Written in 2015 by Brian Wolfson
A lot of controversy has been generated over the last couple of months regarding the fact that FIFA has chosen to implement artificial turf grass for the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Most are appalled over this decision to use synthetic turf instead of natural grass, the standard in most FIFA international matches. In addition, the use of artificial turf has sparked numerous debates within the international community, causing many to believe that this is the result of sexism in FIFA.Artificial grass can be very beneficial, and preferred, in areas of high traffic (such as inner city areas). This is because in these areas there is a greater usage of the field, since an inner city is densely populated. If an inner city field were made from natural grass, the field would get destroyed and it would not have enough time to recover due to the high demand of being inside a city (Straus). However, for an event like the FIFA Women’s World Cup, where there is ample money and time to prepare, damage to the field should not be a problem.Therefore, the purpose of this page is to provide an in-depth focus on the differences between artificial turf and natural grass fields in soccer, and will cover the following topics: history of artificial turf in professional soccer, different types of grass fields, economic costs and maintenance for artificial turf fields and natural grass, FIFA’s standards for an artificial turf field, FIFA’s reasoning for using artificial turf and solutions to the problems they present, and lastly my final thoughts on the subject.
Artificial turf was first used in 1966 when it was installed in a sports field in Houston, Texas. Back then it was called Astro Turf and was likely used for playing American Football. However, artificial turf only entered the professional soccer world in the 1980s, when English clubs such as Queen’s Park Rangers replaced their natural grass with artificial grass. While many teams followed suit, in 1994 the EPL announced that all clubs had to get rid of their artificial turf as the quality of the grass was very poor. Not only that, but the EPL saw an increasing amount of injuries during those years where synthetic turf was allowed. Then, in 2001, FIFA and UEFA created a quality assurance program, allowing people from all around the world to build artificial grass fields that followed a specific standard. Two years later, the U-17 World Cup in Finland was the first international game that featured artificial turf in one of its stadiums. Given that the synthetic turf presented no problems in this tournament, FIFA decided to make the 2007 U-17 World Cup in Peru entirely in artificial turf, claiming that “dry climate and occasional heavy rainfall” were the main reasons for choosing to use synthetic grass (“What Is Football Turf?”).
Different types of Grass Fields:
Before addressing the economic costs of using synthetic turf or natural grass, it is important to recognize that there are many different varieties of natural grasses that can be used for soccer fields. And, as one would expect, each one has its benefits and disadvantages. Specifically for natural grass, there are three types of grass fields that can be implemented for soccer: natural soil fields, modified soil fields and soilless fields.
Natural Soil fields:
Natural soil fields are the most common type of natural grass found across the United States. These fields are relatively inexpensive, as all one has to do to build a soccer field is use the natural soil found in the area and invest in a proper drainage system. However, unless the soil is very sandy, it is generally not recommended to use a natural soil field (Natural Grass and Artificial Turf 9). This is because sand helps maintain nutrients and water within the soil, and so if the soil has no sand, these fields become “plagued with internal drainage problems” (“Types of Fields”). Thus in order to fix this, a “turtle-back crown” along the perimeter of the field must be used to ensure proper drainage. In addition, another reason why natural soil fields are not the preferred option of soil to use for soccer fields is because when the field gets played on a lot, they tend to get muddy and this ruins the level of play immensely.
Modified Soil fields:
Modified soil fields are characterized by having a mixture of some material, such as sand, along with the natural soil that is found in a given area. Usually, as much as 50% of a modified soil field is made up of sand, and this percentage allows for significant improvements to be seen when compared to natural soil fields. Some of these improvements are “better internal drainage” and “less susceptibility to compaction” (“Types of Fields”). Thus, compared with natural soil fields, modified soil fields will prevent puddles from appearing on the soccer pitch and will sustain physical tear from play better. However, crowns must still be installed along the perimeter of the field, as the drainage system still isn’t perfect. Plus, with modified soil fields, one can also change the particular size of sand particles in order to achieve a desired effect (perhaps one may prefer very thin sand as opposed to thicker sand). But, this change has to be done in a lab to ensure that it is completed correctly (“Types of Fields”).
Soilless fields tend to be the most expensive out of the three natural grass fields and are usually up to 99% percent sand-based. However, they offer “excellent internal drainage” so that one does not have to install any crowns for draining water. Instead, a tile is placed under the sand to remove any water that was not dried up. The major difficulties that arise with using soilless fields are that an extensive fertilization and irrigation system must be put in place, as it is harder for grass to grow in these types of fields because the sand dries up all the water quickly. Most professional soccer fields that are in areas with very poor natural soil use soilless fields to achieve the best quality of field (“Types of Fields”).
There are many who have argued that FIFA’s decision to use artificial turf fields during the World Cup is for purely economical reasons. In other words, there is a belief that a turf field is much cheaper to implement than a grass field. Plus, some even say that because FIFA is expecting less viewership in this tournament compared to the Men’s version in 2014, they would rather spend less money on the soccer fields to increase their profit. However, recent studies show that cost should not be deciding factor when choosing which type of grass to use for a soccer field, as both artificial turf and natural grass have very similar prices.
A very comprehensive study looked at several types of natural grass fields and was able to find the aggregate costs of said fields throughout any given year:
- Natural soil fields cost around $50,000 to $150,000 to implement.
- Soilless fields, what people consider to be the standard for a good soccer field, cost anywhere from $250,000 to $350,000 to implement.
- For soilless fields, there are two other types of fields that one could implement that feature more advanced modifications to the grass.
- The first, Sand Based Mesh Element Field, “incorporates segments of polypropylene netting into the top 4 in. of the profile” (Natural Grass and Artificial Turf 9). These polypropylene nettings end up allowing for greater “water and air holding capacity, increased infiltration rates, improved surface stability, decreased divots and improved recovery time because the plants are healthier” (Natural Grass and Artificial Turf 10). Because of the increased technology, these fields tend to be more expensive, at roughly $450,000 to $600,000 to implement.
- Another variation of a soilless field, the Pure Sand Based Water-Contained Sub-Surface System Field, has a new technology that requires less than 50% water compared to a regular sand based field. Although overtime the irrigation costs for this field decreases, its price of implementation is $500,000 to $600,000 (Natural Grass and Artificial Turf 10).
The average synthetic turf field can cost anywhere from $850,000 to $1,000,000 to implement. The top layer of the artificial turf is filled with small rubber pieces, made from recycled rubber from automotive and truck scrap tires, and is intended to provide cushioning to players (“Crumb Rubber”). Next, silicone-covered fibers are meant to replace grass, with curly fibers wrapped around them to help keep the silicone-covered ones upright. In addition, “hard, chipped rock material covers the sub-base that will drain water freely” (Natural Grass and Artificial Turf 10). Because these materials tend to wear out over time, they must be replaced every 8-10 years for a cost of around $500,000 (Natural Grass and Artificial Turf 10).
It is important to recognize that the prices listed above merely represent what one would have to pay to implement and install the different kinds of fields. Thus, it’s clear that artificial turf is more expensive to implement, because the materials involved in the artificial turf field are pricier than those involved in natural grass or soilless fields. However, maintaining both artificial turf and natural grass fields is not cheap. The following table represents data regarding the maintenance of an artificial turf and a natural grass field over a year (Natural Grass and Artificial Turf 12).
As one can see, maintaining a natural grass field is slightly more expensive than a turf field, but not by a significant margin. Plus, if one takes into consideration the $500,000 that must be paid every 8-10 years to replace the carpet of an artificial turf field, and the fact that it is at least $250,000 more expensive to implement, then using natural grass ends up being cheaper in the short and long run.
Due to the increasingly popularity of artificial turf fields, in 2004 the IFAB (International Football Association Board) came to an agreement where they included artificial grass into the official Laws of the Game. However, with this change, FIFA had to institute two standards of quality for artificial grass fields. Therefore, they came up with FIFA 1 Star Recommended and FIFA 2 Star Recommended fields, and only fields that have these certifications can be allowed to host international matches (“What Is Football Turf?”). In order to be qualified as a FIFA Recommended turf field, there are several general guidelines that must be followed, such as requiring the field to have “a minimum amount of maintenance [so that it is] available for the development of players’ skills all year round” (“FIFA Recommended”).
More specifically, in its handbook of requirements, FIFA states that 2 Star fields “replicate the playing qualities of the best quality natural turf pitches. This category is intended for clubs and national federation teams wishing to play competitive matches subject to the relevant competition rules allowing the use of Football Turf or undertake training on Football Turfs.” On the other hand, 1 Star fields are “primarily aimed at organizations wishing to provide facilities for training and community use, although fields meeting this category of performance may also be used for competitive play” (FIFA Quality Concept 4).
FIFA’s Reasoning for Artificial Turf and Solutions:
All of the stadiums at the FIFA Women’s World Cup will contain 2 Star turf fields, and thus will be the best possible quality of turf available. In an official statement by FIFA, they claim that the “the particular geographic and climatic conditions in Canada mean it is more expedient to play on artificial turf. For example, outdoor grass pitches in Edmonton and Moncton cannot be used during the long cold winter months. Then there is the fact that the Olympic Stadium in Montreal is a covered arena meaning that a natural grass pitch would not get enough sunlight. In addition, most of the pitches are also used as multi-sports fields for other sports such as American or Canadian football” (“Artificial Turf for Canada 2014”).
It seems that FIFA’s main reasons for using artificial turf are cold weather and lack of natural sunlight. Yet, there are solutions for these two problems. If natural grass were used for the World Cup, FIFA could combat the cold weather by applying turf growth covers to help regenerate the grass. Some examples of premium turf covers offer the retention of “more natural heat and moisture while promoting deep root development” (“Evergreen Premium Turf Covers”). Plus, according to Covermaster.com, a website that sells premium athletic field covers, frost or any other difficulty that arises from cold weather is not a problem when a turf cover is used. They confirm that “evergreen [turf covers] will protect your turf from wind desiccation, erosion, frost and winter kill” (“Evergreen Premium Turf Covers”).
Next, in regards to the issue of not enough natural sunlight due to having a covered stadium, a solution to this problem is using mobile growing lamps. Companies such as the Dutch-based Stadium Grow Lights offer mobile growing lamps that illuminate different areas of a turf field in order to speed up its growth. These lamps can be applied outdoors in the winter months, and could also be applied in covered stadiums that don’t receive natural sunlight. Many world-class clubs around the world, such as Real Madrid and Arsenal FC, use these lights to maintain and repair their turf over the winter months (“About Us”).
If FIFA implemented both of these technologies, turf growth covers and mobile lamps could easily keep natural grass in stadiums in Canada in a healthy state over the winter. This would allow the grass to be in its best possible form for growth in the spring and for later use during the summer in the World Cup. Not only that, but the expedited growth that would come from the growth lamps would allow the grass to regenerate quickly, and thus the same stadium could be used for other sports such as American or Canadian football. This was another of FIFA’s concerns that can be fixed with modern technology.
In addition, as a side note, artificial turf fields tend to warm up a lot. In fact, a study was done that found that the average surface temperature of an artificial turf field was 117.38°F on a day where the air temperature was around 80°F. In contrast, during that same day, the average surface temperature of a natural grass field was 78.19°F. Even for cold-climate areas such as Moncton (which FIFA is concerned about its ability to grow natural grass over the winter), temperatures in the summer can reach mid to high 70s (“Moncton July Weather 2015”). Therefore, given the data from the study above, one can expect the average surface temperature of the artificial turf in Moncton during the World Cup to be over 100°F. With that said, FIFA will have to make sure the field is well irrigated to prevent major injuries from occurring (Natural Grass and Artificial Turf 20).
After extensively looking at the topic of synthetic turf and natural grass fields, it seems that there is no real benefit to using artificial turf. Economically, artificial turf is more expensive than natural grass. Next, the logistical reasons that FIFA claims for using artificial turf (difficulties with cold weather, covered arenas and use for multiple sports) can be easily remedied with modern technology. And if that weren’t enough, if the players had a say, I would bet my money that the majority would rather play on natural grass.
How to cite this page: “Turf vs. Grass” Written by Brian Wolfson (2015), World Cup 2015 Guide, Soccer Politics Blog, Duke University, http://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/world-cup-guides/world-cup-2015-guide/all-about-that-turf/turf-vs-grass/ (accessed on (date)).
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