The Grass is Always Greener: Turfkeeping in the Beautiful Game

Leicester City's beautiful surface (BPI/Kieran McManus)
Leicester City’s beautiful surface (BPI/Kieran McManus)

Imagine walking into your favorite soccer stadium and taking a deep breath. What do you smell?

You might smell hot dogs, popcorn, or pizza, depending on what city you’re in. If you’re anything like me, you smell the beer in your hand. And it’s almost certain you smell the grass upon which your favorite team will soon be playing. But what does it take to get the turf to look and smell beautiful?

The shovel brigade working overtime on that fateful Snow Clasico between USMNT and Costa Rica. March 23, 2013. Photo credit: Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
The shovel brigade working overtime on that fateful Snow Clasico between USMNT and Costa Rica. March 23, 2013. Photo credit: Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Of course, taking care of all that grass is a huge daily job. At MAPFRE Stadium, anywhere from 30-35 hours each week are dedicated to preparing the field for the upcoming home game, and the field has only been replaced once — consider that each Super Bowl field is grown for a full year before the game! StubHub Center’s grounds crew arrives seven hours before each home game to make sure the field is perfect before anyone comes in the gate to see it, and that doesn’t even include the daily mow. The time and equipment required to maintain the natural grass fields depends on the stadium itself and the part of the country as well. Red Bull Arena, for example, has a partial roof to shade spectators, but that shade impacts the growing of the grass, so the groundskeeping team has a total of 285 light bulbs on rigs used to create an even, lush playing surface.

A concert at BBVA Compass Stadium. From the stadium's website.
A concert at BBVA Compass Stadium. Photo courtesy: BBVA Compass Stadium

MLS stadiums often serve as great venues for all kinds of events, so the groundskeeping teams have other customers to cater to as well. At Toyota Stadium in Dallas, the team is lucky enough to have a permanent stage so only flooring needs to be laid down on the pitch, sparing it from stage damage. MAPFRE Stadium hosts a three-day rock-and-roll festival in May — that must be quite a clean-up job (and yet, as I mentioned above, the pitch has only been replaced once!). StubHub Center hosts many events in the middle of the MLS season, and has had to adapt to the schedule. Rest assured, when you go to a concert at your favorite stadium, you will experience the same beautiful turf that your favorite players have come to expect when they step foot on the pitch every gameday.

Of course, like a keeper blocking a penalty kick, the groundskeeping teams are ready for anything. “I remember one scenario where we had a torrential downpour of rain and the field flooded to a point where you could not see any grass,” John Torres, the head groundskeeper at PPL Park, home of the Philadelphia Union, remembers. “Two hours later, the rain had completely drained, leaving a playable pitch.” The Toyota Stadium team reserves the Thursday and Friday before an event for setup, regardless if it’s a match or a high school graduation. Several groundskeepers mentioned the importance of watching the weather, so they know what to prepare for that day and the following days.

So where is your favorite pitch, and why? Is it the pitch from your favorite professional team, or one you spent time on growing up? Maybe next time you’re at the park, take a minute to look at the grass a little bit differently.

Thank you to the Sports Turf Managers’ Association and the following for their participation:

  • Weston Appelfeller, CSFM, Director of Grounds at Columbus Crew SC and Elected-at-Large Director of STMA
  • Shaun Ilten, Director, Turf and Grounds at LA Galaxy
  • Allen Reed, CSFM, Director of Stadium Grounds at FC Dallas
  • Dan Shemesh, Director of Grounds at New York Red Bulls
  • John Torres, Head Groundskeeper at Philadelphia Union
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