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Investing in a Synthetic Athletic Field

Have you found yourself on a decision-making committee that’s responsible for delivering the best possible synthetic athletic field for your school or community? If so, a bit of anxiety is par for the course. The easy part of the decision is recognizing the superiority of synthetics versus natural. Synthetic grass fields can be used virtually 24/7 with minimal, low-cost maintenance, while the use of natural grass fields must be monitored and limited. To keep a natural grass field in excellent condition, the maintenance costs are substantial. Synthetic grass fields are known for their outstanding playability even in the most extreme weather conditions, while even the best-cared-for natural grass surfaces can be ruined by just one bad weather pattern at the wrong time. Any reasonable analysis considers the impressive utility of synthetic fields; there are documented cases of a single field getting more than 500 uses annually. By spreading the initial investment over the expected life of a synthetic surfacing system – often projected as 10 -12 years – the rationale for the investment becomes crystal clear. When we combine the consistent playability of synthetics over time with the number of uses the school or community enjoys, and the long expected life of the investment, it’s easy to see why so many fields are being converted from natural to man-made. At every level of competition, for virtually every sport, more and more games and practices are being played on synthetic turf. Many of us have heard the saying, “the devil is in the details”. This concept really applies to the evaluation process of the products and the companies that compete in the synthetic athletic field industry. This is where the anxiety comes into play. There’s a common misconception that all these new generation infilled grass systems are alike. Not true. Even more daunting can be the task of differentiating companies, which is arguably even more important than the differentiating characteristics of the surfacing systems themselves. The details – about product components and the company that builds them into a finished field – are really critically important. How Familiar Are You with the Product? The typical individual who sits on such an evaluation committee is bright and accomplished. Upper echelon school personnel and community leaders are the prototypical types of people who find this decision on their long list of pressing issues. While there is nothing in and of itself that’s difficult to understand about evaluating product components and finished systems – nor company performances – the challenge in this business is lack of familiarity with the product. There is an unusually high number of factors to consider, and there is only one emerging central source of information that’s unbiased – The Synthetic Turf Council. Those competing for the project, where there is a natural bias, deliver most of what’s learned about varying product attributes and company capabilities. When we shop for a vehicle, much of what we know and like is based on first-hand-experience. We drive, we ride as passengers, and we look at other vehicles as we go about our day. The result is a reservoir of information to rely on and help us as the decision becomes refined. This contrasts sharply with “shopping” for a synthetic athletic field. The typical decision maker, while likely very capable, knows very little about the companies that present to them, or the legitimacy of what they say. Even if you, or someone on your committee, is a former athlete who competed on a synthetic field, the odds are great that this generation of synthetic fields wasn’t around in the same era of those playing days. The original installations were done in the late 1990s. This leaves us with bright, dedicated people who have a decision to make on a surfacing system where personal evaluation through use of the product is unrealistic, and the source of information – the industry participants – all too often delivers conflicting information. One company says rubber infill is better while another says a rubber and sand mix is superior. One company pushes a monofilament fiber type while their competitor says slit film fiber is best. Some say a resilient underpad that delivers stability and shock absorption is a tremendous choice, while others say a resilient underpad adds to the cost of the project and slows the athlete. Glued seams versus sewn. A dense matrix of fibers with less infill weight or more space between fibers and therefore more infill weight. A four-part carpet backing versus a one-part, three-component backing. And on and on the discussion goes. Who is the Company Behind the Surface? An athletic field is a major financial investment. In addition, it’s a high-profile investment. The amount of interest in any new field is huge. From the wet-behind-the-ears athlete to the senior committee member, that field is noticed, talked about, read about in the local papers, and walked and played on. When things go well with the project, there is a great sense of community pride, and when they don’t, there is frustration and often embarrassment that really puts a damper on what should be an exciting culmination of much effort invested and money spent. Whether a project goes well or not is very much a function of the company behind the product components. Field building is specialized construction. Anyone who has been around the construction world – from additions to your home to high-rise construction projects – realizes what a demanding process it can be. Schedules. Cooperation with other trades. Delivering what’s ordered. Quality craftsmanship. Communicating throughout the process. Challenges will arise on every project. It’s a matter of how those challenges are dealt with that matters most. The field building industry has a history of some of the companies not remaining viable in the industry and therefore the warranties outliving the company. This concern should be heavily weighed when evaluating which company you want to partner with on your project. And partner is the right word. A field that lasts 10-plus years requires a partner, not just a supplier. What Steps Can Be Taken to Ensure That a Sound Decision is Made?

Remember, long after the installation crew has departed and the articles in the local newspaper are all but forgotten, what remain are the components that make up the surface and the company that stands behind it. That’s what the athletes play on and the administrators have invested in. Take the time to choose your synthetic field partner wisely.

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