It doesn’t matter if the players who step on to your pitch are worth £20million or less than a bag of crisps, everyone involved in sport wants an excellent playing surface. Here’s nine steps you need to take to help achieve the perfect pitch.
Firstly, we must identify the audience when considering ‘what makes a perfect pitch’. The stadium owner’s business plan will most likely include a multitude of different events to take place within the stadium. These can be as diverse as international football, monster trucks, and graduation ceremonies and as many other activities as your imagination will allow you to consider within a closed environment. In this instance, the perfect pitch is one that will stand up to the rigours of the different events while at the same time providing the quality of surface that each discipline demands – and they will all be slightly different.
A ‘one size fits all’ approach is, to some extent, logical. However, it provides a significant challenge to the architects who design the stadia, to facilitate the multiuse nature of the facility. It also provides a challenge to the designer or manager of the pitch, who is charged with meeting playing surface requirements for individual sports, as well as preserving the grass (or alternative) during its many diverse usages.
No matter what the final surface of choice, every ‘perfect pitch’ requires a sound foundation on which to build. Water management is key and therefore an engineered drainage system is essential to ensure that excess water is removed quickly and efficiently from the profile.
Historically, water movement through the profile has relied on gravity and the pore spaces within the growing medium to allow water to percolate into the subsurface drainage system. In the 21st century, water management as well as air movement through the growing medium can now be positively enhanced by the installation of a ventilation and vacuum system during the construction phase. No matter how heavy the rainfall and the design limitations of the growing medium, the excess water can be physically sucked through the profile and drained away.
So, we have our foundation: a drainage system, incorporating vacuum and ventilation technology and enveloped in a drainage medium (Permavoid, gravel or similar) to achieve uniformity of movement through the profile.
Immediately above the drainage medium would sit our undersoil heating pipes, essential in the more temperate or colder parts of the globe. Undersoil heating provides the necessary rise in temperature to maintain a frost-free playing surface, as well as managing temperature to assist seed germination and establishment at times when this would not be feasible.
In addition, this zone of the profile would also support pipework for the irrigation system. The pipes are installed deep enough to avoid interfering with maintenance operations such as deep aeration, which is periodically necessary for rootzone management. The irrigation system will provide water to keep the grass alive during periods of dry weather but is also used to speed up ball roll across the playing surface for football, prior to kick-off. Both the irrigation and undersoil heating pipework would be covered with an approved lower sand layer.
The upper profile
The upper 100-150mm of the profile, provides the growing medium for the turf. This consists of a fully tested mix of approved sand and amendments to achieve a balance between adequate movement of water through gravity and retention of sufficient moisture for the needs of the grass plant. The design of the medium mix can be fine-tuned dependent on whether a ventilation and vacuum system has been installed.
Discussions need to be had with the owner and stakeholders as to what they intend to use the facility for, so that we can advise the most suitable model to be adopted. There are choices to be made in respect of types of grass reinforcement, which is a necessity to increase the carrying capacity of the pitch. Choices would be whether to have a rootzone reinforcement, carpet reinforcement or hybrid reinforcement. This will be largely determined by pitch use. Inevitably some compromise on choice will be needed along the way.
Air and light
Architects will discuss design issues with the pitch designer to ensure that they can maximise air movement and light availability for the benefit of the natural grass. There will inevitably be a requirement for supplementary lighting systems to combat the shade cast by the stadium’s infrastructure. Here, technology is increasing apace; following on from the success of high pressure sodium, will LED technology be the future?
The perfect pitch
This includes a full, dense and compact grass cover, free of weed, pest and disease activity and providing the playing characteristics demanded of the sport. Ball/surface interaction is important for football and cricket, whereas player/surface interaction is important for rugby and American football. The height of cut of the sward and the stresses on the field of play will vary with each sport. This is where the challenges occur for the groundsman, as well as managing the expectations of stakeholders. Grass is organic; it lives and dies and will suffer as a result of excessive wear and tear. However, it remains the surface of choice for most professional sports and will invariably provide the best playing surface.
For events on the pitch other than sport, many types of floor covers are available to protect the natural grass. Covering the pitch will, by contrast, not be needed if the profile has been constructed in a large tray, which can slide in and out of the stadium. Similarly palletised tray systems can be used to move the pitch in and out of stadiums, with one or two highly novel systems currently in the pipeline – watch this space!
Good team and machinery
It is essential that a good team of groundstaff are appointed for the day-to-day upkeep of the playing surface. Ideally experienced in the various sports and stadium turnaround requirements for different events. A fleet of well-maintained machinery and budget to match will ensure the playing surface is kept in tip-top condition. An experienced groundsman can make or break a good quality playing surface and seamless transition between events. A good agronomist can be an excellent addition too!