Field Of Greens The newest thing in artificial grass surfaces is more like the real stuff

October 17, 1999

The most cutthroat turf wars in sports today are fought not by
men in spandex and spikes but by men armed with carpet swatches
and pie charts. More than 40 companies across the globe are
engaging in whistle-stop warfare to tout their artificial turf
products as safer, sleeker and cheaper than their competitors'.
The newest player in this $300 million industry is Montreal-based
FieldTurf, which, with Nike's golden touch, has introduced
"artificial grass" that is less like the steel wool of recent
years and more like the natural stuff of yesteryear.

Made from synthetic grass blades woven into an infill base of
sand, rubber and Nike Grind (a ground material made from
recycled sneakers), FieldTurf's eponymous surface can be found
on 125 sports fields from Amarillo to Moscow. The infill allows
athletes to plant their feet and twist and pivot in a way
similar to what they do on real grass, while the blades are made
of polyethylene, which gives them a slippery feel that allows
athletes to slide tackle with the ease of kids on a Slip 'N
Slide. "Even soccer teams like it, and that's a tough
recommendation to come by," says Charles Dixon, president of
Turf Diagnostics and Design, an independent consulting company
in Olathe, Kans., that measured the resiliency of various
athletic surfaces and how each absorbs impact, and found that
FieldTurf had many of the characteristics of a well-maintained
natural grass field.

According to FieldTurf cofounder John Gilman, a former luggage
salesman who plays Monty Hall to partner Jean Prevost's
absent-minded professor, the average cost of a FieldTurf
football field, including excavation and base work, is about
$650,000. "This, as opposed to the $1 million you'll pay for
AstroTurf," says John Ingram, who as director of athletic
facilities at Nebraska was instrumental in the decision this
year to replace Memorial Stadium's seven-year-old AstroTurf 8
field with FieldTurf. FieldTurf requires none of the seeding,
watering and mowing of live grass. Many artificial turf surfaces
start to develop bald spots and a mint-green pallor after five
seasons, but FieldTurf has a life expectancy of eight to 12 years.

FieldTurf's calling card, however, is safety. Citing data
analyzed by orthopedist Bill Barnhill on athletic fields during
one season in Amarillo, Texas, the people at FieldTurf claim
that their surface demonstrates a 50% lower injury rate than
even natural grass. "I've seen no major injuries yet this
season," says Nebraska football trainer Doak Ostergard. "We have
180 guys, and no one is bellyaching about the turf."

The organization most impressed with FieldTurf seems to be its
major competitor: AstroTurf rights holder Southwest Recreational
Industries, Inc., which has introduced rubber infill in its new
AstroPlay product. FieldTurf sued for patent infringement last
fall. (The suit was settled in June, with the terms remaining
confidential.) The granddaddy of artificial turf brands,
AstroTurf debuted 35 years ago, and although the company says
the "green stuff" is essentially the same, nearly everything
else--the base and drainage system--has changed. Southwest has
an estimated 50% share of the worldwide artificial turf market
and 75% of the North American market.

Natural turf may continue to be everyone's dream, but FieldTurf
technology, predicts Dixon, "will inspire a lot of knockoffs,
real soon." The company's gross has grown from $1.7 million in
1997 to a projected $20 million in '99. In the last month they
have installed half a dozen fields, including three in the U.S.
for high school football and a practice rugby field in Auckland,
New Zealand. Even those who feel that grass is always greener
agree that FieldTurf "looks like grass, feels like grass, plays
like grass" and--for $2,000 worth of spraying--can smell like
grass.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ELIOT BERGMAN SURE FOOTING FieldTurf's "grass" is rooted in a base of sand, rubber and ground-up recycled sneakers.

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