artificial playing fields are experiencing a renaissance in football – and even baseball
As the summer of 2017 progresses, I find myself visiting a new website: the Luther College “Valley Cam” – if you are a regular reader of this column, you know I am a proud alum of the school. The Valley Cam allows me to witness the same scenic view west from the student union into the Oneota River valley west of Decorah, Iowa, that I gazed at numerous times in the cafeteria – and while calling play-by-play for Luther football on the field below the union. Seriously, this is one of the most-picturesque football setting in the country. And watching “Valley Cam,” I am feeling blue – literally, as the old grass field is being replaced by blue AstroTurf.
Modern artificial surfaces feel more like your house’s lawn than the old-school rugged carpet field of 20th century AstroTurf. The players mostly feel about as comfortable, if not more so, than they do on grass.
Another one bites the … well, not dust, but ground-up artificial turf base material. Luther was the last Iowa Conference school with a grass field, a complete turnaround from my time there 20 years ago when every gridiron was natural. Iowa is not alone; the Division III equivalent in Wisconsin – the WIAC, of which UW-Eau Claire is a member – is now 100 percent artificial turf as of this decade. High schools keep converting from actual grass to manufactured grass; even Eau Claire Regis is proposing an artificial turf field at the school for practices and junior varsity games. Grass surfaces in the Upper Midwest are now seemingly outliers.
The reality is that modern artificial turf is broadly considered safer and more efficient than grass. Football is a rough sport for a grass field. If you have lived around the Chippewa Valley since before 2004, you remember the Carson Park grass deteriorating into mud and dirt by October from three high schools and a college calling the stadium their home. Just one team wears out a field, leading to looser turf and dead spots becoming hard dirt. Maintenance costs money. Even an institution with as strong a commitment to sustainability and the environment as Luther College did the analysis and decided going artificial was better for its goals than living grass. Plus, being the only DIII school with a blue surface may draw players who never previously considered matriculating to the college; I have to say, the design is pretty cool. Sports is truly a different “field.”
Additionally, modern artificial surfaces feel more like your house’s lawn than the old-school rugged carpet field of 20th century AstroTurf. The players mostly feel about as comfortable, if not more so, than they do on grass. Truly not every place follows the trend: The Baltimore Ravens and college’s Ole Miss Rebels went back to grass in 2016. Yet if you are from a smaller school with a much-smaller budget, the artificial turf is the better option.
The same applies if you are a smaller city. You have likely heard that Eau Claire boosters are raising money this summer for a renovation of the Carson Park baseball stadium, including new grandstands down the first and third base lines, new permanent bathrooms ... and artificial turf. Now, you may be wondering, “Why artificial turf for baseball? That’s a gentler sport, right?” Well, yes, but it still involves wear; take note of the areas occupied by the outfielders during an Express or Cavs game, and you may see some dead spots and patches. More importantly, grass takes time to dry after rain … and does not like daily use in the autumn as it approaches dormancy (recall its durability for football). If you want to play tournament baseball at Carson Park, you have tiny and impractical windows available during the entire year.
Generally, baseball is resistant to fake turf; artificial surfaces are now only found in two Major League Baseball domed stadiums, and if each ballpark’s team can help it, both will eventually be on grass through imaginative field replacement or a new un-domed ballpark. Again, though, this is possible through big money: big-league baseball budgets that facilitate meticulously manicured landscapes. If we in the Chippewa Valley want to provide more local athletic opportunities and make some needed revenue, grass ain’t gonna – wait for it – cut it.
There are some who think artificial turf is a downgrade for player health, so there is not a consensus that Eau Claire is making the correct move. Remember, though: You could be getting a blue baseball field.