Today’s modern playing surfaces are designed to obtain maximum return for minimum investment. What in your opinion are the key ingredients to a successful playing surface design?
JB: I think today’s pitch design and construction really needs to be scoped around utilising modern technologies which are proven to enhance pitch performance. A design should be produced with the foresight of efficient use of resources and energy, while still sustaining a high standard of turf quality and performance. An effective construction will always ensure that the selected sport can be played whatever the weather and will minimise risk of postponement or increased usage, while having the robustness to be utilised for other non-sporting events such as concerts.
RG: I think it is a balance. Obviously drainage, stability and playability would be up there but also now versatility plays a huge role. The design must fit the business needs as well as being manageable within the usage and budgetary requirements. For example, there would be no point in having an event even if it’s on a stitched surface in December, if you don't have the huge amounts of resource required to recover.
What are the critical elements of a pitch maintenance programme and what benefits does good maintenance offer?
RG: It obviously goes without saying that all aspects of your pitch maintenance are important, whether that be products or flexibility with conditions. I think the most critical element is probably your own understanding of your surface coinciding with your maintenance plan. There are numerous PQS instruments to guide, multiple companies and products but ultimately you must use your own experience and skillset to make decisions.
JB: I've found with experience turf management is time critical, missing windows of opportunity to carry out operations or give inputs to the surface can be the difference in consistency or inconsistency of pitch quality.
Many variables can affect a pitch maintenance programme. Having solid planning in place with robust contingencies will make the difference. Data monitoring and collection can help alleviate some of the pressure of missing the windows of opportunity. For example, we monitor volumetric moisture constantly as this is critical to turf and soil health. We can therefore identify when to irrigate and raise the risk of missing the window of opportunity.
Do you feel that stadium operators and senior leadership teams are now more aware of the implications of not having the right maintenance regime and equipment in place?
JF: Stadium operators and leadership are certainly more aware that the proper equipment and maintenance regimen is crucial to successfully hosting events. Not only do they make the transition from event to event easier and more cost effective, they make a safer environment for employees and visitors, while also protecting the playing surface.
RG: I can only speak for my own club and that is something that is important here. Being part of the management team, I can share my own views, listen to others and then we all make an informed professional decision. Sometimes, however, an event is just too beneficial to turn down and you must deal with the consequences. Gone are the days of stay off the grass for 365 days a year but sometimes damage limitation is necessary.
JB: It is certainly improving. Grounds managers are having a fair degree of input in how best to maximise the venue’s ability to create revenue while still hosting its primary use, sport! We are viewed and rightly so as the experts in turf management, that gives us the ability to provide advice on what would be seen as a risk and what needs to be done to mitigate it. Whether that's light rigs to maintain the surface in winter or additional manpower to help support transitions and busy periods in the event calendar.
Many venues are looking to reclaim recent lost revenues over the summer through hosting additional events such as concerts. What are the key steps that they need to take to ensure that the integrity of the playing surface is not compromised?
JF: From an events perspective, we consider proper turf protection and installation training vital in maintaining the integrity of playing surfaces. Panels are available in light-duty for pedestrian traffic and heavy-duty for drivable applications. Depending on the need, both will protect the playing surface from being compromised in any way. Highly trained staff can also ensure the installation process between events happens quickly and safely, increasing operational efficiency and profitability.
JB: Planning and co-ordination would be regarded as the first key step. When would be the first sport event post a concert? From that date you would work backwards determining timelines, works that need to be completed to have the surface ready for its primary function. There are different turf systems now which can be used to meet the business demands and help to create a shorter timeline requirement for bringing the surface back ready for use. Researching new systems and technologies, determining costs to figure the impact on the business and ensuring the decisions made are the right ones.
RG: From experience everything is in the planning. Getting the correct quality covering is crucial as well as the company installing and de-installing. Also, communication with the company who oversees the production. This means you can gain an understanding of weights, dimensions and all logistics.
What benefits do artificial or hybrid turf systems offer in terms of project lifecycles, maintenance and recycling? What are the key differences between them in these aspects?
JB: Most players at a professional elite level would always prefer to play on a natural grass surface, whether that be a hybrid or a turf. From a training perspective I think they're probably more inclined to accept artificial on the basis being that it's more usable during the year. Based on resources and budget it might make sense to have access to an artificial surface. There are always going to be a maintenance costs involved. In terms of lifecycles, you’re looking at 10 years for either hybrid or an artificial pitch. I think there just has to be a business plan in place where 10 years would be classed as a good cycle to then switch out and change the surface, as long as the budget is there for maintenance.
RG: The usage, maintenanace and the quality of installation dictates the lifespan of any surface. Hybrid turf systems would be more difficult to maintain but from experience in our sport, professional players do not want to play on artificial surfaces. With sustainability being a key issue at the moment any recycling of any surface is paramount.
How important has sustainability become in your approach to projects and how can we reduce the number of materials and resources used in playing surface projects?
RG: As said before, sustainability is a key issue. I always take a keen interest in looking at what materials and machinery we use, as well as any initiatives we can move forward with such as bug hotels, lowering the amount of fertiliser and fungicide applications, electric tools and green disposal of any cuttings. Lowering the input of materials in the surface is something that we have done gradually and carefully in conjunction with our suppliers ICL.
JB: There is a huge emphasis now on sustainability. The RFU has certainly started to implement new programmes for maintenance and how we approach our use of resources. We've been very critical of ourselves in how we use resources now. In terms of our current usage, we use a lot of data to monitor our pitch and environmental conditions. That determines when we water and how much we water. For instance we measure volumetric moisture continuously, so we actually only irrigate when we have to rather than when we think we need to. We certainly like to think there would be a cost saving there. That’s the same for salinity as well. We measure to determine when we think we need to start introducing more nutrition. It is more of a managed approach with regards to monitoring data to help us make our day-to-day decisions. People are looking at pitch construction systems to capture water and recycle it rather than lose it into the mains drains.
With an ageing groundstaff workforce, what are the challenges in recruiting skilled groundstaff?
RG: This is a buzz conversation that has been around for years. The challenges are obvious. If you were 18 would you want to work long days in any weather for a relatively poor salary, or work in Asda for more money?
Culture has changed as well with the world being more of a ‘here and now’ society rather than sacrificing things early in your career to become more experienced and earn a decent salary. Another difficulty that is sometimes missed is that some people are quite prepared to work for a lower salary to be a part of a certain organisation, so when it comes to recruitment it handicaps the rest of the industry.
JB: This is a hot topic at the moment. Anybody who's had to do any form of recruiting in the last two or three years has probably seen a significant difference between what you can and cannot essentially recruit. There are no willing candidates looking to come into the sports turf industry. That’s due to several factors. I think number one is that we're not particularly well marketed and people don't know that this is a career they can go in to. There’s still a little bit of an issue with regards to salaries and expectations. It’s not seen as an attractive industry. It requires manual labour, long hours to some degree and it requires being flexible. Pay is going to have to increase and from the organising bodies there has to be a very clear pathway for people to come into the industry.
There just needs to be a very reflective stage now where everybody has a really good look at where we are, what we're doing, what we're not doing and then I think there just needs to be a very considered approach to how we can kick start interest and drive that back. We're battling with other land sectors and with other trades. We certainly need to build on our public relations and build a reputation and make it a career that people want to do. Qualifications need to be looked at and there needs to be some assistance from the government to subsidise education boards to offer these qualifications and actually have it as part of their curriculum.
PSAM editor John Sheehan caught up with Yves De Cocker, Managing Director of PitchTecConcept, who explains how his company bridges the gap between sports organisations and the technology used in the playing surface industry.
The interview covers:
Yves 20+ years industry leading experience in the evolution of hybrid grass, trends he has noticed and some of the notable projects he has been involved with
The key reasons for Yves launching PitchTecConcept
Common mistakes often made with playing surface management
The steps he offers as a bridge between the industry and the end user
Advice to clubs looking to maximise their event calendars without compromising on the performance of their playing surface