Time To Upgrade To A Synthetic Turf Pitch?

In a brave move the Football League has asked for feedback on the acceptance of synthetic turf for Football League club pitches. Already this has produced some outrageous responses from natural turf enthusiasts. Yet, is the narrow mindedness of leading groundsmen to blame for the move towards synthetic turf?

There is a natural turf solution out there, with many years experience at some of the top stadia in the country. Yet certain clubs, aware of this and with experience of such a system, are still pushing towards synthetic turf, so there must be a reason.

If we look at three simple criteria for justifying the need for a synthetic turf pitch, it becomes clear that clubs should only be allowed to go with synthetic turf, if:

  1. Natural turf cannot be kept to the standard required
  2. Extra income is needed from the facility
  3. Commitment to the community demands more use of a facility

Now this would exclude many clubs from qualifying for a synthetic turf pitch, but it does mean that it is up to natural turf groundsmen to meet the demands clubs put on their pitches, and, quite simply, if they can’t then synthetic turf is the answer.

Eighteen years ago I was instrumental in bringing in the fibre re-inforced system, as currently installed at Wembley and several Premier League stadiums, into the UK. Everyone knows this contains synthetic fibres, yet, due to the small percentage of yarn, the pitch is still considered as natural. As far as I am aware there is only one community field laid with this system, in Preston, and this field copes with over 1000 hours of use per year. Now this already is a considerable increase in usage compared with a standard pitch. So this should be the first system to look at if more usage is required. Maybe it is because fibre reinforced pitches are seen as relevant for stadium fields and not as community facilities. Certain reinforced stadia pitches already have football/rugby use but hours of usage probably don’t exceed 200 per year, if that, so usage is far below capacity. So why are more clubs outside the Premier League not considering this option, when there is a chance to increase usage by significant multiples?

I would answer that by saying that club groundsmen have not done enough themselves to convince chairmen, directors and owners that there is a natural solution. In addition there is the cost of upgrading to this system, which is on a par with a new synthetic turf pitch.

So do you go with an upgrade to a pitch which remains natural and can give you an increase, probably five fold on current usage, or a synthetic turf pitch, which, based on 40 hours a week, can double this amount to 2000 hours, at a similar cost?

It becomes clear that a club needs to look very closely at whether it needs synthetic turf, or a fibre re-inforced pitch, for its usage. If we use the example of Wycombe Wanderers, a club with several years experience of the fibre re-inforced system, and a driving force towards the acceptance of synthetic turf, there must be a reason for their desire to go one step further. The current pitch will have staged over 50 matches by the end of the season and still looks and plays well. In fact it remains a credit to the grounds staff. But Wycombe’s board realises that installing a synthetic turf pitch gives them new possibilities:

  1. Increased usage
    a. Unlimited training on the pitch during the day for Wycombe and Wasps
    b. 40 hours a week upwards for outside bookings
    c. Small sided games increasing the number of players on the pitch at any one time
  2. Increased revenue
    a. Based on b. and c. above this could bring in well over £100,000 per annum, and even up to £125,000, based on 52 weeks, at an average of £60 per hour and 40 hours per week
    b. More revenue in the club bar, through sponsors and even kit sales
    c. Savings on pitch hire elsewhere
  3. Coaching opportunities
    a. Currently club coaching is carried out around the town and surrounding communities. With a synthetic turf pitch, the players come to you.
    b. It is no co-incidence that leading European countries such as Holland, Germany and Spain coach their youngsters on synthetic turf, to improve their skills
    c. The chance to find and produce more quality players, who can then be sold onto bigger clubs.
  4. Community benefits
    a. The community will have a dedicated 3G surface available for the public to hire
    b. This also means the club can foster closer links to the community
    c. It will, based on experience elsewhere, increase the number of club supporters, particularly with kids
  5. Certainty of performance
    a. Despite the increase in usage the performance of the surface remains constant
    b. Climatic extremes will not affect it.
    c. Player’s are given a safer surface to play on. So back to justification. If a club wants to follow Wycombe’s lead away from natural turf to synthetic it needs to answer the criteria posed.

If the fibre re-inforced system satisfies their needs then that should be the first change. If not then the move towards synthetic turf can be justified, whatever the natural turf lobby thinks.

False rhetoric, outrageous claims and head in the sand approach is not the way forward for groundsmen, but a balanced evaluation of its clubs needs will produce the correct decision. Make no mistake synthetic turf has to be accepted, if not now, at some stage, because the arguments for it are overwhelming.

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