OPINION: ASTROTURF'S BANKRUPTCY PUZZLING -- OR IS IT?

By Al Mattei

Founder, TopOfTheCircle.com

When Southwest Recreational Industries filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the waning days of February 2004, it cited two reasons: over-expansion and a shrinking market for nylon lawns.

But if you look at the tremendous number of orders placed for artificial grass fields over the past three years -- there were more than 100 school districts nationwide planning installations in the winter of 2004 -- the truth comes out.

Southwest Recreational Industries was getting hammered in the marketplace. Pure and simple. And in late 2004, the FieldTurf folks bought out SRI and now have the rights to the name "AstroTurf."

AstroTurf has become an eponym for some unpleasant aspects of American society. Although short-grain artificial turf came into being in the 1960s, it is seen as a product of the same artificial, plastic 1970s ethos along with the brown leisure suit and the polyester pullover baseball uniform.

But as installed fields aged, they also became hazardous to athletes. Far beyond the usual rug burns and "turf toe" came the onset of achy and arthritic joints and an unusually high number of knee ligament injuries. One of the most notorous such injuries was suffered by Chicago Bears wide receiver Wendell Davis, who tore patella tendons both knees at Veterans' Stadium in Philadelphia without ever being tackled.

Colleges started replacing artificial turf with real grass in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Experiments with grass growing through a nylon web were tried in places like Baltimore's PSINet Stadium. Places like Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. started carting in trays of grass to lay over artificial turf for soccer while removing it for concerts and pro football.

Eventually, artificial grass started (to pardon the expression) take root when places such as Veterans Stadium began using it.

Oddly enough, original AstroTurf only became suitable for one sport in particular: field hockey.

When professional stadiums started installing artificial grass, while simultaneously driving down the asking price from roughly $800,000 in 2002 to as little as $450,000 in 2004, the market shifted away from Southwest Recreational Industries.

So, where do we go from here?

There are already fights on at least four college campuses which are installing artificial grass fields where the field hockey teams used to play. A Title IX lawsuit is being filed at Southwest Missouri State to move the field hockey team off artificial grass onto artificial turf.

At least two NCAA Division I coaches have given up on playing home matches on campus to play at a rival school's artificial turf when the school's football stadia were re-done with artificial grass.

Too, many coaches have resisted playing on artificial grass fields, calling them too bumpy or slow.

This is understandable, given the economics of college sports. Many field hockey coaches will push for hockey-specific stadia to bump up budgets that are sometimes 1/100th of what is spent on the campus football team.

The resistance of some in field hockey to artificial grass may have long-term repercussions for the sport's development in non-traditional field hockey areas. Cash-strapped university departments will, of course, welcome the chance to install a new artificial grass surface for field hockey teams which had played on bumpy grass since time immemorial. But athletic directors may balk if the team demands an expensive hockey-specific stadium, and choose to add some other women's sport.

Worse, what about the universities who have to worry about long-term maintenance? Artificial turfs that are perfectly serviceable today may become hazardous as little as three years down the line because of the emergence, of seams, the deterioration of underlying padding, and the wearing of the strands of green to a raspy sharpness.

Given the fact that FIH gave its blessing some time ago to allow matches to be played on certain types of artificial grass, it will be very interesting to see how many American college teams give up short turf to go to artificial grass.

Especially if such a move is motivated by economic necessity.

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