By Randy Vogt
Artificial turf can be a wonderful solution for soccer fields, particularly in urban areas, that are overused. Through the advent of FieldTurf over a decade ago, overused fields have been transformed from dustbowls to artificial turf. In New York City, the best example of this is the historic Metropolitan Oval, which now sees a daily regimen of soccer.
Five years ago, 25 percent of the games I officiated were on artificial turf and now it’s approximately 40 percent and increasing slowly every year.
But it’s a different game on artificial turf as the game is much quicker. Teams with fast players tend to do better on artificial turf as they can take full advantage of the faster surface. Play can move quickly from goal line to goal line, even with less skilled players, so it can be exhausting to referee 3-4 games on turf by yourself (without assistant referees). Having celebrated my 50th birthday last month, maybe I’m also simply getting old!
What’s interesting is most artificial turf fields are used for multiple sports so even if 200 soccer games and 10 football games are played there every year, the intruding football lines are stuck on the turf year-round. Referees can use the football lines to their advantage in determining offside (when reffing by yourself) and in establishing the 10 yards for free kicks. Yet those football lines can pose a problem for keepers as well as refs in easily seeing the penalty area. The halfway line is difficult to spot as well to help determine offside. As there is generally not a flag to mark the halfway line on most soccer fields, refs can put a marker nearby to help them such as a garbage can, their referee case if appropriate, etc.
Games can be played on artificial turf in heavy rain and often even in light snow as the turf absorbs the inclement weather so much better than grass. You need not worry about getting muddy, just wearing wet, black pebbles on your legs, on artificial turf fields. But playing games in very poor weather is not always a good thing as it’s hard to have fun when you are being hit by very adverse weather conditions.
For a player, this could mean being on the field for two hours or less but officials could be on fields up to six or seven hours. I have refereed several college showcases in late autumn in which none of the college coaches showed up that day as the weather was so poor.
As a referee, I’m now used to officiating in the rain as well as officiating on very cold days (or nights). But I don’t think that I will ever acclimate myself to cold days with heavy rain as I get cold and very wet no matter how many layers of clothing I have on and switch into. On those occasions, I cannot wait for halftime or between games to go inside, dry off and try to become warm.
I can remember a boys U-16 cup game played one cold April night several years ago on a turf field 150 yards from the shoreline. It started raining heavily at kickoff and the rain became even more intense in the second half. Yet the field was very playable. So with a tied score late in regulation, both teams moved defenders upfront in order to score a goal. But no goal came so we went to overtime. OT in this competition is Golden Goal, thankfully, and both teams were searching for the winner and a goal was scored in the second minute of overtime. Even the losing team was happy to go home as that night had become so uncomfortable.
Additionally, the surface of FieldTurf and Sprinturf can get hot on summer days but thankfully, not nearly as hot as its Astroturf predecessor.
It has been speculated that there are more serious injuries on artificial turf fields rather than grass. Yet in the games that I have officiated on FieldTurf and Sprinturf surfaces, there have not been any more injuries over grass. I do notice, however, that cramps are more prevalent on artificial turf over grass.
Regarding any link between cancer and turf, there’s concern about the little granules of ground up tires that contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons could be cancerous. Tires often contain toxic substances that prohibit their disposal in landfills and oceans, so it is reasonable to question whether the material is safe for use on fields where people play. Yet four years ago, the Consumer Product Safety Commission took a hard look at turf and determined it was safe. I’ll let somebody far more knowledgeable than me elaborate about any health issues with artificial turf.
Even though artificial turf certainly has benefits, if given a choice, I much prefer a well-manicured grass field.
(Randy Vogt has officiated over 8,000 games during the past three decades, from professional matches in front of thousands to 6-year-olds being cheered on by very enthusiastic parents. In "Preventive Officiating," he shares his wisdom gleaned from thousands of games and hundreds of clinics to help referees not only survive but thrive on the soccer field. You can visit the book’s website at http://www.preventiveofficiating.com/)
As a player, coach and sometimes ref, I can tell you that artificial turf is not a "wonderful" anything. At best, it's a necessary evil.
The best fields are perfectly maintained grass. In North Texas that is less that what 2% of all fields? Most are too hard, full of holes, dips, dead grass, holes in front of the goal, etc. I find the field turf to be much better except for real maintained field like FC Dallas plays on. Players are much more likely to be injured on shotty grass fields than field turf.
"so it can be exhausting to referee 3-4 games on turf by yourself...." Why would any referee who respects the game and the role of the referee ever accept so many assignments in a day... 3 X 90 = 4.5 hours of work add a fourth and its 7 hours of running, concentrating, and evaluating. How can you possible referee properly in game four ?
To answer Doug above, many games with seniors or teenagers have three officials but younger kids generally have just one ref. Those games are shorter––either 50-minute or 60-minute matches. Nevertheless, because of the quicker play on turf, it can even be exhausting to referee 3-4 of these shorter games by yourself. Why do we do it? So that every game has a ref as there is a referee shortage in many places in the U.S. and Canada. It's certainly not an optimal situation. So the next time an adult wants to yell at a ref, think about how many games that he/she has refereed already that day. Or how verbal abuse from adults is the number one reason why most youth soccer refs quit in their first two years of refereeing, causing the refs that remain to sometimes be overworked. Randy
Rich, If whoever is in charge of a field (in Texas or anywhere) is not going to spend the money to maintain it in 'soccer' condition, they are not going to spend the money to buy artificial turf.
On another aspect of artificial turf, what about ankle injuries compared with grass?
I think everyone prefers good natural grass to turf, but unfortunately, that's not the choice most people face. For most, it's lousy grass/dirt/rocks v. turf. In western PA, FieldTurf has been tremendously beneficial, primarily because it can bear constant use and because it can be played in almost all weather conditions (nothing like driving for an hour only to have a game cancelled because the field's unplayable). I have a subtle difference of opinion with regards to which teams do better on turf; it's not teams with fast players that prosper, it's teams that play the ball quickly. The ball moves faster on turf, not the players. More skilled teams are rewarded for two reasons; first, there are few bad bounces, so that reduces the amount luck plays (and allows the ball to be played on the ground) and second, because their is less rolling resistance than grass, bad touches are punished more, often with the loss of possession. So where good grass fields are few and far between, we are always happy to play on turf. The primary downside is playing on hot, sunny days. Here I think the old turf was better; those black granules just soak up the sun and make playing on it almost unbearable, so I'm not sure it makes as much sense in hotter climates; perhaps they could use white granules in hot climates. As for refereeing in cold, wet weather, it's not the center ref who suffers, it's the ARs. The center can always run to stay warm, whereas the ARs, especially in a lopsided game where the ball is only on one half of the field, can be stuck in one place. Nothing like standing still for 2 hrs out on a cold, wet, windy day wearing shorts and no jacket (though under armour at least helps prevent hypothermia....)
Dear Mr. Vogt,
Thank you for the interesting article and for describing artificial turf fields in a (mostly) positive light. Although I do not have as extensive experience as you, I too am a soccer referee in Rochester, NY and have officiated many games on synthetic turf fields.
However my day job is promoting tire recycling markets. Synthetic turf fields are one of the most important markets for recycled tires in both North America and around the world. I am taking you up on your invitation for “somebody far more knowledgeable than me” to address the tire rubber aspects of health concerns from using synthetic turf.
First, the primary reason tires are banned from landfills in the U.S. is to help promote the development of recycling markets and not because of any toxic properties.
Tires used in ocean environments as artificial reefs have had a difficult history because the installers frequently underestimated the powerful ocean forces that ultimately dismantled the structures. Nevertheless, some very robust artificial reef tire structures have survived and have admirably served their intended purpose for decades.
Neither tires nor tire particles are either toxic or hazardous. Extensive testing has been performed on rainwater passing through ground rubber surfaces. This so-called “leachate” passes both primary and secondary water standards.
Similarly, the air above synthetic turf fields has been extensively tested. On outdoor fields, harmful substances were measured at extremely low concentrations that are typical of ambient air concentrations. Adequate ventilation, no more than is usually required by most local codes anyway, was recommended for indoor fields, though measurements were still below levels of concern.
Besides the Consumer Product Safety Commission which you mentioned, the US EPA, the States of California, New York and Connecticut, the City of New York, the Rubber Manufacturers Association, and dozens other organizations around the world have produced independent published reports which confirm these findings. Links to most of these reports can be found at the Synthetic Turf Council website, www.syntheticturfcouncil.org.
Finally, it is important to note that FIFA recommends “football turf” because it “unites excellent playing conditions similar to those on a good grass pitch with the advantages of an artificial pitch: longer playability, less maintenance work and costs, and high resistance to weather and climatic changes.” FIFA too has conducted extensive testing on synthetic turf surfaces using ground rubber infill and has found them to be as safe for players as high quality grass fields and effective. See www.fifa.com to review the studies.