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To new National Football League fans, who have only seen games on television, the playing surfaces may all look the same ~ a kind of deep-green perfection. In actuality, what are NFL fields made of? Do all NFL stadiums have the same turf?
All NFL fields could be considered turf ~ but not all of the same kind of turf. A slight majority of the fields have natural grass turf underfoot. The rest have some form of artificial grass, also called artificial turf, synthetic grass, plastic grass, fake grass, or fake turf.
The balance of NFL fields with turf will be complete with the 2023 season, when Nissan Stadium, home of the Tennessee Titans, shifts from grass to artificial grass.
Of course, before the introduction of artificial turf in 1966, all football playing fields were natural grass. With the opening of the Astrodome that year, the Houston Oilers became the first team with a non-grass field. (The new synthetic grass was named AstroTurf in honor of the famed first domed stadium).
It’s not all called AstroTurf any more, as technological advancements this century have delivered artificial grass that performs just like the real thing.
So good, in fact, that a decades-long trend of shifting from grass to the fake turf began to subside. New artificial grass features small rubber pellets spread among the synthetic grass blades to make the turf give way when a cleat digs into it, or a body lands on it.
First off, no matter what material is used, it’s never called a “lawn.” A lawn is the type of grass that is applied in landscaping. A turf is the form of grass surface used on athletic fields for football, baseball, soccer, and other outdoor activities.
When artificial turf surfaced in the mid-1960s, it was quite a phenomenon. It was a field surface that not only reduced ongoing watering and maintenance costs, but it also played true, with no more weird ball hops off divots and pebbles.
That made it decent for baseball play ~ except the fake grass turfs changed how the game was played. Baseballs rolled faster over fake crass, and bounced harder (and higher) on it, and players sure of their footing could run faster.
Baseball on old-style AstroTurf was a faster game than what you see today, with more stealing of bases, and gap hits rolling to the outfield wall.
As stadiums installed artificial turf ~ especially during a stadium boom of the 1970s and introduction of the circular enclosed multi-sport facilities ~ drawbacks surfaced.
First of all, most artificial turf surfaces didn’t quite last as long as expected. Torching sunshine, flooding from rain, freezing temperatures, and worse broke down the fake turfs faster than anticipated, resulting in fading, still-water puddling, seam rips, and more.
The biggest problem took time to realize, and affected American football probably more than athletes in the other sports. Fake grass turf uses some sort of padding underneath the sheet of plastic blades, to cushion bounces and impacts from bodies to better emulate age-old play.
However, stadium officials began to notice that some types of artificial grass had padding that compacted over time, or just deteriorated away, leaving little to cushion players. Landing on bad fake turf could feel like falling directly onto concrete.
Also, some clubs refused to invest in new padding, leaving the old fake turf to get worse and worse as years passed.
The biggest issue with artificial turf in the NFL was injuries. At first, players who left the game reported more lingering joint pain than other retired players, especially those who played at least half their games on fake grass.
Here are the pros and cons of each type of surface, summarized:
- Almost always easier on joints of players
- Smells good
- Can help cool the air inside stadiums, especially those enclosed or nearly all enclosed
- Traditional; it’s what the game was invented on
- Uniform stains
- Mud during heavy raining
- Cost of ongoing, consistent watering and maintenance
- Field wear during games; fields can be inconsistent from beginning to end
- Cost savings to maintain over time in terms of water and grass trimming
- True surface (no divots or holes)
- Using specially designed football turf shoes can result in a more solid grip with the turf, for a more true feel with less chance of slippage
- Can be designed to better drain water away from playing area on storms
- Unprotected skin can get “rug burns” ~ red and tender areas like a rash caused by friction between a fast-moving body and the plastic
- Can tend to make a hot playing field in sunshine
- Can be unforgiving should a cleat get stuck; can still cause injury even if it’s the modern styles
- Can make for a rather sterile atmosphere inside a stadium
The rush to artificial turf in the multi-use stadiums was to avoid damage to natural grass from one sport to the other, or even from other events like concerts.
For instance, the baseball and football seasons overlap for a month, and a Sunday football game could cause significant damage to the grass that would be used for a baseball game the following day. This especially became problematic during the baseball playoffs in October.
The more modern, 1970s-era multi-use stadiums, like Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh or Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati, came with artificial turf and stuck with it. Others stuck with natural grass ~ or even switched back and forth.
Stadiums famous for sharing NFL and MLB teams on grass include Oakland Coliseum (formerly the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum); Anaheim Stadium when it was home to the Los Angeles Rams; Candlestick Park in San Francisco (which for a period had artificial turf, but later the 49ers played on real grass again); Qualcomm Stadium when the Chargers were in San Diego; old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, when it hosted the Ravens just for 1996-97; Busch Stadium (before artificial turf was installed); old Cleveland Municipal Stadium; Milwaukee County Stadium, when the Green Bay Packers hosted games there; Atlanta Fulton County Stadium (1966 to 1991, Falcons sharing with the Braves); and the original Yankee Stadium, believe it or not, which was always natural grass and hosted the New York Giants from 1956 to 1973.
Even the classic old baseball stadiums Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, War Memorial Stadium in Buffalo (which hosted a high-level minor league baseball team as well as the Bills for a period); Shibe Park in Philadelphia; and the Polo Grounds in New York.
The Oakland Coliseum ended up being the last such facility to do so, until the Raiders left for Las Vegas in 2017.
Question: What was synthetic grass called before they coined the name “AstroTurf”
Answer: The new invention was patented in 1965 and initially sold under the name of ChemGrass. However the following year, its well-publicized installation on the Astrodome playing surface nudged a company employee to give it a new name.
Q.: Do the Astros and Oilers still play on AstroTurf?
A.: No. The Astros began playing on the grass field of (then) Enron field, in 2000. (Today it’s called Minute Maid Park). The Oilers sadly moved out of Houston in 1997, going to Nashville to become the Tennessee Titans.
Q.: Why did they put fake grass in the Astrodome in the first place?
A.: It was the very first all-domed stadium, and originally they set grass turf on the field ~ and it would not grow due to lack of sunshine! (The Astrodome let in a considerable amount of light from above, just not enough to keep the grass turf healthy).