BMO Field switching to natural turf, players, fans anticipate superior playing conditions

Mike Jiggens
March 30, 2010
By
WHILE many Canadian municipalities have recently embraced artificial turf sports fields as a means of alleviating the wear and tear of their natural fields, a prominent field in Toronto has opted to move in the opposite direction.
BMO Field, home of Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC, has removed its artificial surface and will be replacing it with natural turf in time for the team’s 2010 home opener in mid-April. thumb_bmoweb

Located at Exhibition Place on the Lake Ontario waterfront, the city-owned stadium was surfaced with artificial turf when it was originally constructed three years ago. It was given a temporary taste of natural turf last summer in preparation for an exhibition match—or “friendly”—against Spain’s most successful soccer team, Real (Royal) Madrid.

The visiting team’s one condition for playing the friendly was that the contest be played on natural turf. The game served as a precursor for what a natural grass field means to a professional sports franchise and its fans.

Robert Hunter, executive vice-president of venues and entertainment for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE), the company responsible for managing BMO Field, spoke at the Ontario Turfgrass Symposium at the University of Guelph in February of the events which led to the decision to supplant artificial turf with a natural surface on a permanent basis.
He said it was something both the fans and players wanted. Some key players who were in the twilight of their careers refused to sign for further service in Toronto, opting to finish their careers with teams which had natural turf fields. Although those players enjoyed their time in Toronto and had built a rapport with the home fans, they felt their aging bodies were better suited to playing on natural turf.

“It’s a perceived issue relative to wear and tear on your body and/or proneness to injury,” Hunter said.

Recently-published studies into sports injuries atop artificial vs. natural fields does not necessarily corroborate the players’ assessment of synthetic surfaces, but it tends to be the standing argument of most athletes, he added.

Thirteen of 16 teams in the league have natural surfaces.

“We see it as a competitive disadvantage, playing on artificial turf,” Hunter said. “We feel we need to be on grass to be competitive.”

The team hasn’t fared particularly well in the league standings during its first three seasons, and it’s believed a switch to natural turf might help provide a competitive edge.

“We wanted to put it in mainly because we think of it as a higher level of professionalism and credibility to our game.”

Another key factor leading to the quest for natural turf was the amount of wear BMO Field was undergoing, not only by the Toronto FC but by the community at large. One of the stipulations surrounding the field’s construction in 2007 was that it be “bubbled” to accommodate winter use by the community. During its three years under a bubble, the field was operating at 95 per cent capacity. Hunter said it was next to impossible to book time for the field’s use. The Toronto Soccer Association alone bought 85 per cent of available time each year.

When the stadium was originally built and the artificial turf installed, the surface was expected to last upwards of eight years, but was showing serious signs of wear after only three seasons. The FC players were complaining about the deteriorating playing conditions, saying they weren’t up to the standards of what they should have been.

The stadium has been a rousing success since its opening in terms of user time and attendance at FC games—52 consecutive sellouts—but its round-the-clock usage has taken its toll on the field itself.

“The other main reason (for resurfacing the stadium) was that the success story behind BMO Field from a community standpoint was the excessive use by the community.”

The City of Toronto wasn’t keen on replacing the existing artificial turf surface with another synthetic product, knowing less than half of the surface’s expected lifespan was all that was realized, and opted to support the players’ and fans’ wishes to move toward going natural.
The $62.9-million (plus another $10,000 in land costs) stadium was originally built for two reasons: to help secure the Canadian Soccer Association’s bid for hosting the FIFA Under 20 World Cup in 2007 and providing incentive to MLSE’s “mild interest” of getting into the soccer business.

“Toronto was ripe for a team, but there was no home to play in.”

The city had been home to other top-level soccer teams in the past. Some enjoyed short-term success, but most were deemed long-term failures.

“What BMO Field provided to the Toronto FC was a real true and professional home. What it did for the Canadian Soccer Association was equally the same.”

Hunter said the construction of the stadium was “a great success story in a multi-partner relationship.” On board to foot the stadium’s expense were the federal government ($27 million), the provincial government ($8 million), the City of Toronto ($9.8 million) and MLSE itself ($8 million plus another $10 for securing the naming rights).

“It was a great project from a public/private funding standpoint.”

The support by the community for the Toronto FC team has been overwhelming. In addition to its 52 consecutive sellouts, which ranks FC tops in the league, the team has approximately 17,000 season ticket holders in waiting.

Hunter said BMO Field offered an immediate connection with the community to the team.
Its conversion to natural turf also includes a sub-surface heating system to ensure the field’s grass remains healthy throughout a playing season which begins in late March and can stretch to mid-November, depending on the team’s playoff success.

“We had a pretty tight timeline to get this field ready for this year,” Hunter said, adding MLSE scrambled last summer to convince all parties involved of the surface conversion’s importance to soccer.

An agreement is still in place which allows the field to be used 20 hours a week by the community on a rental basis. One of the city’s conditions for endorsing the $3.5-million project was to relocate BMO Field’s bubble to Lamport Stadium, an artificial turf, multi-purpose stadium in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. It cost an additional $1.6 million to facilitate Lamport Stadium with the equipment necessary to house a bubble.

The moment city council granted approval for the conversion to natural turf, documents were sent to potential contractors. General contractor for the project was North Gate Farms Ltd. of Toronto.

The key aspect of the project was the installation of “miles and miles” of Glycol heat tubing beneath the surface. The milder-than-usual winter of 2009-2010 proved beneficial to the contractor who was able to progress with the project along a good timeline. MLSE had looked at similar sports field projects in Denver and Chicago which had both installed sub-surface heating systems.

Fifteen irrigation heads have been installed on the field—six on each side and three down the middle.

The site will eventually be covered in a Kentucky bluegrass mix sod, grown and installed by Zander Sod Co. Limited of Kettleby, Ont. Zander had provided the temporary sod covering last summer for the friendly against Real Madrid.

It is expected the annual cost of maintaining the natural surface will be about $200,000.
“This is a learning exercise for us and will be driven by how things go and by a lot of the variables,” Hunter said.

MLSE will be conferring with the provincial government about the issue of pest management, hoping for an exception to the current cosmetic pesticide ban which forbids chemical pest control products to be used on sports fields. For international sports events, an allowance for some pesticide use is given.

In addition to preparing the stadium for its upcoming natural turf surface, 1,400 more seats are being installed in time for the 2010 season, increasing the seating capacity to about 21,500.

“This is their (the fans’) cause now, and they’ve been very patient with us in the first three years of having pretty mediocre teams,” Hunter said, suggesting a new coach, new players, a new attitude and a new natural grass surface might help turn the team’s fortunes around.

The artificial turf removed from BMO Field is currently in storage with North Gate Farms. Various groups have expressed an interest in using portions of the old surface.

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