More athletic venues are installing polymer-laden versions of resilient, shock-absorbing artificial grass.
At least 30 firms compete in the North American market for second-generation turf and pursue the opportunities opened up by the rapid demise of first-generation synthetic king Astroturf.
Players include FieldTurf Inc. of Montreal; Specialty Surfaces Inc.'s Sprint Turf of Wayne, Pa.; 1st Turf Inc. of Tampa, Fla., marketing Tarkett Sports' Prestige system; Sportexe Inc. of Fonthill, Ontario; and Surface America Inc.'s A-Turf division in Cheektowaga, N.Y.
Annual sales in the United States and Canada are ``probably $500 million to $800 million,'' and the growth is phenomenal, said Jim Petrucelli, vice president of sales for Sprint Turf.
Market leader FieldTurf uses computer-aided designs for each job and manages production for consistency in the backing, infill, fiber size and shape and density of the long pile. Any change affects the engineered system's performance.
A soft and silky fiber surface makes FieldTurf different from traditional synthetic turf, said Darren Gill, marketing manager of FieldTurf. ``Players can slide, tackle and tumble without fear of abrasions. Rug burns are a thing of the past.''
Smooth, rounded granules of silica sand, processed rubber granules and top-layer Nike Grind stabilize the plastic grass fibers in creating FieldTurf's infill, or base mixture of ``synthetic earth,'' Gill said. Nike Grind is made from ground athletic shoes.
Low & Bonar plc unit Bonar Yarns & Fabrics Ltd. of Dundee, Scotland, supplies a fibrillated yarn made of ultraviolet-light-stabilized polyethylene blend for FieldTurf's long pile. The supplier designed and modified BonaSlide yarn to maximize the surface-to-weight ratio and meet FieldTurf system demands.
A FieldTurf plant in Dalton, Ga., incorporates the 21/2-inch-high PE yarn into 15-foot-wide rolls and ships the turf with jumbo-sized industrial sacks of sand, rubber and the grind from Nike Inc. of Beaverton, Ore.
FieldTurf volume increased more than 25 percent last year.
Along with the sand, the firm shipped nearly 90 million pounds of rubber and grind in 2003 vs. 70 million pounds of those materials the previous year.
In making the infill, workers freeze, shatter and pulverize tires into rounded rubber particles that remain suspended with sand granules of similar size and weight.
``The sand and rubber are precision layered to guarantee uniformity,'' Gill said. FieldTurf has patented the manufacturing and installation processes and provides an eight-year guarantee.
The PE fibers extend three-fourths of an inch above the infill.
From order placement to installation may take 30-65 days. ``All clients have different needs,'' Gill said.
Competition has squeezed pricing. Now, FieldTurf may cost about $5.50 per square foot, or $450,000 per full-sized field, for an initial installation. A typical residential installation may cost $7-$10 per square foot.
Field maintenance is recommended in intervals of not more than six weeks. FieldTurf provides a free RT Groomer, a maintenance machine that is worth $800, for each stalled field and, in January, introduced and began selling the more sophisticated Supergroomer for $5,000.
``We have done the most amount of research and development on our fields to know exactly how they need to be maintained,'' Gill said.
The idea of synthetic turf competes with the American ideal of sod lawn with a beautiful green expanse of natural grass. Environmentalists see value in artificial turf and point out the ongoing natural-grass costs of water, pesticide, fertilizer, aerating, reseeding and mowing and related runoff, pollution and landfill problems.
While natural grass converts carbon dioxide to oxygen and other gases through photosynthesis, artificial turf can off-gas volatile organic compounds and require ventilation for indoor use in stadiums and elsewhere.
In direct sunlight, artificial turf can get 6°-10° F warmer than grass. Sports fields may need a cooling water spray once or twice a day.
The most recent of FieldTurf's 805 field installations are the indoor Olympic Stadium in Montreal, the indoor Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis and an outdoor Ohio State University practice field in Columbus, Ohio. FieldTurf plans to complete 168 other installations by September.
First-generation artificial turf emanated from a Ford Foundation initiative in the 1950s to boost physical fitness of young people in the United States. Picking up on the idea, the creative products group of Monsanto Co.'s Chemstrand subsidiary installed synthetic Chemgrass at a Providence, R.I., school in 1964 and the Houston Astrodome in 1965. Soon, the product was renamed Astroturf. Southwest Recreational Industries Inc. of Leander, Texas, acquired the business in 1994.
Numerous athletes and trainers said the popular Astroturf and other competing carpets contributed to burns, concussions and knee and ankle injuries. In a typical Astroturf installation, polypropylene or nylon fibers in stiff and low-pile forms are glued to concrete or asphalt.
SRI dominated the market with Astroturf through 1999. The firm had 2003 sales of $156.9 million and, in 2002, employed 800 and had sales of $162.5 million. The subsidiary of American Sports Products Group Inc. filed for bankruptcy protection in Rome, Ga. SRI listed assets of $101.9 million and debts of $88.1 million as of Dec. 31.
The Feb. 13 bankruptcy filing left projects in the lurch. Professional venues, colleges and secondary schools scrambled to get work done.
In October, a facilities commission in Minneapolis awarded a $715,000 contract for installation of SRI's Astroplay infill system by the start of the Twins' baseball season. In the midst of SRI's bankruptcy proceedings, losing bidder FieldTurf came to the commission's rescue and completed the Metrodome installation just in time for the April 5 call to play ball.
The bankruptcy process involved a late March auction. FieldTurf purchased numerous SRI assets, and others have recognized the initiator's role. ``Without Astroturf, there would be no synthetic turf industry,'' Mark Nicholls, president of Sportexe, said in a written statement.
Privately held FieldTurf employs 35 at its head office in Canada, 15-20 in Dalton and about 85 in sales positions worldwide.
Beginning in 1988, the firm made NovaCourt synthetic grass for tennis courts and NovaTee for use around golf practice tees. Further engineering led to development of artificial turf surfaces for soccer, lacrosse, football and baseball fields.
Initial sales under the FieldTurf brand occurred in 1993 for indoor soccer facilities. The University of Nebraska installed FieldTurf at its practice field and stadium in 1999, and the firm moved into high gear in other professional, collegiate and youth venues.
In a 2001 cross-collaboration, AIG-Horizon Partners LLC of Westport, Conn., and the NFL Quarterbacks Club made financial investments in FieldTurf, and the group of retired football quarterbacks committed to promotional and charitable activities with FieldTurf.