Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Tyranny Of Phony Fields

For two decades, towns and teams have been tearing up grass playing fields and replacing them with artificial turf, on the theory that ersatz sod is better than the real stuff. This 21-page report starts with a story on the roots of synthetic turf, follows with a heartfelt look at its unwelcome effects on baseball and ends with a disturbing account of carpet carnage in football. And it raises this question: Are the rugs that cover sporting America more trouble than they're worth?

Brand names of synthetic turf do not speak well for the poetic imagination of corporations. In no significant order, the stuff has been called, at one time or another, Poly-Turf, Durra Turf, Tartan Turf, Poligras, ChemGrass, Wyco Turf, Desso Turf, SuperTurf, Omniturf, All-Pro Turf and, of course, AstroTurf.

Names like these have done nothing to add to the sex appeal—or the sales appeal—of ersatz grass, but the fact is, by any name, the synthetic turf business is not a fun place to be. As it has turned out, manufacturing unnatural turf is not an easy way for a corporation to make big bucks—or even to stay solvent. Only one company has managed to stay above ground, as it were, through it all. That is mighty Monsanto of St. Louis, which, with $6.7 billion in 1984 sales, ranked 51st on the most recent FORTUNE 500 list of the largest U.S. industrial corporations. For the record, Monsanto employs 50,000 people and produces a chemical cornucopia of more than 1,000 different products that range from artificial chicken-feed supplements to silicon wafers for computer chips.

AstroTurf happens to be Monsanto's most famous brand name because of its constant exposure to massive audiences via TV sports coverage. However, best known does not mean most important: AstroTurf is a drop in the Monsanto bucket when it comes to revenues. It produces $20 million a year, a mere ‚Öì of 1% of the company's overall revenues.

Yet minuscule as it all may be, Monsanto is still in the turf business after 20-plus years, and that is a lot more than you can say about some other companies. Indeed, the vast green nylon landscape out there is littered with the plastic skulls and vinyl bones of many an entrepreneur who tried to harvest greenbacks from counterfeit grass.

"Turf," as the synthetic stuff has come erroneously to be known, had an unlikely genesis. During the Korean War, millions of young American men took physical examinations for the military draft. After the conflict ended, someone looked at those exams and found that, as a rule, city boys were in worse shape than country boys were. This finding alarmed some people at the Manhattan-based Educational Facilities Laboratories, a nonprofit research organization then funded by the Ford Foundation. EFL decided that one major reason for the gross disparity in fitness between rural and urban Americans was that deprived city kids had to play their games on bleak asphalt or barren ground, if they were lucky enough to find space at all. Thus, EFL decided to underwrite the development of an artificial surface that resembled the resilience, texture and look of real country grass.

EFL invited some giants of U.S. industry to begin research on something that might carpet the urban wasteland—one original idea was that playing fields could even be created on rooftops—and help turn wan city urchins into strapping, healthy specimens. In 1964 synthetic grass came to, ah, life, at Chemstrand, a subsidiary of Monsanto, in the form of a nylon knitted fiber woven into a polyester backing. To cover the cost of America's first historic installation of turf, EFL chose to give $200,000 to the Moses Brown School in Providence, R.I. The school's name has the ring of the ghetto, but in fact Moses Brown is a 21-year-old private school that is mainly populated with preppies.

As things have turned out, the choice of an affluent school was peculiarly fitting, since synthetic turf has proved to be far too costly to be routinely used on the playing fields of the underprivileged. There are about 50 high schools in the U.S. with synthetic fields, about 10 of them in the New York City public school system, while there are more than 200 ersatz surfaces covering the gridirons and diamonds of big-time professional teams and colleges. Monsanto's first big commercial sale was to the Houston Astrodome, and the job cost $575,000 in 1965 dollars. Adjusted for intervening inflation, that would come to $2 million today. Because of cost savings in both manufacture and installation, 1985 prices aren't quite that staggering: It costs, on the average, $500,000 to install a football field of AstroTurf and about $1 million for a big league baseball field.

Soon after the Astrodome sale, Monsanto found itself with a high-powered rival for the turf market. Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing, another Fortune 500 giant, was ready and waiting. The board chairman of 3M, William McKnight, was the owner of a successful stable of thoroughbreds, and in 1960 he had ordered 3M research and development people to look for a material that could be used as an all-weather, all-purpose surface for horse racing. The laboratories at 3M ultimately came up with a plastic carpeting that was actually put down and raced on at The Meadows, a harness track in Washington, Pa. in 1963. It never did catch on—not for horses—but from it in 1965 came Tartan track, a similar surface that immediately became popular as a running surface for humans. Tartan track was used for the track events in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. Tartan Turf came next in 1967. It was a blackish-green fibered nylon surface that had more the texture of a living-room rug than the bristly toothbrush feel of AstroTurf. In 1968, 3M sold football fields of this material to Tennessee and Wisconsin.

In the early 1970s, it looked as if there would be a pitched battle betweeen these two titans of turf. Not so. Late in 1974, 3M suddenly dropped out, quit cold. What happened? Well, there was a massive worldwide petroleum shortage that year, which made synthetic turf even more expensive to produce. Also, like AstroTurf, 3M's synthetic turf was producing revenues that were a mere fly-speck on the corporate balance sheet—a scant $9 million out of what was then a $3.6 billion corporation total. The whole line of Tartan rugs was folded and, in effect, vanished forever.

Over the years other companies have tried to roll out their own brands of sporting carpets, but most have not fared well. Poly-Turf was laid down in Miami's Orange Bowl but proved such a fiasco of fungus and split seams that its home company, American Biltrite, shut down the whole line in 1973. Other brands covered a stadium floor or two here and there in the 1970s, but many eventually went out of business, Durra Turf and Wyco Turf being among them. All-Pro Turf and SuperTurf got locked in lawsuits and a price battle in the early 1980s that wound up with SuperTurf declaring bankruptcy just this spring. There has been a spate of foreign firms in the business, and some are doing all right.

Omniturf, a Canadian-based firm, is now becoming a factor in the U.S. market. The carpet is produced by a different technique than other types of synthetic turf. An AstroTurf field is made from strips of cushioned pad covered with crimped blades of half-inch nylon "grass." The strips are stitched and glued together, and the whole carpet is attached to a layered base of gravel, concrete and asphalt. Omniturf, by contrast, is made of longer, straighter, one-inch polypropylene fibers, with a three-quarter-inch layer of sand spread between the blades. The sand acts both as ballast to hold the carpet down and as a resilient porous surface that drains off rainwater and offers firm footing. Omniturf has carpeted some 40 soccer fields in Europe and last year snagged its first U.S. football field deal, at the University of Oregon. The price was a bargain-basement $350,000. By contrast, AstroTurf bid $476,500. Reports about some European soccer fields put in by Omniturf indicate that the sand base tends to pack harder with use. One field in London got so hard that in order to keep soccer balls from bouncing too high they had to modify the turf by adding another layer of sand to it.

No matter what rivals rise and sink around it, AstroTurf has maintained a consistent No. 1 position both at home and abroad. Ed Milner, AstroTurf's international sales manager, says that it has, over the years, supplied something like 60% of the world's synthetic turf fields. In all, there are roughly 550 such fields in the world, about 250 in the U.S. Of the 41 major stadiums in America that house major league baseball or NFL football, 19 have synthetic turf, and all but two of them are carpeted with AstroTurf. Only the Patriots' field in Foxboro, Mass. and the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis use another surface—the defunct SuperTurf.

Leader though it is, sales were never easy for AstroTurf—and they aren't now. Says Tony Mortillo, Monsanto's product manager for AstroTurf, "This is the toughest competition we've ever had because of the value of the dollar against foreign currency. Our foreign competitors can underbid us by 30, 40, 50 percent. Our quality is far beyond them, but for buyers who want a low price, they can deliver that." Despite the ferocity of competition there seems to be no possibility that Monsanto will pull out of the market. There are no more than 35 or 40 fields to install or replace each year in the U.S., perhaps another 20 or so worldwide, yet Monsanto intends to keep lumbering after its usual lion's share. Milner says, "We refuse to take quality out of our product. But since we are the only big, visible company in the thing, we have a real exposure problem. We are worried about the quality of the turf being sold and how it reflects on us. I see a real safety and maintenance problem with some of our competitors."

Over all the years, the sales pitch of man's grass over God's has been essentially the same. The ersatz stuff allows far more hours of constant, varied use—some 3,000 hours more a year, according to Mortillo. It does not turn brown in the sunless environment of a domed stadium. It offers a more consistent surface. The stuff does wear out eventually, but Monsanto's latest crop—called AstroTurf-8—guarantees eight years of use, and Mortillo says most fields last 11 or 12 years. Also, turf folks claim, it costs much less to maintain a synthetic field than real grass. Mortillo says a grass stadium costs at least $40,000 a year to maintain while AstroTurf requires something like $4,000 a year to keep in shape.

This is the litany you use when pushing synthetic turf. It has proved extremely effective, but like all sales talks, it isn't 100% true. What about the hours and hours of perpetual use? Yes, marching bands and platoons of clog dancers can thunder up and down all over the stuff for days on end—but can a serious football team really practice on it for days on end? No. Bill Walsh, coach of the San Francisco 49ers, says, "I'm opposed to artificial surfaces for practice during the week because there is too much strain and stress on the joints."

What about the long-lasting qualities? Bob Woodruff, athletic director of the University of Tennessee, says, "Let's face it: The longer you have an artificial surface, the harder it gets. They really should be replaced every five or six years, and some schools just can't afford it."

What about the unchanging, consistent flat surface? George Toma, groundskeeper for the Kansas City Chiefs, is so revered in the grass business that he is known far and wide as the Sultan of Sod. Says the Sultan, "There are plenty of problems with inconsistency. They aren't caused by the surface itself, but by what is underneath it. If the base isn't done right, it can leave big and little dips in the surface. We call them birdbaths. The bad thing about turf is that once you've got a bad field, you're stuck with it. A grass field, on the other hand, no matter how bad it is, you can turn the thing around in a month."

What about the vaunted savings in maintenance? The Sultan says no way. "The Chiefs use a grass field to practice three or four times a week," he says. "It takes us 10 hours a week to clean up the field and another 10 hours a week to cut the grass, fertilize and water. After just one game on the turf, we have to spend lots more time on it. Shoes leave shoe polish. There is tobacco juice on it, Gatorade, blood, gum, things like that. We use brushes and a special solution. It may take four or five guys two or three full days to get all that cleaned up. Right there, that's going to be at least 64 man-hours, minimum. If it was a hard-fought game there are more marks, and it can mean a whole extra day."





At Illinois's Memorial Stadium, workmen lay AstroTurf; the green "blades" are cushioned by a rubber pad and layers of asphalt and gravel, and drained by perforated pipes.







Raw nylon is combined with pigment pellets (top) to make AstroTurf fiber; after a tensile strength test (left), the fiber is loaded on spools and fed into a knitting machine.



Monsanto technician Kenny Hall (above) clips the long "grass" on the new carpet; Bob Anderson and Janice Slaughter test the AstroTurf for permeability and bounce.



Mortillo (left) and Milner, AstroTurf marketing men, check out the lawn at Busch Stadium.


Most of the artificial fields in the U.S. are covered with AstroTurf (1), but Canadian-based Omniturf (2) is catching on, especially in Europe. The half-inch-long AstroTurf "blades" are woven together, crinkled to prevent the fibers from flattening, then glued to a rubber base; the one-inch Omniturf fibers are left straight, and a cushion of sand, applied after the turf is laid, keeps them that way.



[See caption above.]




Today, turf is used on the home fields of 17 of the 28 NFL teams, including the Kansas City Chiefs'.



In the beginning: Waughtel-Howe Field House at Moses Brown was the site of the first turf surface.