A whole new ballgame

Features - Business Focus

Tending to sports turf seems like an obvious add-on for landscapers and lawn care operators, but there’s a lot to consider before making the move.

September 9, 2022

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Adding a sports fields maintenance service can add revenue for a company, but it’s an undertaking that must be approached carefully and with much consideration. Sometimes it calls for a sizeable expenditure for equipment and having the right people with boots on the ground to make the job run smoothly.

Jeffrey Fowler, extension educator at Penn State University, says there are eight main elements of maintaining sports turf: soil testing, lie and fertilizer, mowing, aeration, top dressing, over seeding, the playing surface itself and transition areas.

“I have been called to countless athletic fields to lend some advice to the athletic field manager, school custodian or the school board member that wanted a better field for the young athletes in their district,” Fowler says. “After a few stops with the similar answers, I realized that many people were forgetting the basic steps that we need to keep in the forefront when maintaining athletic fields.”

“When you think of what equipment is needed and the way it is maintained, sports turf is very similar to a golf course,” says Michael Flowers, founder and a consultant to Championship Turf Services of Connecticut.

“You are doing a lot of aeration, top dressing and inputting fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides when called for. In fact, when hiring personnel, I look (for) people with turf degrees or those that actually are coming from a golf course.”

The cost of procuring all the necessary equipment to properly maintain sports fields is something companies should consider if wanting to offer this add-on service.
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Similarities and differences

Workers already on the staff can make the jump from commercial and residential lawn care to sports fields if you decide to offer that service, but they need to be properly trained to not only cut and care for grass but also to be your eyes in the field, especially when you are dealing with a 25- to 30-acre sports field complex.

“The crew is mowing, fertilizing and other chores and can spot a problem so it can be nipped in the bud,” Flowers says.

“Sports turf has so many different levels of play,” says Phillip Sanders, training manager at King Green in Michigan. “We focus on youth club sports with the occasional high school field.

“My oldest son worked as a collegiate baseball grounds keeper. Every time he went to his younger brother’s baseball game, he would complain about the quality of the field. The lesser-demanding sports fields are better for LCOs to add to their business. High-quality fields are a specialty and demand special attention.”

To Sanders, the big difference in sports turf maintenance from commercial and residential is, of course, the size of the task and the frequency of fertilizer application compared to commercial/residential. “We give eight applications for residential and 12 applications for sports turf,” he says.

Adding sports turf to your offerings, says Sanders, is “tricky.” “We have found the greatest success when a member of our team is involved with the club or has a player on the team.

“By having eyes on the field, sometimes daily but minimum weekly, we can head off potential problems that we can fix,” he says. “The large problems we can only identify, educate and develop the best workaround we can. When clubs and schools hire LCOs like King Green, they develop and maintain safer playing surfaces for the student athlete.”

Communication between the field manager and those using the fields is vital, Fowler says. “We have to let people around us, our bosses, supervisors, coaches, players, volunteer parents and school administrators know what we know. Not only what we need for a safer and more playable field, but also why we need it,” he adds.

“Our jobs as sports turf managers are to maintain fields, their job is to do something else. We need to communicate our needs and our reasons for our needs so that they better understand the importance of the eight steps.”

Flowers says because of potential litigation against the owner or manager of the fields, the playing surface demands meticulous care.

He says an ongoing and detailed conversation between those overseeing the field and you is crucial to ensuring the field or fields are always in pristine condition.

Flowers says adding sports turf maintenance was a leap of faith of sorts. “I was a landscape contractor and had a lot of hydro-seeding business, so in the late 1990s I figured rather than having a division for sports field maintenance, I would do it full time. People thought I was crazy, but we now do only sports fields and have many clients,” he says.

Schedules for maintaining sports fields need to be flexible especially during the seasons when the field is in high demand.
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Major investment

Jamin DeJong owns Tender Lawn Care in Michigan and maintains athletic fields complexes with baseball and soccer fields. Having the right equipment is necessary, but DeJong says even more important is making sure you have the right people for the job.

“On the mowing side, you can have crews that cross over from commercial and residential to sports fields, but I really want someone with background in sports turf or turfgrass management involved because you have to be knowledgeable when looking for and managing diseases and other problems that occur on the sports fields,” he says.

“This all needs to be done while meeting the expectations of the client and keeping playing surfaces as safe as possible,” he says. “When you are working on high-use sports fields, there is less room for error and being proactive really does matter.”

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DeJong says that before you jump into sports turf management, you need to carefully examine whether you can afford the equipment necessary to meet the demands of maintaining athletic fields, frequent mowing of large areas, deep tine aeration, sand top dressing and possibly specialized fertilization, herbicide and pesticide applications based on soil tests and micro site conditions.

“You are greatly increasing the frequency of mowing and fertilization when you are dealing with a sports field as opposed to, say, a commercial property. Someone needs to be the ‘eyes on site’ so small issues can be dealt with before they become big problems. Ongoing communication with your point of contact is key,” he adds.

Flowers says that athletic fields in the northern climate will likely be bluegrass while poa annua and fescue varieties that are avoided. “We are always fighting poa anna and fescue grass can by slippery, which you don’t want on a sports field,” he explains. Southern fields are likely to be Bermuda grass.

Sports turf has compacted soil from usage and often don’t drain particularly well, often puddling in low spots. “It’s harder to maintain than a golf course in some ways,” Flowers says. “Because a school or town doesn’t have the budget that a golf club has.”

Certain areas of sports field need maximum attention; the goalmouth and midfield areas on a soccer field and the infield of baseball or softball fields for instance.

“You wind up doing a lot of over seeding in these areas,” says Flowers. “One thing you can’t use on a sports field is a zero turn mower because it might damage the turf when making a turn.”

Flowers says the work crews have to know that they aren’t just lowering the rear tailgate of a truck and mowing, they have to be trained for the task and ready to address any problems on the field.

“You have to be proactive in meeting the customer’s needs, which can vary during the year,” he says. “There may be smaller windows to get the job done because fields are sometimes used every day of the week or most days, so you have to work hand-in-hand with the field manager to set up a maintenance schedule that can change from week to week and day to day.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.