CO-Horts Blog

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Why CSU’s New Stadium Should be Real Grass – and why it Probably Isn’t

Tony Koski, Extension Turf Specialist

Hughes Stadium turf  (yes, real grass!) in 2002, the night prior to
an epic nationally televised Rams victory over Louisville (36-33). It
WAS the best playing surface in the Mountain West Conference.
This past Monday it was announced that CSU’s freshman sensation quarterback, Collin Hill, suffered a season-ending ACL injury during Saturday’s victory over Utah State (you can read about it here). Why am I writing about this in a blog focused on horticulture? Stick with me, even if you aren’t into sports or aren’t a CSU football fan, and you will hopefully see the connection.

As noted in the article, this was a non-contact injury – meaning that Hill wasn’t injured by being tackled or hit by another player. Quoting CSU coach Mike Bobo: “It was non-contact. He was just planting off his left foot, and it buckled. Tough thing for Collin, tough for our football team.” Just bad luck, right? Football injuries happen – usually the result of a collision with another player, being tackled, being fallen upon, etc. And, yes, injuries happen on both types of field surface – synthetic and natural grass. But does it really matter if football is played on grass or synthetic turf?

A close-up of the old Hughes Stadium natural grass playing surface.
Better than synthetic!
Companies that promote the use of their synthetic turf over natural grass for athletic fields vigorously state that their synthetic surfaces are safer for athletes, less expensive and easier to maintain, that they are environmentally friendly – and that they are “just like real grass” (OK, so why even bother with the comparison, if you are better?). These claims are made during the “sell” to athletic directors, coaches, booster groups, school boards, city councils, etc. The claims (especially about money and cost-savings) make it seem like the decision to use synthetic over real grass is a no-brainer and that it would be irresponsible to spend money on grass fields. These “selling points” work – even on otherwise intelligent people – because there is RARELY anyone present when decisions are made to provide evidence to the contrary: that natural grass MIGHT be a better choice than synthetic for a HOST of legitimate, provable reasons.

It was such a big game that there were 2 Cams
there for some reason? They could (and did!) graze
on the stadium turf then. And it was safer for the
players too!
I will honestly state that synthetic turf, in some situations, is often the VERY BEST playing surface for a school to install. But there are so many times when it can be argued that real grass is the most sensible, common-sense choice. The problem is that decision-makers often don’t ask the right questions (about safety and cost), discount and ignore arguments for using real grass, believe without question what the synthetic companies claim, and often bow to the sentiment that “everyone else is doing it, so we have to because it must be the right thing to do”.  Often, the promise of funding to install synthetic (but ONLY synthetic because that’s what a donor or booster group wants for their team or their coach) overrides any other reasoning to consider grass. Worse still, the decision is often made by a coach – who is both highly unqualified to make such an important decision and is also highly unlikely to still be coaching that team when that synthetic turf needs to be replaced.

I could write an entire blog on cost comparisons of installing, maintaining, and replacing the two types of surfaces – but perhaps some other time. However, if you want to read some very compelling evidence that synthetic often does NOT make financial sense, here is an excellent article in Forbes magazine on the topic entitled “How Taxpayers get Fooled on the Cost of an Artificial Turf Field”. It’s quite lengthy, but compelling and difficult to argue with – unless you are a synthetic turf company that isn’t totally forthcoming on costs of maintenance and replacement. The national Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) also provides a great comparison of costs to maintain these different playing surfaces. Fodder for a future blog!

More important than cost, however, is safety. Which is safer for football players from an injury perspective: grass or synthetic? Synthetic companies will tie themselves in knots to make synthetic appear safer for athletes than real grass. But what does research say about injuries on these two surfaces?

Divots in a natural grass field act as "circuit breakers" when a player's
foot locks in the turf - giving way so that the ligaments and tendons
in knees and ankles are less likely to.
In a study entitled “The effect of playing surface on the incidence of ACL injuries in National Collegiate Athletic Association American Football”, the authors analyzed the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Injury Surveillance System (ISS) men's football ACL injury database from 2004-2005 through 2008-2009 to determine what effects that playing surface might have on ACL injury in NCAA football athletes. They found that the rate of ACL injury on artificial surfaces is 1.39 times higher than the injury rate on grass. Specifically, they found that non-contact injuries occurred more frequently on artificial turf surfaces (44.29%) than on natural grass (36.12%), and concluded that “NCAA football players experience a greater number of ACL injuries when playing on artificial surfaces.” This begs the very simple question: why install a playing surface (when you have a choice) that is PROVEN to increase the potential for injury to student athletes?

In a similar study that examined injury rate in NFL players (An analysis of specific lower extremity injury rates on grass and FieldTurf playing surfaces in National Football League Games: 2000-2009 seasons), the authors found that “the observed injury rates of ACL sprains and eversion ankle sprains on FieldTurf surfaces were 67% (P < .001) and 31% (P < .001) higher than on grass surfaces and were statistically significant”. No comment needed on these numbers, as they speak for themselves! (FieldTurf is a specific brand of synthetic turf, and is what is currently installed in Hughes Stadium).

While not a Baltimore Ravens fan (remember that awful playoff game in January 2013?), they are to be applauded for replacing their synthetic field with real grass this year. The Ravens players lobbied ownership to make the change to grass. “To a man, players said they would rather play on natural grass than artificial turf,” says Don Follett, M&T Bank Stadium’s senior director of fields and rounds. “That’s consistent with NFL surveys showing that 90 to 95 percent of the league’s players prefer real grass. They say it feels better under their feet and provides a softer landing when they get knocked down. If your players feel better, they’re more likely to play better for you, and that carries a lot of weight.”

Rendering of new CSU practice fields (Source: CSU Source; Colorado State
Finally, another article in the Coloradoan this week noted that construction on a new SYNTHETIC practice field adjacent to the new stadium will begin this Saturday. It is part of a larger project that will “… serve as a gateway to the stadium, with plantings to celebrate and demonstrate the university’s agricultural heritage”. Simple question: how does a carpet covered with smelly, ground-up rubber celebrate “agricultural heritage”? Just asking....

Contrary to many of my colleagues here at CSU and possibly many readers of this blog, I was (and still am) fully supportive of the new stadium. But that doesn’t mean I can’t ask the question: why install a playing surface that is proven to increase the potential for injury to student athletes when we have the opportunity and resources available to install real grass? After all, if the CU Buffaloes can maintain a real grass stadium (used for graduation, as a stage for the Boulder Bolder, and to host concerts and numerous other events), certainly Colorado’s Land-Grant university could do the same? Go Rams... but don’t let Cam do any grazing on your fields.
University of Colorado's beautiful grass Folsom Field
(Source:Kai Casey/CU Independent)



  2. What I think is the biggest miss are the opportunities to use a real grass stadium as a "living lab" for sports turf research and education. CSU has an excellent turfgrass program and this is a terrible oversight. Go Rams!

    1. I couldn't agree more. Advertise your "agricultural heritage" and fine turf program with beautiful, natural grass fields.

  3. Well said, Tony!

  4. Excellent article, Tony. As I would expect, you take a science-based approach to this issue, just as all we lowly master gardeners should when we provide advice to the public. Thank you for everything you've done for the program and for CSU.

    1. Thanks Jim. And nothing lowly about you and all of the wonderful Colorado Master Gardeners. You do wonderful work. And I am a CMG too!

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