New Options Underfoot

If you’re in the market for a new athletic field, know that the synthetic turf industry is on a roll. In this article, manufacturers give tips on understanding and purchasing the latest technology in turf.

By Carol Brzozowski-Gardner

Carol Brzozowski-Gardner is a freelance writer based in Coral Springs, Fla.

Athletic Management, 13.3, April/May 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1303/underfoot.htm

Less than a decade ago, the choices for outdoor playing surfaces were simple: conventional synthetic turf or natural grass. But athletic directors looking to install a new field in the 21st century are faced with a whole new set of options and a slew of new manufacturers to choose from.

The new option making the most waves is a product called resilient in-fill turf, which many say performs more like natural grass than traditional artificial turf does—and is less expensive. Since making its debut in the United States in the 1997, this turf has gained popularity and has now been installed successfully at a wide variety of venues.

“Sports that require a certain speed in the ball, like soccer, prefer a natural-grass type of surface,” says Sheilagh Conklin, a partner with Pacific Sport Surfaces, Inc., in Tigard, Ore., which sells Avery Sports Turf. “With the advent of a resilient surface that looked like and performed like natural grass, all of a sudden you had more sports that could effectively play on synthetic grass.

“It is also about half the price of traditional synthetic turf,” she adds. “We now have a synthetic surface with all the benefits of artificial turf. You can play on it all the time, there’s minimal maintenance—all those good things—but it’s something that’s more like grass.”

The resilient in-fill product has not only offered more options to athletic teams, but has also opened up a market to companies looking to manufacture and sell a new kind of synthetic turf. “Suddenly, in the good old American way, competitiveness has come back into play,” says Hank Julicher, President of SprinTurf, with main offices in Conshohocken, Pa. “There was an opening, and that opening allowed a lot of small companies to come up with alternate surfaces.”

As Jimmy Rogers, Co-Owner of Grass Tex, Inc., in Dalton, Ga., manufacturer of the Hi-Tech turf system, explains, improvements in raw materials, backing systems, and the machinery used to make the materials also created more opportunities for companies to enter the market. As a result, a half-dozen companies now sell resilient in-fill turf, and the industry has become very competitive, with owners taking aggressive approaches against their competitors.

The downside of these industry happenings is that purchasing synthetic turf has become more fraught with questions. In this article, we hope to addresses some of those questions, but we encourage readers to also do further research on their own.

How Does it Work?
The resilient in-fill product differs from conventional artificial turf in two major ways. One, it is made of polyethylene and polypropylene yarns that are tufted through a backing system and stand up like grass; as opposed to a conventional turf, which is basically knitted into itself, more like carpet. Two, the fibers don’t sit on a pad, but rather a mixture of sand and rubber particles, (although some systems contain rubber only).

Fieldturf, based in Montreal, was one of the first companies to perfect the product. “Previously, there had been in-fill systems that had shorter fibers, generally about one inch in length,” says John Gilman, CEO of Fieldturf. “They were all sand-filled. Our technology broke open a new type of product with a much longer fiber. We in-filled it not only with sand, but also with ground rubber, which has led to a different type of playing surface.”

Conklin describes the emerging technology as a new twist on an old idea. “The new turf is comprised of longer, soft, grass-like fibers with a resilient synthetic component to it—some systems use crumb rubber, some use a combination of rubber and sand,” she explains.

While each manufacturer’s resilient in-fill turf product varies somewhat from the other’s, they all are based on the same model. “All of the systems are very similar,” Conklin says. “They have their uniqueness, but they all have similar characteristics, where their resilient component is crumb rubber brushed into that soft grass.”

One thing that does make each resilient in-fill product different from the next is its G-max characteristics. G-max measures a surface’s resiliency or shock attenuation; in other words, how hard or soft a surface is in absorbing impact. The harder a surface, such as concrete, the higher the G-max value.

The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) considers 200 Gs the maximum threshold for providing an acceptable level of protection. The ASTM recommends replacement if any part of a field (and they test six locations) measures above 200. However, manufacturers mention that a field that is too soft can also increase injuries, suggesting that buyers look for ratings from 100-140.

Pros & Cons
The advantages of this new turf product appear to be many. First of all, like traditional artificial turf, it can sustain continuous use with very little maintenance.

“It’s a good fit for anyone from pro sports teams down to high schools, but it particularly fits a niche for someone who has very high use on their field,” says Mike Gruppe, General Manager for Quest Sports Surfacing in Muncie, Ind., manufacturer of HomeField synthetic grass. “You can play on it and not have to worry about letting it rest or maintaining it like you would with natural grass.”

Another advantage is its playability. The new technology is about as close to natural grass as a field can get, manufacturers say, which should please many coaches and players.

“It duplicates natural grass very closely with respect to the characteristics of the ball on the field, traction underfoot, the resiliency, and the feel to the players,” says Conklin.

“Because it’s grass-like, the soccer community has responded in a positive fashion,” says Troy Squires, Vice President for Sales and Marketing at Southwest Recreational Industries in Leander, Texas, which manufactures AstroTurf, AstroPlay, and NeXturf. “Soccer players have always hated synthetic turf. Now a lot of the people at the grassroots level of soccer are getting behind this type of product.”

Many also feel the new turf is safer. “The new artificial surfaces have more ‘give’ and they are more player-friendly in that they help reduce the chance of injury because of their construction,” says Brent Paschal, President of SafePlay Turf Systems in Rockwall, Texas.

“Conventional artificial turf doesn’t provide the cushioning athletes need,” adds Gruppe. “It has too high abrasion and more foot-locking characteristics. Over-aggressive traction is responsible for athletes’ feet locking. That does a lot of damage to their knees, for example.”

“From a safety perspective, the new surfaces fit every need,” Gilman says. “Football, soccer, lacrosse—the safety issues speak for themselves.”

However, the folks at Astroturf refute that claim. They cite an article by Todd Schmidt, Director of the Hughston Clinic, that states, “The playing surface is rarely, if ever, the proper place to lay the blame for injuries.” He instead places the blame on the nature of the sports played and the inappropriate use of footwear.

One unrefuted advantage of the resilient in-fill system is cost. Although prices vary, the resilient in-fill product is generally half the price of traditional artificial turf. It is still much more expensive than putting in a new grass field, but low maintenance costs can sometimes recoup the initial outlay.

“In some parts of the country, the cost of water and irrigation is really significant, so that can be an important factor,” says Conklin, adding that the cost of the turf can often be recovered within five years.

So, what are the disadvantages? Squires admits the newness of resilient in-fill systems provides little indication of how they will handle the test of time.

“We would like to be able to say here’s a product that does this over 10 years,” he says. “But you have something outdoors and exposed not only to the weather, sunlight, ozone, and pollution, but the abuse of players and vehicles and people spilling stuff on it. Since even the oldest ones are only a few years old, the question is, how is this going to hold up?

“Certainly, there’s a lot about the product that has been tested and proven over time,” Squires continues. “But we really don’t know in a scientific way, how the whole system of putting it together with the fill and the water draining through it will hold up.”

Questioning the Companies
Because many companies are so new, an athletic director needs to be aware of several aspects of buying synthetic turf fields in order to make the best-informed decision. Most important may be to thoroughly check out any companies you wish to bid on the project.

Paschal says schools in the market for artificial turf fields should keep in mind there are some cheap imitations on the market from companies led by people who have been in the business for a very short time. Therefore, the first thing to check might be a company’s viability. You don’t want to do business with a company whose potential lifetime is shorter than the warranty.

“In our industry, companies can get into the business and then be out of it the next day because they did not have the financial backing to make a long-term commitment to the market,” Paschal says.

In evaluating the financial stability of any company, ask for information about the security of its funding, and make sure that the company is backed by a treasury-rated bonding company. “Any company can have a large amount of money in the bank for a short time period,” Paschal says, “but it’s important that the company has the backing to operate its business for the long haul.

“At the same time, the biggest is not always the best when evaluating artificial turf companies,” he continues. “Multi-million-dollar companies in this industry have been forced into bankruptcy in the past because they became over-leveraged.”

Thus, you may want to request a company history, including ownership changes. Some questions to explore include: How long has it been in business? Has it been in bankruptcy? Is it a new company that was formed from an old company that left other customers out in the cold?

Next, Paschal advises, study how experienced the company is in all phases: manufacturing, installation, and customer service. “Ask for the company’s qualifications in all of these areas,” he says. “Make sure they have the proper installation staff, the proper financial people, and the right experience in manufacturing.”

Then, ask for references. Those references should be tailored to your school’s needs, including the sports for which your field will be used, as well as climate and soil conditions. Squires also believes a trip to visit the manufacturing plants could be in order.

“When you go into a project like this, you’re taking on a partner,” says Conklin. “What kind of partner do you want to have? Clients really have to do their homework, because there are a lot of people willing to say anything to get a deal.

“Truthfulness is a huge problem in this industry,” she continues. “If a company says they haven’t had any warranty problems, that’s not the truth. If a vendor is telling a client that all of their customers are completely satisfied and they have no complaints, that’s not the truth.”

Checking Quality
Along with the overall reliability of the company, it’s also critical to check out the quality of the product. “I would encourage clients to ask as many questions as they can think of about these products and evaluate how much information the vendors are willing to share with them,” says Conklin. “There really is very little proprietary information.

“For example,” she continues, “What are these products made of? What are the details and is it a meaningful detail? I tell clients to look at the details and ask themselves if they make sense.”
“When you consider a company,” says Paul Kelley, Secretary/Treasurer at Academy Sports Turf in Englewood, Colo., “ask for specific information about the various components of the turf, because their characteristics will affect the performance on the field.”

“There are different choices companies have for the grass material they put into their surface, different choices for the primary and secondary backing, and differences in quality,” Conklin says. “I would encourage clients to insist that the vendors explain this to them. Demand it up front and compare them.”

Furthermore, ask about the characteristics of the product, including such factors as yarn density and weight, and how durable the product is. Finally, question the company on its service policies, including optional on-site seam repair.

“I believe an educated consumer is the best for everybody, including our competitors and the industry as a whole,” says Squires. “We hate to see a consumer looking at the different products, saying, ‘It all looks green and everybody says it’s good stuff.’ Then they feel it with their hands and think it feels soft, so they say, ‘Let’s go with it.’”

Kelley advises consumers to also ask about a company’s ability to customize the field. “Many synthetic turf companies now have the ability to customize the field to better meet the needs of the school,” he explains. “The fields can vary in terms of color, thickness of the yarn, height of the fibers, the width of the stitching of the fibers, and the size of the rubber granules.”

While it may be difficult to evaluate all the factors, the warranty can reveal a lot. “Warranty language is another big difference between the companies,” Conklin says. “Is there prorated language? How long is the warranty for? Is premature wear and tear specifically defined in the warranty? Is there a warranty insurance policy? What does it cover?”

“For many clients, a half million dollars is a big expenditure,” Conklin continues. “If you had that go out to a bond measure, you’ve got a lot riding on this. To have the system fail in less than two years is unacceptable.”

The Bid Process
After researching the options, it’s time to work on the bid. First, you’ll have to do some prep work, which entails figuring out your needs. For example, is the field going to be used for multiple sports or is it going to be for one sport? Is it for indoor or outdoor use? What foundation is there? Make sure you know what you want up front, since the playing surface itself is just one part of the puzzle.

“Your site work comes first—the field is the last thing you purchase,” Rogers says. “You prepare the ground, check for drainage, and do a lot of preparatory work before you actually get to the turf. The turf is designed around your site. So synthetic turf is only part of the cost.”

Unfortunately, the bid process can get as complicated as the new technology. Some manufacturers feel the bid should specify the turf by brand name, while others feel it should allow for many manufacturers’ brands.

Gilman is in the former camp. He cautions that a school can “make a decision as to the product it wants and sometimes the bidding processes convinces them to accept the low bid. Then they don’t necessarily end up with the product that they want.”

He favors what he calls a “design-build” concept. “You can bid out other construction work that has to be done around the field, but if you want a certain product for your playing surface, write the specs according to that product,” he says. “You’ll be certain that you’re going to get the product that you have designated.”

Conversely, Julicher feels specifications should focus on what you want from the product, not who makes it. “The way the specifications are written are extremely important,” he says. “Sometimes they’re proprietary, and I don’t think they should be written for one product. But I do think they should be able to take into consideration specifications for a product that will last longer.”

Timing & Installation
As most schools want new turf installed in the summer, it’s important to start the whole buying process far in advance. Squires suggests you write your specifications and do your serious study in the early winter. “Then, get the specs out in the late winter or early spring at the latest, and put that thing to bid,” he explains.

A field’s down time depends on how much work needs to be done. “There are so many variables,” Rogers says. “Are they purchasing a product that is already made, a ‘make to order’ product, or a custom product that has to be manufactured? Is it an existing field or is it brand new construction? You’ve got a wide range of three weeks to three months for installation time.”

Gruppe says if a school is replacing an existing field, the first step is the removal of that field; in essence, the crews will be digging out a cavity. The second step is the installation of the sub-grade and drainage system. The turf is placed on top, along with the in-fill, and anchored around the perimeter. Removing an old field and replacing it with a new one in a standard 80,000 square-foot area inside a track can take eight to 10 weeks, according to Gruppe.

“But the nice thing is when it’s installed, it’s ready to go,” says Conklin. “You don’t have to wait like natural grass.”

Gruppe adds that athletic directors should get a written contract for the installation process. “This protects the owner and the company that’s installing the system” he says. “I would also recommend they get an architect to write their specifications for them to ensure they get what they’re looking for.”

Final Steps
Once it’s ready to go, there’s little you have to do—especially if you’ve specified inlaid lines so that no field painting is necessary. However, maintenance should not be forgotten altogether.

“The number one maintenance requirement to these fields is keeping them brushed, which keeps the fibers standing up. Although they stand up pretty well on their own,” Gruppe says. “Brushing also makes sure the in-fill is evenly distributed.”

Brushing a full-sized field takes under an hour when using a specialized riding brushing machine, Julicher says. Depending on the tools purchased to maintain the field and how often it is maintained, the annual maintenance costs range from $2,000 to $4,000.

Because artificial turf requires so little maintenance, owners are tempted to get by without it. But Squires contends the field will last longer if proper effort is put into its maintenance.

“What I see among the fields that are maintained diligently is that the customers are happier, the fields look better, they play better, and they’re going to last longer,” he says. “It’s going to be a better investment.”



Sidebar: Off the Field

By Hien M. Nguyen
Hien M. Nguyen is an editor at the Cornell Law Review and will be joining the firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York City this summer.

The fierce competition among synthetic turf manufacturers has spilled from the playing field to the court room. Montreal-based Fieldturf and Southwest Recreational Industries in Leander, Texas, which manufactures AstroTurf, AstroPlay, and NeXturf, have both filed lawsuits against each other.

Fieldturf fired the first legal volley in 1998 when it sued Southwest in U.S. District Court (Eastern District of Kentucky) for patent infringement and product disparagement. Fieldturf claimed that Southwest’s AstroPlay infringed upon Fieldturf’s patent and moved for a preliminary injunction that would have prevented Southwest from selling AstroPlay pending the outcome of the litigation.

The court denied Fieldturf’s request for a preliminary injunction because the company did not prove a reasonable likelihood of success on the patent infringement claim. Specifically, the court stated that Southwest did not “literally” infringe Fieldturf’s patent because Southwest used a layering system for its filling element while Fieldturf used a single mixed layer. Fieldturf then attempted to argue that Southwest’s layering system compacted with use, resulting in a single layer that was equivalent to Fieldturf’s single mixed layer.

The court noted that “equivalent,” or substantial, infringement was possible but that Fieldturf did not offer any evidence. Further, the court questioned the validity of Fieldturf’s patent in light of other prior inventions. Fieldturf and Southwest eventually reached a confidential settlement in 1999 before the patent infringement and product disparagement claims could be determined by a jury.

On January 7, 2000, Fieldturf filed a second action against Southwest in United States District Court (Eastern District of Kentucky). Fieldturf again alleged that Southwest infringed its patent, but this time also claimed that Southwest engaged in predatory pricing and conduct in violation of federal monopoly law.

Fieldturf alleged that Southwest engaged in patent infringement when Southwest sold AstroPlay in Europe, assembling the patented sand and rubber filling overseas in an attempt to evade U.S. patent law. Fieldturf also alleged that Southwest approached a high school after Fieldturf won a bid to install a playing field. Allegedly, Southwest made false disparaging statements about Fieldturf and told potential customers that a deteriorating field was a Fieldturf product.

Fieldturf also alleged that Southwest submitted bids below cost in an attempt to drive out competitors. Fieldturf argued that this conduct violated federal monopoly law.

This case has not yet gone to trial, and how it will turn out if and when it goes to a jury is unclear. In regard to the patent infringement claim, in the initial case, the court questioned the validity of Fieldturf’s patent, but, on the other hand, the 1999 settlement left open the question of whether Southwest’s AstroPlay could be a substantial infringing component of Fieldturf’s patent.

In regard to the monopoly claim, Southwest clearly possesses monopoly power by controlling 95 percent of the artificial turf market. However, monopoly power is not enough to violate monopoly law. The key issue is whether Southwest willfully acquired or attempted to maintain a monopoly through its conduct.

On January 27, 2000, Southwest brought suit against Fieldturf. Southwest alleged in U.S. District Court (Western District of Texas) that Fieldturf breached the confidentiality agreement in the 1999 settlement by disclosing its terms and using it for marketing purposes. It also claimed that Fieldturf infringed upon Southwest’s AstroTurf trademark by using the word “Astroturf” to link Internet search engines to Fieldturf’s Web site.

Southwest alleged that Fieldturf also committed false advertising by making misleading statements and comparisons between Southwest’s and Fieldturf’s products on Internet bulletin boards and Fieldturf’s Web site. For instance, Southwest claimed Fieldturf posted an unscientific study purporting that Fieldturf was safer than Southwest’s AstroTurf, falsely alleged that the NFL endorsed studies that showed Fieldturf was 400 percent safer, and stated that Southwest’s AstroTurf ruined playing careers. Southwest claimed that such conduct interfered with its existing contracts with its customers and future sales.

Although this case was filed after the second one, it has already gone through a full trial. The jury found Fieldturf guilty on two points: breach of the confidentiality agreement in the 1999 settlement and false advertisement. It awarded Southwest close to $1.3 million in damages (for lost profits on potential sales of the AstroPlay product) and attorney fees.

However, the jury found Fieldturf not guilty on several other points. It decided that Fieldturf did not commit commercial defamation and did not interfere with Southwest’s existing contracts. It also found Fieldturf not guilty of infringing Southwest’s trademark “AstroTurf.”

How does the courtroom action between Fieldturf and Southwest affect you? At the very least, it signifies competition for your money. Competition, whether on or off the field, is good for the consumer in terms of choice, quality, and cost.

However, at this stage, it makes the future direction of the industry unclear. The outcome of the second court case could drastically change the industry, or it could prove to have little significance for the future buyer. The bottom line is that this is an evolving industry, and purchasing synthetic field products should be done with much research and deliberation.