As Concord’s Memorial Field discussions continue, what are pros and cons of synthetic turf?

Artificial turf at Laconia High School athletic field.

Artificial turf at Laconia High School athletic field. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Artificial turf at Laconia High School athletic field.

Artificial turf at Laconia High School athletic field. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Artificial turf at Laconia High School athletic field.

Artificial turf at Laconia High School athletic field. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Artificial turf at Laconia High School athletic field.

Artificial turf at Laconia High School athletic field. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

The football field at Memorial Field in Concord has plenty of bare spots. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

The football field at Memorial Field in Concord has plenty of bare spots. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff —

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 12-16-2023 11:08 AM

As discussions around renovation plans for Memorial Field progress, few changes loom larger than the possibility of adding a synthetic turf field.

Anyone who’s visited the facility on South Fruit Street in Concord the day after rain knows the current challenges: large pools of water, poor drainage and frequent game postponements.

The redesign project is still in its very early stages, with the city and school district having partnered on a master plan to evaluate the future use of the space. In September, the Concord Parks and Recreation Department held a listening session for community members to share their input as the project moves forward. They plan to host a second community meeting about the project later this winter.

But the implications of what a new synthetic turf field could bring – both positive and negative – warrant further investigation. From the potential to extend sports seasons, to possible injury risks, officials and residents have several factors to consider.

Reliable and durable

Hollis-Brookline High School had a synthetic turf field finished for use in the fall of 2019. It didn’t take long for athletic director Brian Bumpus to see the biggest benefit of what was a $1.6 million project.

“One of the huge benefits comes with scheduling,” Bumpus said. “In the past...we’re not necessarily getting out on the field when the season starts in March; with the turf, other than for thunder and lightning, we haven’t had to reschedule many games that have been played upon it.”

Bryan Conant, the Nashua parks and recreation director who oversees the management of the synthetic turf at Stellos Stadium, reiterated that point.

“I can’t stress enough how much of an asset the field is in terms of allowing children to play later into the fall and allowing seasons to start earlier in the spring,” he said. “Up here in the Northeast, the biggest challenge is the weather when it comes to turfgrass management.”

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Because of enhanced drainage, snow melt in the early spring and rain throughout the year typically won’t take as long to drain as a natural grass surface, even one that’s very well constructed.

Synthetic turf is also a more viable option when it comes to hosting tournaments, explained Chase Straw, a professor at Texas A&M who focuses his research on the science of turfgrass, a term that covers both artificial turf and natural grass.

“Whenever they host these big tournaments, they want to be able to play on the field continuously for a given period of time, whether it be one week or two weeks or however long the tournament is,” he said. “In general, you’re going to be able to use the synthetic turf more than you would be able to use a natural field throughout a given year.”

In Concord, for example, that could mean opportunities to host NHIAA high school playoff games that are almost exclusively played at other schools around the state with synthetic turf, like Exeter, Nashua, Bedford, Laconia and Manchester Memorial.

This tendency for the NHIAA to award neutral-site playoff games to schools with synthetic turf can create advantages for those schools that play on the surface all season long. In sports like soccer and field hockey, where the type of playing surface significantly influences the pace of the game, teams that play on natural turf often have to reserve synthetic turf at other facilities in preparation for playoff games.

Adding a synthetic turf field to Memorial Field would alleviate that inconvenience for Concord teams.

Required maintenance

The positives make synthetic turf sound like a no-brainer for coaches, athletic directors, athletes and parents, but there are also several drawbacks of pursuing such a path.

First, there’s the common misconception that synthetic turf is maintenance-free, both Straw and Conant noted. That couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Based on the information and the conversations I’ve had, a lot of communities are trying to get by without having that expense,” said Straw, who works with both synthetic and natural turf companies. “They want it to be maintenance free, (but) that’s obviously going to influence the longevity of the field.”

In other words, spending money upfront for a synthetic turf field (like the $1.6 million Hollis-Brookline spent) won’t be the end of investment in the facility. Bumpus noted that they have not had maintenance work done on their field yet but are looking into biannual grooming and repairs.

At Stellos, Conant brings in an outside company every year to groom the field, remove any debris and run a magnet over it to remove any metal that may have fallen on the surface. They’ll also run what’s called a Gmax test, meant to evaluate the hardness and safety of the playing surface.

“No matter what level you are at, it’s not maintenance free,” Conant said. “The more maintenance you do, the more proper maintenance you do, perpetual maintenance, obviously the longer the field’s going to last.”

The current field in Nashua was installed in 2011 and might be replaced with a new surface next summer, another expense to consider when evaluating the merits of switching to synthetic turf.

Injuries and infill

The synthetic surface has also sparked numerous debates about player safety, most recently after New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers suffered a torn achilles in the team’s first game of the season. There’s wide-ranging concern among most NFL athletes about playing on synthetic turf.

Earlier this year, NFL Players Association president J.C. Tretter published a story that cited a disparity in the number of injuries suffered on synthetic turf compared to natural turf.

“The NFL and team owners have the resources to fix these safety issues with fields, and it is inexplicable why there is such a failure to protect players on an issue that EVERYONE knows is a problem,” Tretter, also a former center for the Green Bay Packers and Cleveland Browns, wrote in his post.

Recent technological improvements allow further research to examine why synthetic turf lends itself to increased injury risk. Straw’s research program, for example, has used ankle accelerometers to measure impacts on the tibia, or shin bone. They’ve found that natural grass is usually softer and absorbs more energy from someone who’s running and jumping on it, Straw explained.

“I always give the example – it’s an extreme example – but running on concrete versus the beach. If you’re a runner and you go run four or five miles on concrete versus the beach, both will fatigue you to a certain extent, but you’re more likely to get shin splints running on hard surfaces,” he said. “You’ll feel it in your knees a little bit more when you’re running on concrete versus a softer surface.”

Another frequently-raised concern with synthetic turf fields is the use of crumb rubber, or crushed up rubber tires, for the infill. Concord’s parks and recreation department website notes that it is not currently recommending the use of crumb rubber, often viewed as unsafe because of various chemicals present in the material.

Other alternatives, like cork infill, can be used instead, but they’re generally more costly and present their own practical challenges.

“There’s a lot of movement with the cork, so if it rains heavily, it tends to pile up, and if the field is sloped to a certain extent, it moves a lot relative to the crumb rubber,” Straw said. “And I’ve heard that a lot with some of the other organic field stuff.”

Collaboration is key

A synthetic turf field as part of the Memorial Field renovation would almost assuredly provide a more reliable and more durable playing surface for the city to use, especially in the early spring and late fall. But once the initial investment is made, the facility will still require consistent maintenance to improve the field’s longevity. A new surface will also eventually need to be installed, and as other cities and towns across the state can attest, that is never an inexpensive project.

Sticking with a natural grass surface would alleviate concerns about injuries and the challenges of finding a safe and effective infill, but it would also require a comprehensive maintenance plan.

Either way, the community will need to have a plan in place to avoid one of the biggest flaws Straw said organizations frequently make in field management: Not involving the people responsible for facility maintenance in all aspects of the design and construction, so they’re on the same page as community decision-makers.

“A lot of communities don’t want to invest in a dedicated person, somebody that has knowledge or a degree in sports field management to take care of their fields,” Straw said. “And even those that do have those types of people, those people aren’t usually involved in the construction phase of it … They don’t do their research during the construction phase, and they go with the cheapest route, which long term, isn’t always the best. And then once it is down, they don’t have somebody there to actually maintain it the way that they should.”