We’re seeing more and more astroturf playing fields popping up around Sydney. This means players are no longer swooshing around in mud after another of Sydney’s downpours, and grounds can stay open. But does this surface change the game? And what does it mean for the environment and the overall cost of maintenance? We investigate.

The first sportsground to use astroturf was the Houston Astrodome, hence the name ‘astroturf’. Insufficient sunlight reached the grass in the stadium to allow it to grow well, which meant the local baseball team, the Astros, were playing on green-painted dirt and dead grass. The installation of artificial grass was a game changer and other sportsgrounds soon followed suit.

Astroturf, and many of the spin-off brands of artificial grass, has certainly come a long way since the ’60s as technology has advanced – the latest and greatest being 3G artificial grass. While there was initially concern about the rate of injuries following play on artificial grass (which often used to be placed on top of concrete!), this has dropped significantly as artificial grass has been developed to more closely mimic real grass. These days, studies conducted on real vs fake are divided with some finding more injuries sustained on astroturf, and others finding fewer injuries! Other studies have found that women sustain less injury than men when playing on an artificial surface.

There appears to be a trend for many sporting genres in Sydney choosing synthetic grass over the real stuff, including bowls, tennis, hockey, soccer (as can be seen in the photo of Cammeray Park above), rugby codes and cricket. And there are pros and cons as a result.

How has astroturf changed the state of play?

The main thing you notice when you play on artificial turf is that the ball bounces higher and travels much faster, which means that players have to alter the way they act and react. Also, a ball bounces truer – it doesn’t tend to deflect left or right due to any ground anomalies – meaning a player doesn’t have to work as hard to gain the ball.

Here are other factors that can affect play…

PLAYING PROS

  • Astroturf has been consistently shown to be a harder playing surface than grass. The greater hardness of astroturf results in faster running speeds for players.*
  • One recent study has shown that traction on astroturf is greater when the temperature is warmer.*
  • The surface doesn’t become muddy or full of puddles in wet weather.
  • Bjorneboe et al published a study on FIFA-certified 3G synthetic turf in 2010, saying that as the turf was certified it would have had to have pass rigorous testing of the surface before being okayed for play.

PLAYING CONS

  • Shoe-surface traction drops on astroturf as the temperature cools.*
  • There are significantly more ankle sprains on astroturf surfaces compared to natural grass.*
  • A 2013 Stanford University study found that the rate of ACL injury on artificial surfaces was 1.36 times greater than the injury rate on natural grass.
  • Astroturf can become up to three times hotter than grass, which can make players quite uncomfortable in hot weather.
  • The surface can cause friction injuries.

*School of Human Movement and Sport Sciences University of Ballarat, ‘Ground Conditions and Injury Risk – Implications for Sports Grounds Assessment Practices in Victoria’, March 2007.

Synthetic vs real grass

Many considerations need to be made before a council decides on implementing astroturf on a local playing field, and when you look at the facts, the grass isn’t always greener … or is it?

FOR SYNTHETTIC GRASS

  • It doesn’t require watering to keep it alive, which can save on water usage, especially in drought-prone areas.
  • It doesn’t suffer from overuse as grass does. So, several training sessions each week along with weekend games on the same ground won’t show up the same kind of wear and tear.
  • It allows for a consistently green surface, without potholes, year round.
  • It allows playing fields to remain open for play despite rain, as the surface will not be ruined in wet weather.
  • Astroturf doesn’t require mowing, therefore reduces the need for using fossil fuels.
  • It’s made using recycled materials – the rubber granules you can see in the base of artificial grass is often made from recycled tyres.

AGAINST SYNTHETTIC GRASS

  • President of Turf Australia, Anthony Muscat, who grows natural turf as well as sells synthetic grass, says there is a common misconception that synthetic grass doesn’t require maintenance. ‘This is simply not correct. It still requires watering for cooling and cleaning, needs to be sprayed for weeds and, particularly for contact sports, blood and sweat need to be cleaned up with disinfectant as, unlike real grass, synthetic grass does not have beneficial bacteria that does the job for you,’ he explains. ‘It also costs more money in the long-term, requiring a full replacement in about eight to 10 years.’
  • Unlike natural grass, synthetic grass does not absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen, trap dust and improve water quality.
  • Leaves and other debris need to be removed from the surface each week so that they don’t inhibit drainage and cause rot.
  • In a WA Government Department of Sport and Recreation sports surface study the total lifecycle cost of synthetic and real grass was considered over a 25-year and 50-year period for community/club level and elite level sports usage. The report concluded that artificial turf had a higher total lifecycle cost than natural grass.

The above points are just some of those that can help determine whether or not astroturf is the way to go for a sporting field. I’d like to hear what you think about playing your game on astroturf. Do you love it or loathe it? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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