports field, we all have the same agronomic background, and share a love and a passion for the work. The difference between your normal groundskeeper that takes care of home lawns or HOAs and a sports turf groundskeeper is exactly what you said, the pressure.
You could be the most detail-oriented residential or HOA groundskeeper and do beautiful work, but on an average day, relatively few people are going to see those lawns. But when you’re a turf manager for a professional sports team, millions of people are going to see your work on TV in high definition!
There are millions of dollars wrapped up in professional players, games and stadiums. If the field doesn’t perform and a game has to be canceled, there’s a lot of lost revenue. So at the highest level there’s quite a lot of pressure, as you can imagine.
As a turf manager for a parks and recreation department, the pressure is all about wanting to have the safest fields possible because you’re going to have young kids playing on them and the last thing you want is to have anyone injured. At the highest levels, we sports field turf managers have safety is our number-one goal, and the aesthetics are secondary. There’s pressure at all levels to make sure that we have one, the safest fields possible; and two, that they’re aesthetically pleasing.
What would create an unsafe condition on a playing field?
It has to do with the turf’s root structure. Is it stable enough to withstand players’ cleats cutting it? Is the ground so hard that if a player’s head made contact with it, he’d get a concussion? There’s a really fine line as to how you have to manage a sports field to make it the safest it could possibly be, to neutralize any chance that a player could get injured.
How do you do that, reduce the chance of injuries?
Determining the soil profile is a big portion of it. Turf managers need to ask, what is the base of that field made of? Is it sand, soil, clay? How should the maintenance practices be done? Is the field aerated much? Has it not been aerated? Is it top-dressed with sand? How much moisture is on the field? Is the field too dry? If it’s too dry it can get too hard; if it’s too wet it can get too soft. How long is the grass? The length of the grass affects the root structure underneath. All those things change the safety level of a sports field.
Is top dressing with sand specific to athletic field turf management?
No, golf course guys do it as well. It’s a practice that helps protect the grass a little bit. Depending on the variety of grass it is, it can build up a little thatch. A top layer of sand helps breaks that down, helps protect the crown of each individual grass plant and promotes its health. It makes for a better, safer field.
Apart from that, you need to get as much education as possible. Join professional associations like the Sports Turf Managers Association. A lot of our members are people that want to educate themselves and absorb information as much as possible; that’s why they come to our annual conference.
Sports turf managers do network very well, reach out to each other and ask each other questions. The start of it is making sure you have that education and understanding of what is needed in learning the nuts and bolts of how you alter a field.
Is there an ideal cut height for a soccer field, for instance, since that’s what you deal with?
Each species of grass has its own optimal cut height. At the professional level, we’re using different varieties that can be cut extremely short because million-dollar athletes want the field to be extremely fast. They don’t want to have a 2-3-inch long blade of grass sticking up and slowing them down or slowing down the speed of play.
In pro soccer, the ball and the way it rolls would be affected greatly if the grass was longer than, say, an inch and a quarter. But for youth soccer, 2-3 inches might be acceptable. If you think about most parks and rec departments, with their mow schedules and crew sizes, 2-3 inches is about right.
It comes back to the species of grass you’re dealing with. If you know that you have a Kentucky bluegrass field, you know that the optimal height is somewhere between 2-3 ½ inches. If you go any lower or higher than that you start affecting the healthiness of the grass.
Wow. So many different things go into this.
Now that you’ve done this interview, you’ll never watch another sports game and not think about that! Whenever you see a pro sports field you’ll know why it looks the way it does.
Let’s say it’s a professional baseball or football game. What is the field supposed to look like just before the game starts? Should it ideally have an inch-and-a-half cut height?
It comes down to what a specific team wants. It may be an inch-and-a-half for one team’s home field and a half inch or full inch for another.
At the professional level, your field needs to look absolutely perfect; that’s just expected. It doesn’t happen very often that a sportscaster mentions how amazing your field looks. As a professional groundskeeper, the greatest compliment I can get is having no complaints. If your field is getting talked about, it’s typically not a good thing. To stay out of the limelight is usually the best thing for a professional groundskeeper, especially as the game is progressing.
What about irrigation? Can you water a field the night before a game?
That all depends on what your soil profile is. If you have a sand-based field, then yes, you probably have to water the night before a game if it’s dried out. If you have a clay soil, you may not have to.
At the professional level, most fields are sand-based. The way I like to describe it to people is if you look at a beach, if there was no water, it would just fall apart. Having the proper moisture level in that sand helps bind everything together.
We monitor it closely. We use soil moisture meters to tell us exactly how much water is on the field. Depending on what we’re reading, we adjust our watering up or down. There’s an optimal level of water each grass plant needs and we make sure they get it.
About how many hours do you need to wait before a game to let a field dry out?
It depends on the sport. A baseball field, because you’re throwing the ball, you probably wouldn’t want to have your field watered. But pro soccer players like the field wetted down 10 minutes before a game starts as it helps the ball roll faster. So you’ll see a groundskeeper out there watering the field, letting the tips of the grass leaves get wet just before the match.
It helps to look at an individual grass plant as a human body. We all know what we should do to be the healthiest we can be — eat right, exercise, get good sleep, all that kind of thing. Grass is very similar. It has an optimal level of fertilizer that it needs. It has an optimal amount of water that it needs. It has an optimal cut height. If you could hit all of those, you’re giving the grass the best chance it has.
Would a fertilizer application be done more frequently than for, say, a park – turf that isn’t being used for professional sports?
A typical fertilizer application for a park would be 4-5 times a year. That’s less frequently than a professional sports field would need. Pro sports field turf managers have to monitor their soils very closely, stay on top of what’s in it and what it might be lacking.
Since most professional sports soils are sand-based, whatever you apply is going to work its way through quickly. Because of that, we apply smaller amounts of chemicals more often. A community park turf manager may put a pound of nitrogen fertilizer on a playing field in the fall. A professional sports field turf manager may put a tenth of a pound on once a week for ten weeks.
Are the other chemical applications, the pesticides, herbicides, put on in the same fashion?
Yes. Most sports turf managers would follow integrated pest management practices. We don’t want to apply any chemicals that we don’t have to. We all have to pass chemical applicator license tests to make sure that we’re doing exactly what we’re supposed to do and being good stewards of the land.
We have to monitor the weather, because that affects when fungicide should be applied. We’re looking at how many weeds we have to determine if it makes sense to use an herbicide. Why spray a whole field if you only have five dandelions? That goes back to educating yourself and knowing what’s right and what’s wrong and following the labels.
The one thing we can’t control is the weather. That’s probably the biggest obstacle most groundskeepers would tell you they face, the one variable that we have no control over. You can be the best turf manager in the world, but you can’t battle Mother Nature.
A turf manager could work extremely hard and do absolutely everything to make his field as healthy as it can be and have a snow storm come in the night before a game. At that point, he has to do whatever he can to get that game on and provide the safest field. Sometimes aesthetics has to be put aside in such cases.
What does that mean, “put aesthetics aside?”
The field just won’t look as good as it did the day before that storm. Or, you could have the field looking absolutely perfect and then have two inches of rain dumped on it during the game. It just can’t look as pleasing to the eye as it did the day before.
Yes, I’ve seen football games where the turf has turned to mud and they’re just out there sliding around. That must break a turf manager’s heart!
It absolutely does. You feel for the people that you see that happen to, especially when you’re in the industry. You know so many of the different groundskeepers personally that when it happens to one of them you just cringe. You pray it never happens to you.
Back in the 1970s there was a controversy when some pro football stadiums started using an early version of artificial turf. As I recall, the players didn’t like it and claimed it was causing a higher rate of injury. Is artificial turf used on any sports field that you know of?
Yes, artificial turf is used, especially in professional sports; in fact, there are a good many pro fields that have it. The technology has come a long way, and they perform better than they used to. I’m personally a natural grass guy.
What are some of the other things that bedevil pro sports turf managers?
Budgets, for one. When you don’t have the money to properly maintain your field, that’s a big constraint that’s hard to overcome.
Meeting the expectations of the front office and the fans is another. And then, meeting our own expectations. We expect a certain thing out of a field and if we don’t get it then we feel that pressure.
Outside of that, you have insects that can cause havoc. You have diseases. You can have a break in an irrigation line. You don’t expect these things to happen, but they’re part of the headaches. Again, if you compare a blade of grass to the human body, you can be as healthy as possible and still one day wake up and have something you need to go to the doctor for.
After a game, how do you repair the field? Do you lay down sod? Reseed?
You look at your schedule and you see how long of a break you have. If you have a game the next day, that changes things. If you have a game in 3 weeks, you’re going to do something a little different.
If you have a field that didn’t stand up to the game for whatever reason and you need to do something relatively quickly then sod may be the best answer. But if you have 3 weeks, a much cheaper option would be to reseed it or just to let it recover on its own, depending on what kind of grass it is.
We want to give the field the best chance to recover. That’s why most professional sporting events, if you’re there in the stands, as soon as they’re over, you’ll see 10-15 guys going out on the field and working. Most turf managers start as soon as a game is over to fix the damage so the field is ready to go for the next game.
Sounds like that is mainly done with chunks of sod.
If you had an area that needed a chunk of sod, yes, you would use it. But if you had an area where you could get grass seed to grow, if you had those 3 weeks — grass seed takes a week to start growing — you might say, ‘okay, I’m just going to put grass seed down and water it and have it come in that way.’ You look at the schedule and see what you can do.
Does the STMA offer educational opportunities?
They put on quite a few educational seminars. There’s also a huge resource library and job postings on the website. It’s a great resource for everyone who’s looking to get into the profession or are in it already. There are many groundskeepers at the parks-and-rec level that just don’t know where to go to get more education — well, that’s a good place to start.
I went to Ohio State University for turfgrass science. There are lots of great 2-year and 4-year schools throughout the U.S. that have terrific turfgrass programs.
Anything else that is important?
If there are any IGIN readers out there that are interested in sports turf management, I would recommend they go to the STMA website and research it. It’s a growing industry, and we welcome as many people as would like to join it. All you have to do is try.
The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.