Case Study: How Natural Grass Fields Can Hold Up to Rain | Sports Destination Management

Case Study: How Natural Grass Fields Can Hold Up to Rain

Apr 11, 2024 | By: Matt Libber, STS

All images courtesy of Maryland SoccerPlex

Natural grass fields. There’s nothing like them, at least until it rains, which can lead to delayed and even cancelled games. Those who build fields often say it’s a struggle to get venue owners to invest in field drainage. After all, it’s an invisible amenity. It’s not as identifiable by spectators as, say, a new scoreboard or a better concession stand. But when rain hits and fields aren’t playable, those visuals don’t count for much.


One sports complex recently undertook a multi-million-dollar improvement plan designed to upgrade the drainage on its fields, even in the face of heavy rain. Here’s a case study of what went down and what destinations can learn from it.


The $2.1 million investment and advancement in a recently completed drainage project for Maryland SoccerPlex’s 20 native soil natural fields proved its value during the first Spring Youth Soccer Weekend March 22 – 24, as all fields were open for play despite Saturday morning storms that brought 1.4” of rain to the area.


Case Study: Natural Grass FieldsMaryland SoccerPlex boasts 50 acres of high-level, high-use grass fields, and employs cutting-edge technology and environmentally sound practices to that grass. Its most recent improvement to drainage aimed to decrease the number of cancellations due to the weather.


“We have more than 12,000 games scheduled on our fields each year. When we have to cancel that trickle-down affects hundreds of players and guests to our facility. This effort allows us to provide safe playing surfaces for our athletes in an environmentally conscious way that also protects our investment in our fields,” said Matt Libber, Executive Director for the Maryland SoccerPlex.


The project was supported by GreenOne Industries (Parker, CO), Landscapes Unlimited (Lincoln, NE), & Hummer Turfgrass Systems (Manheim, PA), and was completed by Hummer Turfgrass Systems during the off-season in December 2023 after more than 10 years of work.


Prior to this project, SoccerPlex Stadium was the only natural grass field with drainage and sand soil verses the native soil of the other 20 natural grass fields. Native soil natural grass fields only drain and dry via surface runoff, as native (existing) soil does not drain quickly on its own. The project added drainage and six inches of sand soil to two fields, then moved to installing a unique sand-slit drainage system to the other 18 native soil fields.


Only disturbing 3 percent of the field surface, sand slit drainage greatly increases infiltration and eliminates standing water. To fill the sand-slits, 35 miles of drainage pipe and 5,000 tons of sand was installed across the park. The fields then periodically have sand added to the surface via a maintenance practice known as topdressing. The sand not only improves drainage, but also creates a softer surface to increase safety and increase playability (ball roll & footing).


In addition to allowing play to continue on the fields, the improvements greatly reduce grass damage that typically happens on a wet field surface, reducing the need for increased field maintenance after a wet weekend.


Case Study: Natural Grass FieldsSand-slit drainage is part of a Facility Improvement Plan adopted by the Maryland Soccer Foundation (MSF) Board of Directors in 2013. The Board’s goal was to increase field use and decrease or eliminate rain cancellations while being efficient and impactful with each dollar. The SoccerPlex SportsTurf Team has worked to reach those goals field by field between SoccerPlex’s major events, which require all 24 fields to be available.


At no point was a field able to be out of play for more than eight weeks and at no point could more than two fields be off-line at the same time during spring or fall. Ultimately the average time offline, for fraze mowing, drainage work, and re-growing the grass, was six weeks. During this 10+ year period, three directors of Sports Turf and Grounds pushed the initiative forward. Jerad Minnick both started and ended the project. Ryan Bjorn, now Field Superintendent at Gillette Stadium, and Mitch Litz, now Director of Sports Turf for FC Cincinnati, both carried it forward as well, working through what many would consider near impossible timetables and expectations.


“Ultimately we could not reach the goals of this project without the support from some terrific contractors and partners” said Jerad Minnick, SoccerPlex Director of SportsTurf & Grounds. “When we started this in 2013, GreenOne Industries (Colorado) was the only contractor with the specialized equipment for the unique approach we wanted to utilize. We are so thankful that Leroy Butler and his GreenOne team were willing to come to the East Coast to help get us started.”


Landscapes Unlimited (Nebraska) also supported the work off and on throughout. In 2016, SoccerPlex formed an alliance with Hummer Turfgrass Systems (Pennsylvania) that supercharged the progress of the project. Recently in an interview about SoccerPlex’s relationship with Hummer Turfgrass Systems Minnick said, “we couldn’t do what we do and produce some of the best field conditions in the world with some of the most traffic of any natural grass facility without partners like Hummer.”


“The SoccerPlex project is an excellent example of creative collaboration, industry expertise, and the power of sharing an aligned mission to deliver top-notch solutions that stand the test of time,” says Matt Wimer, President of Hummer Turfgrass Systems. “It’s been an honor and a privilege to work with the SoccerPlex and I look forward to continued collaborations.”

Case Study: Natural Grass FieldsThe Maryland SoccerPlex is ready to host an expected 1.3 million visitors this year for an array of different sports including youth, college, and professional soccer, lacrosse, flag football, and college and professional Rugby. These visitors will get to experience the high-quality playing surfaces that SoccerPlex is known for as well as the many different programs and services the Maryland SoccerPlex has to offer.


The award-winning Maryland SoccerPlex SportsTurf & Grounds Department is known for its unique approach to natural grass field maintenance. Fraze Mowing, Seed-to-Play in 35 days, Blue-muda, and #GrassCanTakeMore are just a few things that the Department is known for. SoccerPlex Sports Turf Institute launched in 2022 with its 1st Apprentice class. SoccerPlex SportsTurf & Grounds core focus is providing SoccerPlex patrons, no matter their age or playing level, with the most high-quality, high-use fields possible.

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