Know the score

Features - Sports Turf

Maintaining sports fields takes a different approach from residential and commercial properties.

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October 10, 2017
Debbie Swanson

From pee-wee leagues to Division 1 athletics and beyond, America has a passion for sports. That passion means a need for lush, healthy playing fields. And if you’ve been successful with residential or commercial clients, moving into sports turf maintenance can be a natural progression.

From tending to the city’s ballparks to grooming the athletic fields for the local university, sports turf maintenance can be a profitable add-on revenue stream.

If you’ve been successfully caring for commercial and residential clients, you already have a solid start to caring for sports fields.

Brian Dossett, certified sports field manager at Oxner Landscape & Maintenance in Greenville, South Carolina, suggests making a gradual entry. “Some fields still have their coaches do the mowing. Getting them to contract that out to you is a good way to start – take over the mowing, then you’ll start to figure out other things, like irrigation,” he says.

© slobo | iStockphoto

Talking with coaches about their fields’ uses will help to build your knowledge. Making regular field assessments is also important, either alone or with a coach. Walk the fields to study areas such as grass cover, drainage, weeds and wear patterns.

Formal instruction can further fine-tune your skills. Many universities offer programs in turf and field maintenance, and membership with an organization, such as the Sports Turf Managers Association, can be a valuable connection. Also, keep watch for local or online clinics and seminars throughout the year.

One challenge with athletic field care lies in the scheduling. Non-sports clients are usually amenable to changing the time or day of their usual service. But in the height of the season, field time is at a premium. Coupled with the additional upkeep needed, alterations to the schedule can create a problem for field managers.

Advance planning is key.

Pre-season, connect with a grounds manager or coach who will be your contact that season.

“In addition to getting the field’s schedule up front, let the grounds manager know what you’ll need. For example, no-traffic times to let the grass recuperate,” says Rob Spoor, partner at SiteWorks in Chandler, Arizona.

Map out dates and times you’ll perform routine and specialized care. With periodic applications, such as pesticides, fertilizer or overseeding, plan for traffic-free time, as recommended by your product and state regulations.

Once the season gets underway, your mowing staff should keep you abreast of changing field conditions. Don’t hesitate to relay issues back to your contact person. “For example, if a team is running the same drills over and over in the same area, causing wear, you can suggest they spread it out,” Spoor says.

Unless you’re working for a high-profile venue, it’s unlikely you’ll be asked to be present at every game or practice, but making the occasional visit during high usage times can be educational.

“In addition to getting the field’s schedule up front, let the grounds manager know what you’ll need. For example, no-traffic times to let the grass recuperate.” Rob Spoor, partner, SiteWorks

Whether it’s the beating from a scheduled game or the wrath of Mother Nature, quickly rebounding from damage is an essential part of the job.

“For us, lacrosse is one of the most wearing sports,” says Dossett, who adds that he expects to do repair after a game. “I need to add a sand and clay mixture to pack the front of the goal, and bring in thick cut sod to lay back in.” Football’s field goal kicker presents a similar need, he adds.

Knowing that thick-cut sod is a crucial element to these repairs, Dossett orders his supply up to a year in advance. “It’s thick enough that you can lay down a plug and it won’t move. It’s very hard to find once the season begins. You might find some leftover somewhere, but you really need to anticipate what you’re going to need and order ahead.”

Safety.

Player and spectator safety is another concern. Monitoring the weather and knowing how your field will react enables you to relay recommendations to your field contact.

“If the field is a soupy mess, you don’t want the kids to blow out their knees,” Dossett says. “You need to do something, whether you suggest they cancel the game, or you get out there and dry it out so it’s firm enough for the cleats to stick. It falls on you for the field to look good and be in safe condition.”

To avoid problems, you’ll need to slice into the surface with an aerator, and top dress with manure, soil or fertilizer.

Don’t overlook the importance of these steps, Spoor says. “Developing and keeping to an aeration and top dressing schedule is a key step. Depending on the area and its use, this may be necessary multiple times per year.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.