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Creating a winning playing field

January 20, 2012

Category: A Closer Look

Creating a winning playing field

The success of some of the world’s biggest sporting events like the Super Bowl, the PGA Championship and the World Series—and that of your favorite athlete or team – is dependent on sports turf managers. Professional sports which require a grass surface require a team of these skilled experts.

For them, watching grass grow can be exciting—a sign they are creating a level playing field for athletes. However, getting the perfect turf is a science in itself, and more complex than you’d imagine.

A majority of professional sports fields use natural grass. Despite advancements in the footing and durability of artificial turf, players generally prefer a natural surface because it’s a better shock-absorber. The Sports Turf Manager’s Association reports that an estimated seven million maintained acres of it exist in the U.S. sports field industry. Since every acre needs expert care, the sports turf industry is a growing field.

Cal Poly Pomona and San Luis Obispo offer agriculture degrees with an emphasis in sports turf management. The programs produce many of the plant scientists now in the “field,” heading up facilities home to championship teams like the San Francisco Giants, L.A. Galaxy and Philadelphia Phillies. And they will all tell you that Cal Poly’s “learn by doing” approach helped send them straight to the big leagues.

Day-to-day maintenance of these fields includes much more than just mowing. Sports turf professionals must clean debris, fix spots, and also be familiar with the chemistry of pesticides and fertilizers. All are reasons why Cal Poly San Luis Obispo turf grass management professor Dr. Jason Lewis says hands-on learning is essential.

“Students are learning how to ready the turf, how to use pesticides and fertilizers by getting out there and doing it,” Lewis said.

Lewis says they also learn the management techniques that go along with the profession, as well as the ins-and-outs of operations at a large sports facility or golf course.

“Our students manage and maintain the university’s putting green,” Lewis said. “They also work at the AT&T Pro-Am in February, where they help prepare the turf at Pebble Beach for one of golf’s most recognized tournaments.”

Professors and students also take part in research to keep the practice innovative. For example, they may cross-breed species to create grasses with preferable qualities like pest resistance and durability or modify natural soil types. Turf research can be carried over from the lab to a career as well. For example, Cal Poly Pomona alum Dr. Michael Kenna is now director of the United States Golf Association Green Section Research—the association’s growing turf grass and environmental research program.

Another Pomona alum, Shaun Ilten, is now superintendent of grass and grounds for the Home Depot Center in Carson, California.

He’s in charge of the center’s 150 acres of field grass and multiple sports facilities. The Home Depot Center is home to the L.A. Galaxy and Chivas USA soccer teams and the training center for the men’s and women’s national teams. The facility also holds special events and concerts. All of the use means extra work preparing facilities and keeping the field in top shape.

It may sound nerve-wracking, but Ilten says he was prepared even though he started his job before graduating.

“What I was learning at Cal Poly I was practicing both in my classes and at the Home Depot Center,” Ilten said. “Everything just came together.”

Shaun says the fields are aerified every 10-14 days, mowed frequently, and watered as needed based on their evapotranspiration (ET) readings, which tell how many gallons of water they are using. He added that in soccer, the goal area is the toughest spot to reduce grass damage, but it’s different for every sport.

“My job is to make sure the surface field is playable for the athletes,” Ilten said. “Quality turf grass is vital to the quality of play.”

In that case, the L.A. Galaxy’s 2011 MLS Cup win is a sign he’s doing a pretty good job.

“It’s all part of the turf manager’s goal,” Ilten said. “To put athletes on good footing so they can win.”

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the Home Depot Center

The Home Depot Center in Carson, California during the 2011 MLS Cup. The L.A. Galaxy defeated rivals Houston Dynamo 1-0, winning their third championship.

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