Natural or Synthetic, that is the question!
Like cars, sports teams, and politics, we like to root for one and actively root against the other. Following the same tactic, athletic field surfaces are no different. Most people are on either team “Natural” or team “Synthetic”. The problem here is that both provide benefits to the end-user and there is nothing inherently good or bad when it comes to athletic field surfaces. There are only factors that influence the decision to choose one over the other (i.e. price, environment, tradition, etc.). These factors should be reviewed carefully and chosen based on the best possible outcome for the end-user.
Natural Playing Surfaces
Natural fields are what Mother Nature and Father Time have given us, with a little help from the sports field management industry, all the ingredients needed for a playing field, grass, and soil. Since we have been using grass and soil to play on fields, we have continued to improve the conditions by better grass genetics and varieties, college-educated managers, engineering infield mixes, improved fertilizer, herbicide, and fungicide formulas, etc. All of this has allowed us to manicure and care for natural athletic fields at the highest levels, by the best players in the world, successfully.
The benefits of natural fields come in no shortage. Possibly the biggest benefit is how the soil, grass, and clay interact, and give us the ability to customize how our fields play. We can make a field softer or harder, longer or shorter, and exactly how players like it. Further on the soil, grass, and clay interaction; the grass and clay surfaces provide a stable playing surface, but also the flexibility needed for the torque, compression, and contact our bodies have with playing fields. There are still injuries on natural fields, but highly unlikely to be caused solely by the field.
Natural fields are also cheaper, overall. The costs are somewhat evenly split between initial construction and long-term maintenance programs. Depending on the level of play, initial construction can cost between $100-500k, but the maintenance programs can cost $10-100k per year. Both of those factors can put a natural field cost range from $200k - $1.5m. Synthetic fields, which we will cover in a minute, range from $750k - $1.5m. So the high-end fields will likely come out evenly between the two, but the low-end fields, even with brand new construction and minimal maintenance plan, can be as low as $200k! That’s only $20k/year cost to have a mid-level athletic field.
Synthetic Playing Surfaces
Synthetic playing surfaces have been around since the 1970s. As with natural fields, and through scientific research and the sports field management industry, synthetic fields have also greatly improved. The earliest synthetic fields were short, hard, and rough. Now the fields are longer and softer, with characteristics that are getting closer and closer to replicating exactly how a natural field plays. While natural fields have made great strides in safety, playability, and aesthetics, synthetic fields have made those same strides, but in about a quarter of the time natural fields did. Synthetic fields have accomplished this through significant investment into the research and development, and marketing of their product.
One of the biggest benefits of synthetic is playability. You can play on a synthetic field essentially, and any time of the year, day or night. The only limitation is snow or ice, but even then, synthetic fields give you many more options to remedy those issues without damaging the field. You can play through rain, if no lightning, with almost no effect on the playing field. That is extremely powerful since rainouts are a nuisance in outdoor sports.
Another big benefit is reduced cost and time of maintenance for synthetic fields. No matter what anyone tells you, synthetic fields need maintenance, and a good amount of it, but not as much as natural. You still must keep the fibers standing tall and not laying down, check and refill the crumb rubber, clean out debris, check for over-compaction, and some more, but even with all of that, there is still significantly less maintenance compared to natural.
Lastly, being able to customize the layout of your field, with paint or inlaid lines, gives synthetic the ability to play many sports on one field at one location. While playing too many games on synthetic can reduce its lifespan, it won’t make the field unplayable in the interim. This allows schools and parks to have all athletes play on a nice field, but also the ability to rent out the field to other teams if they want to use it. This is where the field can recoup some of its high costs.
In a perfect world, we could do a hybrid option and save money while increasing playability, but there are plenty of difficulties that come along with that. This still is a valuable and viable option, but it usually needs to fit a very specific situation. There are grass systems that implement a hybrid synthetic fiber planted into an existing grass field, but this also comes with difficulties and is expensive.
Sometimes this can be a hard comparison because they are both very different, but very similar at the same time. If budget is your biggest concern, then natural will almost always be the best fit. If rainouts and playability is your biggest concern, then synthetic will likely be the best fit for you. As with much in life, the rest is a personal preference.
Like I said before, there is nothing inherently good or bad when it comes to athletic field surfaces. There is no right or wrong answer. There are times when certain benefits are more important for end-users. In those cases, they should choose the product that works best for them. Prioritize your needs and see which one fits the best and go with that option. You can’t go wrong!