By Al Mattei
Who knew that the outcry over dead grass in the Harris County Domed Stadium would lead to a revolution in the game of field hockey?
Well, when the Houston Colt .45s baseball team began to occupy the structure in 1966, there was grass on the ground and glass in the ceiling like a large greenhouse.
But as complaints about the glass ceiling and the glare from the sun made officials paint over the roof, thereby killing off the grass, the Monsanto company hurriedly created a plastic artificial carpeting that would come to symbolize an era.
AstroTurf, the brand name for the short-ply artificial turf surface, began showing up on football and baseball diamonds, at some golf courses for practice putting greens, on concrete porches and pool decks, and even some lawns where low maintenance was an asset. As such, it became a symbol of a 1970s culture of artificial excess.
The Houston baseball team even changed its name to the Astros, changed the name of the structure to The Astrodome, and put tacky horizontal stripes on its polyester uniform.
Soon, AstroTurf and competitors like SuperTurf and TartanTurf became the official surface for international field hockey, and hockey-playing nations like The Netherlands, Germany, and Australia were installing artificial hockey pitches everywhere.
Most American schools and colleges resisted. The price for a turf field in the late 1980s and early 1990s ran anywhere from $1 to $2 million, and even as the American field hockey team rose to third in the world at the 1994 World Cup, very few U.S. colleges and almost no high schools had artificial turf at their disposal.
At the same time, athletes were finding that older plastic pitches were becoming hazardous to the joints of even elite professionals. In the late 80s and early 90s, numerous college and professional stadiums took out their artificial surfaces so that by 2003, only three or four had traditional short-grain artificial turf; there had been as many as 18 at one point -- a factor that could have led to AstroTurf's bankruptcy filing in 2004.
What replaced many of these surfaces was a new generation of artificial grass. Sold under names like NexTurf, FieldTurf, and AstroPlay, these layered rubberized pitches are not only much softer (and slower for the purposes of field hockey), but the number of competing firms have made prices much cheaper; as little as $714,000 for a surface inside of a 400-yard oval track. Schools, colleges, and towns have noticed that the one-time capital outlay saves money on maintenance projected over a 20-years period.
At the same time, American colleges started investing in artificial turf facilities for their field hockey teams. Some projects were small, others very elaborate. While there is some resistance on the part of some teams to use the softer and slower artificial grass fields that are appearing at numerous U.S. colleges, their presence on campuses in non-traditional field hockey areas may make it easier for new teams to start programs there.
While there has been some resistance on the part of some scholastic coaches to playing on turf (at least 10 states play their state championship title matches on an artificial pitch), many field hockey coaches on the lower levels have accepted turf -- of any sort -- to an overwhelming degree. An unscientific survey in Virginia had almost a two-thirds approval rating for turf in its state championship tournament.
Artificial turf and artificial grass have shown up in highly unusual places. Why?
1) The increasing demand for recreational fields in soccer and other sports;
2) Suburban sprawl taking away available recreational field space;
3) Multiple companies competing in the field of artificial surfaces, bringing down the price.
We will bring you these stories on how the proliferation of artificial turf for the purposes of field hockey has affected the development of the sport:
* The 2004 shutdown of the company that makes AstroTurf has great implications for field hockey worldwide;
* Colleges are spending large amounts of money on hockey-specific stadiums;
* A field hockey Valhalla springs up in southwestern Connecticut;
* When ideas over youth and turf somehow wind up in court;
* A community college gets an idea and sticks to it;
* Grass-based college teams are beginning to find it hard to host games;
* VIDEO: A short primer on artificial turf's advantages over grass.