Case Study: Rugby Comes to SoccerPlex Stadium

Happy Monday everyone!!  Hopefully your week is off to a successful start…

In support of the high traffic sports field discussions on this blog, we have some new evidence to share in the “yes, it is possible for grass fields to take more” category.   The SoccerPlex Stadium field experienced yet another test of durability and strength w/ the University of Maryland v. US Navy in 15 v 15 rugby Friday night.  The field, renovated last fall and grown in from Kentucky bluegrass seed (see “SoccerPlex Stadium Renovation” section of this blog) has hosted 20 soccer events since March 14 (10 youth matches, 5 pro exhibitions, 1 pro team training, & 2-6 hour long clinics) while sitting nearly dormant because of below normal/ near freezing temperatures.  We were very happy to have that weather pattern break last Monday just to allow us to get some green up and enough growth to mow at least a few times at 3/4″.

Because SoccerPlex itself, or any of our field management staff,  had never hosted rugby on grass before, we adopted the 2 matches: 1 on Field 12; 1 of stadium; as a Case Study for field wear.  A common theme amongst those with the old belief that seed can not grow into a strong field as quickly as SoccerPlex Stadium has, and still host American football or rugby.  But our hypothesis has been the opposite… that the field would take rugby (and American football) BETTER because it was seeded.  So the jury was out, and the nervousness ensued….

In preparation for the matches, 2 weeks prior we invited the Maryland squad out to do a rugby simulation.  With never hosting or seeing 15v15 rugby match live, we had no idea how to prepare for it.  For lacrosse, creases and arches are sand dress to protect the plant crowns from damage.  For multiple soccer matches, the field is deep tined  to soften slightly and watered a bit less to “firm up” the surface.  For rugby, we had no idea!  So the “test” allowed us to witness the sport, see how the field might respond, and create an approach for managing the traffic.  Also with the test, we used a shear strength tool to get a baseline for the lbs/in that is would take to rip the turf and documented root growth and condition.  A picture of the root mass:

Roots on March 16

Roots on March 16

Roots on March 29

Roots on March 29

Overall, the test went smooth and we decided the field, with a good watering the night before, was prepared to take the shearing and digging from the rugby “scrum” without anything special being done to it.  But because of the cold weather and a lack of active growth, we did decide to made a soil nutrient application to feed the cold soil environment along w/ some “liquid oxygen” to stimulate root activity; both in case we needed the plant to recover from damage.

Game day arrived with the field in fantastic condition, even with hosting 19 prior events this spring already.  To start, 1/2″ of rain was received from a thunderstorm at about 5am.  The heavy rain provided the perfect amount of moisture and allowed us to save water.  Layout and painting of the field took place the day before, so mowing, goal sleeve dig out, and post set up was the game day activity required.

The 15v15 matches were 90 minutes long w/ a running clock for 2- 45 minute halves.  Warm-ups lasted about 45 mins as well.  Ultimately the fields were in play for about 2.25 hours for each. Field 12 is an overseeded Patriot bermudagrass field on native soil, so outside of being too wet there were no concerns with play because the field is nearly indestructible.  The concerns, if any, were with the stability and durability of the sand surface w/ the still young Kentucky bluegrass of the stadium field when subjected to the digging, pushing, turning, and tackling that takes place in a rugby match.

In the end, those concerns were put to rest completely.  Following warm-ups, a thunderstorm passed directly to our north causing a lightning delay for about 45 mins.  When the teams took the field again, we walked the field for any divots or damage.  That turned into a peaceful stroll across a field that showed zero wear or damage to begin the evening.  But again, it was just warm-ups.  The worry of the speed, the hitting, and the digging of the “scrum” was still there.  Here are some of the photos and highlights:

SoccerPlex Stadium Lined for Rugby

SoccerPlex Stadium Lined for Rugby

SoccerPlex Stadium Set for Rubgy

SoccerPlex Stadium Set for Rugby

Maryland v Navy

Maryland v Navy

Maryland v. Navy

Maryland v. Navy

The durability that the field displayed during warm-ups continued throughout the 90 min match.  A post game inspection of the field found little to no damage to the surface.  1 or 2 small tears were found, but nothing over 3/4″ deep.  Ultimately, the field continued to take the traffic in stride, just as it has since opening on Oct. 6 of last year.  Some of the evidence:

Center of field following rugby match

Center of field following rugby match

Center of Field Post Rugby Match

Center of Field Post Rugby Match

The single damaged spot

A Small Tear Following Rugby

Post rugby match

Post Rugby Match.. Cleat Marks Into Sand

An Additional Small Tear Following a Rugby Match

An Additional Small Tear Following a Rugby Match

Post Rugby Match, Cleat Marks into the Sand

Post Rugby Match, Cleat Marks into the Sand

The Maryland Club Rugby Facebook Page also has some fantastic pics as well:

Maryland Rugby Facebook Action Photo Album

Following the match and data collecting, we are now creating conclusions of how and why the newly renovated field sustains traffic with such strength and durability.  Some of our thoughts currently are:

1)  No sod/ organic layer:  Because the cleats of the players are digging into the firm sand, the overall stability of the surface is better.  “Divots” that come out of fields are generally at the sod/ sand interface because the roots are not leaving the sod into the sand.  This field does not have that, so divots are impossible.

2)  Superior root density and shear strength:  The new varieties of Kentucky bluegrass from seed that were used to grow in the field  appear to be far superior in creating root density and shear strength.  That is something the damage sustained from play when the seed was 35 days old illustrated immediately as the grass layer just “rolled up” and was stepped back down.  These varieties, even at just 7 months old (only 3 active growing months), are on a different level.

3)  Stability fibers in the sand:  Historically, stability fibers (fibre sand) has had a bad reputation in the USA because of numerous failures.  As a student in college, I was a witness to one of those failures.  But it now is very evident that the fibers themselves were not what was failing, it was us as US managers laying thick cut sod on reinforced sand then expecting the fibers to do their job w/ out aggressively aerating.  Stability fibers provide firmness to the sand and give the seedling plant roots something to wrap around and secure themselves tightly into the sand.  Because of that, “shearing” is impossible.  Leaf blades can be torn off, but the crown and root of the plant remains.

We are continuing to document the field for another week following the rugby match as the field is prepared for the home open for the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League this coming weekend.  Monday morning the field was deep tined at 8″ to loosen the reinforced sand and then was aerated with solid tines on 1″x 2″ centers at 3″ deep to soften the surface for soccer.  Ultimately no matter what conclusions we draw in the end…  once the rugby lines grow out (or get greened out), it would seem that the combination of seeding with superior Kentucky bluegrass varieties into reinforced sand has created a surface that the turn around from rugby to soccer is possible over and over again.

What are your thoughts and experiences with the traffic and damage sustained from rugby?  What a fantastic sport to watch… I can see why its so popular across the world now.  It absolutely was a treat to be able to host the event!!

Cheers to 2013 Being A Year of Revolution!

With the end of 2012, there are numerous “year in review” segments surrounding us.  From sports to business to celebrity stunts…  we have the “best of” and “worst of” for nearly every aspect of life for the past year.

In that festive “reviewing” spirit, lets summarize the 4 main themes this blog has worked to create and cultivated ideas around in 2012 through our discussions together.  Highlights include:

  1. Documentation and discussions surrounding an eye opening and idea creating trip to the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Spain

Summary:  Our European field management colleagues are absolutely tremendous.   Their aggressive approaches push natural grass fields to a higher level.  The fields I had the privilege to observe in early May were all perfect, even with the challenging climate and at the end of the all winter playing season.  The fields provided lessons for me to expand our techniques and improve our grass fields in order to enable them to sustain increased traffic.

With their aggressiveness, the European sports field industry continues to grow their techniques and ideas.  Field Management Professionals are supplied with new equipment and technologies from ground care equipment companies that are focused on making fields better.  Aggressive aeration equipment, grow lighting, improved cultivation equipment, different options for mowing, synthetic reinforcement for rootzones… all are examples of ideas developed in the European market to improve grass field quality.  And all of these are things we can begin to utilize to improve grass fields so that they can sustain increased traffic.

On December 9th for Sunday Night Football, Lambeau Field gave a Prime Time demonstration of just how good some of these ideas are.  Mr. Allen Johnson’s field, which utilizes some European techniques, performed flawlessly in a driving snow storm.  Mr. Johnson and his crew are to be commended for their tremendous work and for their open minded utilization of new techniques.  Lambeau’s fantastic condition and playability serves as a shining example of why high level sports in Europe are played on grass surfaces, not synthetic, even through the dead of winter.

2013:  Maryland SoccerPlex plans to continue to employ more and more of these new European ideas and techniques in a “hybrid” approach to field maintenance, fusing together American and European ideas.  Look for demonstration days to exchange ideas with you and our other colleagues for brain storming, a Sports Field Academy, and a week long trip to Europe that you can join us on to explore and exchange ideas with our European colleagues.

2. Discussions Involving Maintain High Traffic Athletic Fields

 Summary:  During 2012, we discussed many concepts on a quest to improve the quality of grass fields while they sustain an increased amount of traffic.  But with our discussions also came stead fast results.  With the end of the 2012 event season, our native soil, cool season grass fields wrapped up with well over 300 events on each field.  Native soil bermudagrass fields hosted over 450 events each.  The fall soccer league and tournament season went 13 weeks without fields being closed for an entire weekend because of rain… even with the fall severe thunderstorms and a hurricane.

This success of maintaining high quality, high traffic athletic fields is based on 3 Keys:  1) Aggressive Aeration 2) Nutrient Management 3) Traffic Management.  These 3 Keys were discussed on this blog and in the October issue of SportsTurf (which also featured the Maryland SoccerPlex Stadium Field of the Year award).

2013: The 3 Keys of Maintaining High Quality, High Traffic Athletic Fields will be shared 2 times during the Sports Turf Managers Conference in Daytona in a couple of weeks.  Please join me there as we brainstorm and search for new ideas to help all of our athletic fields increase in quality in order to be able to sustain more traffic.  Also in 2013, stay tuned for more sharing and brainstorming as we all work together to develop even better methods for grass field maintenance so our fields can withstand increased traffic without being replaced with synthetic turf.  If you haven’t engaged in the conversation in 2012, please join us in 2013!!

      3. Documentation of a Stadium Field Renovation 

Summary:  The SoccerPlex Stadium renovation was the highlight of 2012 for outside the box thinking and sharing ideas on this blog.  In 40 days, the stadium field was completely renovated.. reseeded w/ Kentucky bluegrass… and open again for play.

Aug. 27 and 28: 4” of existing organic buildup was removed from the field
Aug. 28 and 29: 3/4” of new sand was installed and laser graded
Aug. 30: New sand blended together to expose synthetic sand reinforcement
Aug. 31: Irrigation installation and sand preparation for seeding
Sept. 1: Seeding w/ 2.5 lbs Kentucky bluegrass/1000
Sept. 2: 2nd Seeding w/ 2.5 lbs Kentucky bluegrass/1000
Sept. 5: Broadcast seeding w/ 1 lb perennial ryegrass through the center and broadcast
w/ paper mulch in attempt to protect top of crown from heavy rain moving in
Sept. 8: 1st Kentucky bluegrass germination (7 days from seeding)
Sept. 21: 1st Mowing.  (20 days after seeding)
Oct. 6: Field opens for Discovery Cup, Maryland SoccerPlex’s signature event
Nov. 9: Field Hosts ACC Men’s Championships (70 days after seeding)
Nov. 18: Field closes for winter after hosting 20 matches in 14 days

The renovation was a complete success, even more so than we could have ever imagined.  THANK YOU to all those that supported it, even if you were skeptical!  The field is in perfect condition going into the New Year, its playability superior and wear tolerance already tremendous with new turfgrass genetics and no sod layer to combat.

2013:  A busy 2012 schedule will increase with the addition of the Washington Spirit, of the new National Women’s Soccer League, who will call SoccerPlex Stadium home starting in mid-March.  The addition of rugby is also on tap for 2013, as is more lacrosse than ever before.  With the genetically superior Kentucky bluegrass varieties and no sod layer to compact from heavy use, more play will be welcomed to SoccerPlex Stadium with less maintenance and w/ the use of fungicide nearly eliminated.

Employing the lessons of bringing the field from sand to play in 35 days is the most exciting part of 2013 though.  The overwhelming feedback from the turf grass industry was that such a feat was in no way possible.  Well, not only was it possible, it was actually less complicated than anyone could have ever imagined.  But the lesson for 2013 isn’t that all fields should be seeded…  (though it is obvious that there are opportunities to save money, preserve the environment, and improve long term turfgrass health w/ seeding and sprigging).  The bigger lesson is that thinking outside the box is the only way we can discover new methods and new ideas.  Before 1492 when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, it was accepted that the world was flat.  We all have the opportunity to be our industry’s own Christopher Columbus as we think outside the box.

  4. Expanding Professionalism:

Summary:  In 2012, we exchanged ideas on professionalism and being “extraordinary” in times of stress.  2012 itself was a year of stress for grass fields.  Increasing event schedules, heat, drought, snow storms, hurricanes… doesn’t it feel like there is always something?!? Well you are not alone… Our industry is being pushed more & more to perform to a higher level and w/ little extra time & no room for error.

2013:  The demands from grass fields will continue to increase in 2013.  Revenue generated from extra events allow our companies and teams to operate successfully and give us Sports Field Managers the ability to build our budgets & expand our ideas.  2013 is going to be an absolutely fantastic year.  In 2013 we have the opportunity improve our grass field quality more than every while those fields take on more events and generate our organizations more revenue.

So as we make our New Years Resolutions for 2013, let’s add something that helps you increase professionalism, build trust, respect, and chemistry with your organization.  Brainstorm an idea new event for your own field to host…  Secure a uniform sponsorship via one of your vendors to improve your staff imagine… Put on a lawn care seminar for the people in your front office to improve their lawns.  The opportunities are endless.  As you brainstorm these resolutions, share them with us too please!!  Let us all work together in supporting each other in 2013 as the Sport Turf Manager industry illustrates how WE and our grass fields can be EXTRAORDINARY!!

In closing, HAPPY 2013 to everyone that follows along with our ideas here on this blog.  THANK YOU for making 2012 absolutely amazing.  A special thanks to all of you that have shared your ideas with us in order for us all to create new ideas going into 2012.  2013 is going to be a wonderful year for everyone involved with grass fields… A year of revolutionary steps.  From vendors to managers who maintain grass fields to the players and coaches who use them, the revolution will reach all levels as we work together to create new, positive ideas to improve grass fields.

Think about this with some bubbly tonight: “Evolution” is changing the answer…. but replacing the question is a “Revolution”.

Cheers to your 2013 being a Revolution. 

SoccerPlex Stadium Factors For Renovation- The Investigation

Organic Build-Up

As we discuss the factors that lead to the SoccerPlex Stadium renovation project last month, it is only fitting that I adopt an “investigation” theme following last night’s season premier of 2 of my favorite television crime dramas.

Certainly it did not take the extensive type of special investigating skills that are possessed by NYC’s finest detectives to lead us to the factors for renovation: 1) 4″ organic layer build up & 2) the large poa annua infestation.  But the problems caused by the organic layer factor were not as obvious as the lime green poa annua.

Poa Infestation

But by following the clues, the 3 major challenges with the field from a maintenance and playability all manifested as clues leading back to the perpetrator:  the 4″ organic layer.

Those 3 clues were:

1) An initial severe black layer issue

2)  Surface hardness when dry

3) Lack of root depth

Let’s explore the clues and how they pointed back to the organic layer:

1) An initial severe black layer issue:  When I inherited the field in the spring of 2009, a thick black anaerobic layer topped the field.  Black layer is caused by the lack of soil gas exchange due to excessive moisture/ lack of aeration in the top layer of the field.  Upon my arrival in February we started topdressing immediately to prepare the field for the exhibition season in early March.  Even with 1/4″ of sand across the top of the layer, during the initial few matches on the field, players were slipping and sliding from the black layer.

Aggressive aeration and continued topdressing solved the problem of the black layer.  Initially however, the cause of the layer was blamed on the lack of and improper aeration techniques during the field’s first 8 seasons:  not the 4″ organic layer.   The sand based field w/ turf grid stability fibers had only been aerated 2 times a year for the previous 5 years- 1 time in the spring, 1 time in the fall at 4″ with coring tines.  The sand below that 4″ had hardened off completely, especially with turf grids (sand w/ re-inforced gets very hard over time if not aerated deep).  So the reason for the black layer originally seemed that it must be from the 4″ aerations had created a top “layer” that was holding all the water because the sand below was sealed off and water could not soak in.

And yes, that was part of the problem  Once the field was deep tined multiple times over the next month, core aeration took place at multiple depths, and topdressing sand was applied… the black layer was broken down.  But the clues towards a bigger issue started to become more glaring as the anaerobic conditions continued in the top layer.

2)  Surface hardness when dry:  The clue for the organic layer being problem was the surface hardness of the field.  The field would go from soft to extreme hard as soon as it dried down.  Athletes were complaining about the surface hardness on their legs and balls that were played long in the air bounced off the field like it was concrete.  To negate the problem, aggressive aeration continued to be implemented in conjunction with heavy watering prior to high level events to insure the surface was soft and playable for the athletes.  The cultivation and watering helped… but more water starts to lead back to the the black layer issues.  More clues that there was a bigger issue.

3) Lack of root depth: The last clue towards a larger issue with the SoccerPlex Stadium field was the lack of root depth that could be created.  Even with aggressive aeration, proper nutrient management, and a bio-stimulant program designed to drive roots…  the roots still did not want to leave the top 4″. They would push down through the sand channels with aeration holes, but the major root mass would not push past.

At the point of connecting all the evidence from the challenges of the 4″ organic layer, it became even more evident that a micro soil environment was present and we were not going to be able to overcome it with aggressive aeration and topdressing alone.    The fines in the organic were locking up too quickly to allow water to pass through consistently (causing black layer).  The fines locked up and then drying out then created the rock hard surface when dry (making the surface hard for playability) and were holding all of the nutrients from fertilizers and not allowing them down into the sand.  With all the nutrients in the top layer, the plant roots had no desire to go into the sand because there was no food there.

The evidence showed that the only answer was to cut out the 4″ organic layer and get back down to the original sand w/ turf grids for stability fibers as the growing media for the grass.  Especially with seeding, all of the negatives from the old field would be eliminated:  1)  no black layer because the native sand to the field drains at over 20″ per hour; 2) no surface hardness because the sand is firm but soft; and 3) the roots can grow down through the entire 12″ consistent profile.

Now that the renovation as been completed and the seed is growing in, already it is clear that all those factors have been eliminated.   The organic layer gone, along with the poa annua removed, has reduced the amount of water require for irrigation, the amount of fertilizer used, and will slash the amount of fungicide needed.  Already, just 26 days later, the evidence is clear the renovation was a success.