Sunday, February 8, 2004

Plastic wins turf wars at many schools


Green, green grass of home field often isn't

By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Princeton High athletic director Scott Kauffman says the school's new artificial turf is cheaper than grass, more durable, and allows the field to be used more often.
(Michael Snyder/The
Cincinnati Enquirer)
Greater Cincinnati high schools increasingly are uprooting their natural-grass athletic fields - faster than any other region in Ohio - to install a new, second-generation artificial turf.

More area schools are switching to the greener pastures of plastic turf to save taxpayers' money once spent on maintaining fragile grass fields. The newer turf also allows more teams to use fields once reserved for prep football while offering a safer, virtually year-round playing surface for students.

Unlike old-fashioned Astroturf, the newer synthetic turf is less expensive and promises to last longer, in some cases up to 15 years.

In the past 18 months, 10 local schools have spent a combined $5 million to switch to artificial turf, once a luxury affordable only to professional sports teams.

"I don't know anywhere in the state that has more artificial surfaces (than Greater Cincinnati)," says Henry Zaborniak, assistant commissioner for the Ohio High School Athletic Association.

TURF HISTORY

• 1950s - Chemical companies begin studying and testing artificial playing surfaces using plastic blades of grass.

• 1964 - The nation's first, large-scale installation of synthetic turf is laid onto a field at the Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island.

• 1965 - The AstroDome is Houston is built, but natural grass inside the enclosed stadium grows poorly.

• 1966 - The Houston Astros begin baseball playing on a synthetic surface, later dubbed "Astroturf."

• 1967 - Indiana State University Stadium, in Terre Haute, Ind., becomes the first outdoor stadium with Astroturf.

• 1970 - The Cincinnati Reds move into Riverfront Stadium and begin play on Astroturf, as do the Bengals the following fall.

• 1979 - The original Riverfront Astroturf is replaced, only to be replaced again in 1988.

• 2000 - The University of Cincinnati removes Astroturf from Nippert Stadium and becomes one of the first colleges in the nation to install a new generation of superior synthetic surface developed in the late 1990s that features longer plastic blades set in sand and rubber pellets over a sand base, rather than Astroturf's concrete base.

• 2001 - A remodeled Riverfront removes Astroturf for natural grass. Later in 2003 the Reds move into Great American Ball Park with a grass field.

• 2002 - In August, Mariemont and Highland high schools become the first of 10 Greater Cincinnati high schools to install the newer synthetic fields.

Michael D. Clark

Julian Tackett, assistant commissioner for the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, says Northern Kentucky high schools "if not leading are tied for first" in the state when it comes to schools with plastic turf.

At least nine other area schools are looking into installing artificial playing surfaces:

• Kings High, which recently lost its natural grass stadium to lead contamination, and Mason in Warren County.

• Colerain and La Salle in Hamilton County.

• Edgewood, Monroe and Hamilton in Butler County.

• Goshen in Clermont County.

• Boone County Schools, in Northern Kentucky.

The University of Cincinnati and Miami University have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in recent years for synthetic playing surfaces, which enable them to host more high school regular-season and playoff games.

Even the Cincinnati Bengals announced this week that they have given up trying to grow grass in Paul Brown Stadium and will install artificial turf by next season's start.

The reasons behind the new turf's popularity are simple, says Scott Kaufman, athletic director for Princeton Schools:

• The new fields are cheaper in the long run.

• They are more durable than grass.

• Students, not just athletes, can participate in a variety of physical education activities on the fake turf virtually year-round.

The newer version of synthetic turf runs between $400,000 and $800,000, and costs 25 percent or less than the old, much-derided "Astroturf" surfaces installed by many professional teams - including the Reds and Bengals - in the 1970s.

Princeton High School senior football player Greg Frey has played on grass, the old-fashioned Astroturf and the newer synthetic turf.

"I definitely like the new turf best. It doesn't burn your skin when you slide, like the old Astroturf did, and it helped our team. We had an athletic and fast team this year and we were always fast on grass, but the turf made us faster," said Frey, whose team tied for first place last fall in the Greater Miami Conference.

Fellow Princeton athlete Dominique Wizzard agreed, saying "the new turf is a lot better than grass, and when you fall, you are cushioned."

The junior soccer player said the fake turf is particularly good because the soccer ball takes truer bounces on the more uniform surface compared to the often divot-riddled or muddy grass fields.

"Now if the ball bounces, I know where it's going to bounce."

While the vast majority of local high school teams still play on natural grass, the conversion to high-tech artificial grass is being helped along by private athletic boosters' fund-raising, as well as corporate and individual donations, all of which augment school district funding.

Princeton's Kaufman points out his office window toward Viking Stadium, where artificial turf was installed in August.

"There you have a 7,000-seat stadium that when we had natural grass we used six to eight times a year," he says. "Now we can use it six to eight times a day."

Despite the $783,000 cost to purchase and install the turf, Kaufman said, schools save money.

In Princeton's case, the savings amount to $98,000 a year, he said, when compared to caring for Princeton's old grass field, which invariably evolved to dirt, or deep mud, from overuse each fall.

Add an estimated $120,600 the school expects to gain from renting out the stadium for state football playoffs and other athletic events, and he says the school expects to recover its costs in seven years. But the turf is expected to last 12 to 15 years.

"To me, it has become inappropriate not to do it because we're looking at saving money for Princeton taxpayers."

That sentiment is driving Kings school officials, who are considering artificial turf after toxic lead was discovered on the district's junior and senior high school grounds in August.

The $2 million U.S. Environmental Protection Agency cleanup, which began this week and is expected to be covered by federal money, includes demolishing and digging up the football stadium.

Kings officials emphasize that no decision on rebuilding the football stadium will be made without extensive public input , but athletic director Matt Koenig says it would be irresponsible of the school district not to consider the cost savings of plastic turf.

"The EPA is also digging up our irrigation system under the field," Koenig says. "A new natural-grass field, with a new irrigation system, would cost more than $150,000" with very limited use, according to weather, season and high maintenance costs every year.

"A good artificial field would cost about $700,000," Koenig says, "and the biggest advantage is we could use it 24 hours, seven days a week for years. Ideally, he added, private and corporate donors would cover most or all of the new turf costs.

"For fans, it means we never have to cancel an event. And we have some of the best youth sports organizations in Cincinnati, but we can't let youth football share a grass field. With artificial turf we can share the field with the community."

Jill Bruder, Indian Hill Schools athletic director, says the Hamilton County district's new artificial turf field installed last year "solves a lot of problems and will pay for itself in the long run."

A veteran athletic director used to decades of difficult grass fields, Bruder marvels at the novelty of being able to put on a busy schedule of fall sports, band practices, community sports, physical education classes and still have "a green field at the end of the fall season."

Fred Bassett, superintendent of Northern Kentucky's Beechwood Schools, says "as long as it is warm enough to go outside and there is no snow on the ground, we can use our field. The artificial grass blades remain pliable in cold weather, and it does not hurt the field to use it when it is cold. That allows us to use the field later in the fall and earlier in the spring than we could with a natural-grass field."

Princeton's Kaufman predicts the trend toward fake turf will continue.

"Within 10 years, most larger schools will have this kind of field," he said.

Goshen Schools Athletic Director Bill Schmidtbauer, whose Clermont County district is considering synthetic turf, goes further.

"In 25 years, everybody is going to have it, so why should we be the last?"

E-mail mclark@enquirer.com




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