The varied tasks of the sports turf manager

Working with user groups, knowing when to call rainouts are part of the job.
Mike Jiggens
June 05, 2018
By
Sports turf managers study the artificial turf surface at Tim Hortons Field.
Sports turf managers study the artificial turf surface at Tim Hortons Field.
Sports turf managers have common responsibilities no matter where they work in Canada. Yet their jobs can differ significantly, depending on the quality and quantity of fields in their care, whether they are caring for natural or artificial fields, whether the fields are privately owned or are administered by the municipality, and depending on the level of communications between the manager and the fields’ user groups.

The challenges of three distinctly different management scenarios were outlined in April at Sports Turf Canada’s 31st members’ forum and annual general meeting at Tim Hortons Field in Hamilton, Ont.

Those in attendance at the forum heard from Robert Heggie, head groundskeeper at Toronto’s BMO Field and KIA Training Centre; Joe Breedon, outdoor recreation facility co-ordinator for the City of Barrie; and Frank Cain, facility and business development manager at the University of Guelph. Although all three are charged with maintaining playing surfaces at the highest possible level of quality and dealing regularly with their main users, each possessed a distinctly different personal challenge.

Biggest challenges
Heggie said the biggest challenge he faces is explaining to people why grass doesn’t grow in February.

“The team (Toronto FC of Major League Soccer) wants to start early, the team wants to go late…” he said, referencing the FC’s earlier than normal season opener this year, which was played in late February.

“You give them all the warnings and everything they need to know, and they decide to make their own decisions, and when things don’t go right they seem to forget everything you’ve taught them in the past five years.”

Having to re-educate people is one of the most common aspects of his job, Heggie said.

“What you think is common sense to a turf manager isn’t common sense to everyone else.”

Breedon, who was named at the forum by Sports Turf Canada as its sports turf manager of the year, said he has developed a positive relationship with Barrie’s user groups over the years.

“We meet a couple of times during the winter, so I’m spoon feeding them information about why we do things, not overloading them but giving them little bits of information why we wait until May, why we need the turf to have a certain temperature for repair…,” he said. “That’s one challenge that’s slowly getting better, but there’s always a pushback, especially from the rep teams from baseball and football.”

Another challenge Breedon faces during the season is the scheduling of maintenance days so that fields can be closed for routine work. He considers himself fortunate that field bookings can be light enough to find the time necessary for maintenance days scheduling without it negatively impacting teams’ timetables, their fees or programs.

“They’ve seen the results over the last 10 years with better quality turf,” he said.

Even though maintenance days are scheduled so that one field one day of the week is taken out, it can be tough to accomplish because baseball, softball and slo-pitch are thriving in Barrie.

Because of its more northerly location in comparison to the Toronto area and other metropolitan areas in southern Ontario, Barrie’s spring start is a little later than other communities, yet there is some pressure among the city’s sports groups to begin their seasons in late April. Most years, it works, Breedon said, but it’s always a struggle to have fields ready for when users wish to begin.

Cain said the biggest challenge he faces at the university is that the institution oversees its natural grass fields and client expectations are higher than what the physical resource department can actually meet.

“Because revenue is such a big issue right now, we have involved the community into our campus way more than we ever have in the past,” he said. “Our use is way up, so the challenge is maintaining the natural grass fields.”

Six artificial turf fields, including one indoor playing surface, are among the fields under his jurisdiction.

In spite of what some users may believe, the artificial fields are not maintenance-free. Challenges, Cain said, include the need to communicate with user groups and upper management at budget time to convince them certain equipment is needed or that a grass field may have to be shut down for a summer so that it can be remediated.

“Nobody wants to hear that,” he said. “I work in an environment where – come April – exams start. Most of the people at the University of Guelph think it’s the off-season. We don’t have an off-season in our industry anymore. It’s tough to keep people motivated to ramp up for another four months.”

The industry is significantly changing, Cain said, and it’s difficult to get people to understand what the turfgrass manager does. He said finding someone with the right attitude and then training him for a skill is the key.

Handling rainouts
When it comes to calling games because of rain events, people in Breedon’s position often work outside their normal hours. A cutoff time for calling rainouts has been implemented in Barrie, but there is more flexibility with rep team games that are played at the city’s sports complex which houses 10 ball diamonds, six football/soccer fields and one rugby pitch. A team may visit Barrie for a baseball game from as far as Hamilton, arriving in the city at 5:30 p.m. for a 7 o’clock game. If it starts raining at game time, measures can be taken to try to get the game in such as applying “quick dry” products to the infield.

Breedon said he has a bigger budget to work with at the complex fields than at the various other fields scattered throughout the city and can use the products accordingly. All slo-pitch and other local league games will be canceled elsewhere in such a scenario so that staff can concentrate on rep league games.

In Barrie, two shifts operate seven days a week.

“We’re kind of unique with our sports turf division,” Breedon said. “We have somebody working all the time, and that’s three or more people working.”

When he’s not working, Breedon has a “right-hand man” on the job to take care of such decisions as canceling games due to poor weather.

Users of the sports complex in Barrie pay a little more to play there than they would at fields elsewhere in the city because such tasks as lining and painting of the surfaces are done for user groups.

“We do everything,” Breedon said. “They just show up, do their thing and leave.”

Cain said that in Guelph, its website is updated daily at 2:30 p.m. to let user groups know if a scheduled game was to be canceled due to rain. User groups are urged to check the website if there is any doubt. If a game is called due to rain by 2:30, and a user group is caught on the field, bylaw officers are notified. When games are canceled due to rain and duly noted on the university’s website, fields are closed by 2 o’clock. Groups caught on the fields afterwards are warned at first, but matters could escalate if repeat offences occur, he said.

“The system works fairly well, but we’d run into the problem that if there was a game later in the afternoon and someone was traveling from London to Guelph and I make the call at 2 o’clock and they’re on the road… It’s not a perfect system, but you do what you can.”

Cain said some field users just don’t get the concept of canceled games when rain is present. If soccer was played in the rain, goalmouths would be lost in no time and would prove costly to repair, he said, adding there is a greater risk of players getting injured in wet conditions.

Outgoing Sports Turf Canada president Tab Buckner interjected with an anecdote from policies in place in the Township of Langley, B.C. where he is operations manager. Natural turf fields in the west coast region are closed only in the fall and winter. For baseball, user groups cancel their own games and will look after much of their own minor maintenance. Municipal staff tackles major maintenance work as well as any necessary renovation work required during the season. Some baseball groups mow their own infields and do their own field lining.

Buckner said he’s fortunate that most of the newer fields in Langley are sand-based “because we have to deal with rain 365 days of the year.”

Natural turf fields are closed for soccer during the fall and winter, giving way to artificial fields. The municipality’s website is updated by noon on Fridays, letting user groups know if they are closed or under a “discretionary” status.

Working with user groups
Breedon said he meets twice annually with Barrie’s user groups – in November to recap the past season and in February to review permits and last-minute changes prior to the coming season.

“They present us with challenges they might have, not just at the complex but around the city itself,” he said.

It’s at the November meeting when user groups submit their requests for the following season’s tournaments. Although he has developed good relationships with the various league conveners over the years, he said it’s challenging for him to occasionally deliver bad news.

Cain said the university enjoys a good relationship with the City of Guelph and meets with user groups a couple times each year. It’s at these meetings when the groups are told a particular field might need to be closed and programming reworked.

“It’s important to have those user groups meetings because you can tell them their fees are going up and all that kind of stuff beforehand so there are no surprises when they start calling the booking office,” he said. “You’ve got to have those meetings to communicate, especially if you’re making a rule change.”

Field usage
Major League Soccer began its season in late February, but Heggie’s first window of opportunity to regrass BMO Field didn’t come until late May, at the outset of the World Cup break. The 2017 season didn’t finish until Dec. 9, and the field was without greenhouse storage of sod that would have cost $200,000.

“So we decided not to re-sod, and the season started early,” he said.

Heggie said he’s technically three years behind when sodding the field.

“You’re buying three-year-old technology when you buy sod because it takes three years to grow the field,” he said.

When sod is installed, Heggie said he overseeds with newer technologies of bluegrass.

Grow lights were running at BMO Field since Jan. 28 to get it ready for the Toronto FC’s first home game a month later, plus another seven events and four training sessions by the middle of April.

Cain said he would love to have an “old school” policy in place that allows four hours of daily play on natural grass fields separated by two hours.

“The reality is that doesn’t happen,” he said.

The university installed a number of artificial turf fields to attract more business. Natural fields are used all summer by the community and are “pretty much destroyed” by the time students return to campus in the fall. The artificial fields accommodate intramural sports among the students in the fall and meet the safety and playability expectations that the beaten up natural fields cannot.

Depending on the playing level of the team, games will be reserved for the natural grass fields. But their usage is limited, Cain said.

There are no artificial turf fields in Barrie that Breedon oversees, and only three of the city’s fields are lit. The playing season for the fields spans May 1 through the Friday of Thanksgiving weekend in October. By the beginning of September, half of Barrie’s turf fields close, leaving the other half for bookings.

Those in attendance at the forum learned that in Hamilton the fee structure for user groups is more community focused. The idea is to get as many people as possible onto the fields to promote health and wellness. User fees are consequently subsidized.



Line painting, field safety
On Fridays at the sports complex in Barrie, foul lines on baseball diamonds are painted immediately after the fields have been mowed. Rugby and football fields are usually painted the day before a scheduled game. A three-person crew takes a full day for football field painting and a half-day to paint a rugby field. User groups are responsible for their own field lining outside the city’s sports complex fields, but will be provided guidance when needed.

Heggie said the U.S.-based Sports Turf Management Association published a basic guide that outlines potential safety hazards on sports fields, including sprinkler heads, tripping hazards and foreign debris. Prior to each game played at BMO Field, a game day report is made, including safety checks. With six members of his staff having graduated from the University of Guelph, keen observations are made to detect anything that might have gone wrong.

“We’re always documenting and making sure we’re checked for safety because if a $7-million athlete breaks his ankle, it’s my fault,” he said.

When the field was examined in January, Heggie considered it below standard and recommended to Toronto FC officials that no game play should take place in February. Even though the field was soft and play took place, no one was injured.

“If someone gets hurt at that point, that’s not my fault,” he said. “I raised my voice and if they want to continue because they know best, then they know best.”

With synthetic turf fields, safety and playability are the main concerns, Cain said. If both meet standards of acceptability, teams can play. Testing for FIFA certification involves evaluation of G-Max surface hardness and friction correlation. Many of the same tests can be applied to a natural turf field, he added.

“If you went out and did a G-Max test on a field in the middle of August and you hadn’t had rain in two weeks and it’s a non-irrigated field, it might be like playing on concrete,” Cain said. “If somebody gets hurt on that field, the lawyer will show up with somebody who’s an expert, with a Clegg hammer, and check your field the next day.”

He said if there is proof that a field is not within an acceptable G-Max rating, and it was opened for play, a liability issue exists.

Cain offered some advice to municipalities considering installing new artificial turf fields. He said when the low bid is accepted, it often means the municipality is getting older technology, cheaper yarn and “cheaper everything,” but it all comes down to how it is specified.

“The important thing about any sports field is the sub-base,” he said. “What you put on top of it should be designed for what you’re going to use if for.”

If an artificial field is intended for football, there are surfacing types that are better suited for that sport, Cain said, adding the same is true for a field intended for soccer or as a multi-use facility. He said the problem is that a municipality’s purchasing department puts out a specification based on the opinion of a consultant who often “just happens to sell turf.”

Once an artificial field is installed, it boils down to the maintenance put into it, Cain said.

“The maintenance issue that a manufacturer will put on the field for you in order for you to maintain your warranty will wear the field out in five years,” he said. “So you end up over-maintaining it, over-grooming it and doing way too much work to it, and you wreck the turf yourself.”

Artificial turf is not maintenance-free, Cain said. In fact, he added, it involves just as much attention as a natural turf field.

Parting words
Asked to make a parting remark, the three panelists offered three distinctly different words of advice.

Heggie said it is important to never stop learning and to attend as many industry-related conferences and educational sessions as possible, recommending in particular the annual STMA conference. He said it is also important to stay in touch with university academicians and to give back to the industry.

Breedon said he is personally upgrading his computer aptitude and tries about every 18 months to learn new skills beyond those required for sports turf management, yet which may be somewhat related. He is also an advocate of social networking.

Cain said it is a good idea to think ahead to the next potential job advancement. For example, a current supervisor might want to study some management training so that he will eventually be more adept at budgeting. Sharing knowledge with others will also aid the overall industry, he added.

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