Artificial turf is a synthetic alternative to natural grass for sports typically played outdoors. Most synthetic turf is made from a rubber, polyester or foam backing, topped with "blades" of individual fibers made of polypropylene or nylon blends. The grass-like material is ideal for sports such as baseball, soccer, rugby and football. Though artificial turf has advantages over natural grass in terms of cost and maintenance, the affect that the surface has on game play must be considered to adjust player strategy and reduce the likelihood of injury.
To accommodate unforgiving or unpredictable climates, some sports moved their stadiums indoors, but indoor arenas pose additional challenges for growing traditional grass. Artificial turf does not have the standard growth requirements such as sunlight or watering, so the synthetic alternative is well-suited to indoor spaces. Artificial turf is also useful in climates where natural grass is prone to burning or difficult to grow because of lack of rain. Though most types of artificial turf use plastics and rubber in production, turf can be manufactured from recycled materials to offset environmental impact. Synthetic turf requires a fraction of the water that natural grass needs, which is an ecological incentive.
Cost and Maintenance
Initial installation is generally less expensive for natural grass, especially in recreational outdoor facilities where grass is already present and does not need to be planted. An average cost of natural grass per square foot is approximately $3, versus approximately $5 for average quality artificial turf. However, maintenance costs, especially over the long term, tend to be higher for natural grass fields. Natural grass requires regular watering, fertilizing, mowing, seeding and pest control, which can cost several thousand dollars a year in parts and labor. Artificial turf also requires maintenance, including brushing, watering and even fertilizing to control pests, but management of an artificial field is less rigorous and less expensive than for natural grass. Field lines are another consideration. Artificial turf typically has field lines sewn directly into the fibers, so they cannot easily be changed to accommodate a different field type. Natural grass fields merely need to be repainted with new lines to accommodate a different sport, so they may be more cost-effective and visually appealing for multiple-use fields.
Impact on Game Play
Artificial turf fields allow groundskeepers more control over field consistency. Every fiber of an artificial turf field is manufactured to be a replica of the one next to it, so no areas are uneven or differently textured to alter the speed of a ball or the ability of a player to find footing. Natural grass creates more friction than artificial turf, a factor that accelerates rates at which objects move across its surface. In a game such as baseball, reduced friction means ground-based plays that may be easy catches on natural grass are more difficult on artificial turf. Because synthetic grass is woven into secure backing, players may also achieve more secure footing despite the reduced friction, allowing more precise turning and stopping. Despite theoretical advantages in game play, a 2006 survey by the National Football League Players' Association showed that nearly 73 percent of players preferred natural grass fields.
Newer varieties of synthetic turf that use polyethylene fibers produce significantly less friction between the playing surface and players' skin compared to both natural grass and older versions of synthetic turf. However, artificial turf manufactured from other fibers typically produces more friction than natural grass, increasing the likelihood of abrasions or friction-based injuries. Artificial turf also retains more heat than natural grass, so the fields should be cooled down with a small amount of water before games to reduce the likelihood of burns or of aggravating abrasion injuries.