March of progress: better fake grass

Rohit Khare rohit at
Sun Apr 20 14:28:07 PDT 2003

I don't get the bit at the end about how grass growing on a carpet is 
really revolutionary. But you gotta love the mind of an inventor:

> And then there are more inventive applications. While golf tee boxes 
> and driving ranges have been artificially turfed for many years, 
> FieldTurf has just completed its first nine-hole course made entirely 
> of artificial grass. (Think of it: no pesticides, no water, no mowing, 
> no divots. . . . ) One of Gilman's pet projects is Air FieldTurf, 
> artificial landscaping of the acres of wasteland surrounding airport 
> runways: not only would maintenance costs be near zero, but the fake 
> grass, unlike the real thing, would discourage the presence of birds 
> and other wildlife. And why not lawns, an ersatz branch of nature 
> under any circumstances? Four hundred to 500 people in the Southeast 
> alone have already ripped up their lawns and replaced them with 
> low-maintenance, eye-fooling FieldTurf.

Here's to crazy people,

PS. I have a partial bitch about the new NYT layout on their website: 
by laying it out in a giant table cell, MacIE refuses to let me cut and 
paste individual bits of text -- I have to go to "printer view" to get 
plain text now. And then, to top it all off, I have to re-sed the 
pasted text to take out the double spacing MacIE's <P>-to-ASCII 
formatter puts back in. It's odd to admit I got used to the ad-laden 
version :-)


April 20, 2003

This Grass Is Always Greener

erhaps synthetic life, like the natural world, has a cycle all its own. 
For if it seems unlikely that artificial turf -- that banal, 
discredited, visually displeasing fossil of the space age -- should now 
be positioned as a philanthropic boon to the world's poor, consider 
that its unlikely origins were in the world of philanthropy as well. In 
the 1950's, the Ford Foundation, alarmed by the deteriorating physical 
fitness of the nation's urban youth, financed an effort by scientists 
from a subsidiary of Monsanto Industries to develop an all-weather 
low-maintenance grasslike surface for city kids to play on. By the 
mid-60's they had come up with a prototype called Chemgrass. The first 
large-scale installation of a Chemgrass playing field, at the Moses 
Brown School in Providence, R.I., was a success in every respect, not 
least because it held up for more than 25 years.

Around the same time, 1,500 miles away, ground was being broken for the 
Houston Astrodome, the first of the indoor sports arenas. In an era 
when stadiums with roofs that open and close and other such 
technological astonishments are the norm, it's worth recalling that the 
Astrodome was billed for quite a long time as the Eighth Wonder of the 
World. Original plans for the dome called for a dirt floor with natural 
grass under a clear plastic roof; add plenty of water, the architects 
reasoned, and the grass would grow just fine. Which was true; the 
problem was, the glare created by the roof itself made conditions for 
both players and spectators unbearable -- and when the plastic was 
tinted to reduce the glare, the grass died. So the legendary Houston 
rainmaker Judge Roy Hofheinz got on the horn with Monsanto. On Opening 
Day of the 1966 baseball season, the Houston Astros took the field on a 
brand-new Chemgrass surface -- or, as it was now formally rechristened, 

Though technically only one brand among many, AstroTurf ultimately 
became the colossus of its industry, smiting competitor after 
competitor until the brand name itself became synonymous with the 
product, a la Kleenex or Xerox or Band-Aid. No less a personage than J. 
Edgar Hoover embraced the future by tearing up his front lawn and 
laying down the artificial variety. Still, the AstroTurf boom was 
mostly confined to sports facilities and other heavily-trafficked 
public places.

Once the bloom was off the rose, however, the grumbling among the 
amateur and pro athletes who played on all that AstroTurf, at first 
just a murmur, began to swell into folklore. The most common complaint 
was that the artificial surface -- essentially a kind of high-tech 
padded carpet laid over a base of asphalt -- was hazardous to their 
health. In a 1995 poll of the N.F.L. Players Association membership, 
for instance, 93.4 percent said they believed artificial turf increased 
their likelihood of injury. The key word, though, is ''believed.'' 
There's actually not a lot of evidence to back this up. While it's true 
that there are some painful but relatively minor conditions directly 
attributable to imitation grass (a ligament condition known as ''turf 
toe'' is one, and another is a particularly gruesome, skin-removing 
variant of carpet burn), when it comes to serious, career-threatening 
trauma, you'd be hard pressed to find any research that concludes that 
AstroTurf or any other artificial surface causes more injuries than 

Which makes athletes' very real aversion to the stuff seem, at least in 
retrospect, a bit more primal. Playing ball on a high-tech rug doesn't 
feel natural (''If a horse won't eat it,'' the former Philadelphia 
Phillies star Richie Allen once famously declared, ''I won't play on 
it''), nor does it look natural. It's not even flat; for drainage 
purposes, the asphalt underlay has to be constructed with a detectable 
crown in the center. The growing advocacy for grass on the part of 
athletes, fans and even the less tightfisted owners (among other 
virtues, artificial turf was always seen as a cost-cutting device) 
amounted to a nostalgic insistence that games with balls are meant to 
be played on fields made of real grass, and that's that.

It culminated in a conspicuous back-to-nature movement that swept 
through all of pro sports in the 1990's. The AstroTurf in Giants 
Stadium, for instance, which had covered the field since its 
construction in 1976, was torn up and replaced in 2000 with elaborately 
engineered trays of real grass. New stadiums -- including the one that 
replaced the Astrodome -- were built to resemble quirky bandboxes of 
yore like Ebbets Field and were given ''Field of Dreams'' style names 
like the Ballpark in Arlington. It was a public-relations ploy, to be 
sure, but one that, for a while at least, seemed to restore some 
measure of boyish authenticity to the dismayingly corporate settings of 
pro sports.

But the more money and labor that was lavished on all this grass -- or, 
as it's referred to in the sports world, ''natural grass,'' even though 
its origins are closer to genetic engineering than to any process found 
in nature -- the more players and fans alike began to miss the one 
thing that artificial turf had always provided: consistency. The grass 
field in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium, site of this year's Super Bowl, 
was called ''embarrassing'' by the Kansas City Chiefs' head coach Dick 
Vermeil. Heinz Field in Pittsburgh had to be completely resodded three 
times last year. A player for the University of Tennessee openly mocked 
the grass field in Nashville's Coliseum as ''dirt painted green.'' And 
Giants Stadium's two-and-a-half-year, $8 million effort to grow grass 
outdoors officially achieved fiasco status, as all that unsatisfactory 
grass was torn up, ground down and hauled off in dump trucks.

While owners and athletes across the country spent the last few years 
learning expensive lessons about the difference between something 
that's ''natural'' and something that's ideal, it turns out that the 
artificial-turf industry was making its first significant technological 
advances in 30 years. Now that the pendulum has swung again, and 
disenchantment with nature has set in, the faux-earth business is 
poised for a huge comeback. The new generation of fake grass is softer, 
more adaptable, more visually pleasing -- such an astonishing forgery, 
in short, that the world of sports is no longer big enough to contain 
the ambitions of the people who make it.

Which brings us to a company called FieldTurf, formed in Montreal by 
two old friends straight out of a buddy movie. FieldTurf's C.E.O., John 
Gilman, is a former Canadian Football League quarterback and the 
classic front-of-the-store guy, a big, generous, charismatic man who 
was born to sell. When his playing days were over, he made a decent 
living in the luggage-and-leather-goods business. But to spend an hour 
in Gilman's company is to understand that he's a man who needs some 
action, and his doubles partner, a former tennis pro named Jean 
Prevost, had just the thing.

In 1988 Prevost, a more reserved, owlish man, bought the patent for a 
material that could be adapted as an artificial surface for tennis 
courts. For most of the 80's, Prevost had a nice little business going 
called SynTenniCo (as in synthetic tennis) and was happily installing 
one ''grass'' court at a time, mostly for rich Americans who wanted a 
little Wimbledon in their backyards. But Gilman is a big-picture guy. 
He set one foot on the SynTennico surface and saw a future in which he 
and Prevost played David to AstroTurf's Goliath.

FieldTurf, the product, consists of individual blades, about two and a 
half inches long, of a polyethylene-polypropylene blend, woven 
inseparably into a carpetlike backing. (FieldTurf's corporate office is 
in Montreal, though the stuff itself is made, as is AstroTurf, in the 
factory town of Dalton, Ga., aka ''the carpet capital of the world.'') 
Poured onto this backing is an ''infill'' mixture made of finely ground 
silica sand and so-called cryogenic rubber or recycled rubber that has 
been frozen and smashed into tiny particles. A phalanx of 37 current 
and pending patents, and Lord knows how many patent lawyers, surround 
the specifics of this process.

A result is an awesome triumph of the ersatz: it gives beneath your 
feet, it provides some cushion when you run and fall on it and, unlike 
the more traditional asphalt-backed surfaces, it doesn't heat up like a 
giant frying pan in summer weather. The fake grass blades are 
oil-coated to prevent the scourge of turf burn; one FieldTurf sales 
rep, in fact, a former N.F.L. player, is well known at trade shows for 
stripping down to his shorts and taking a running dive onto the stuff. 
The improved drainage capacities of that infill material mean that only 
an eight-inch crown is required, as opposed to 30 inches on older 
fields. Lines are marked on it with water-soluble paint; if a player 
should bleed or throw up into it, a small vacuum removes the offending 
patch of infill, which is then replaced. The turf has to be brushed 
every month or two, like a shag rug, to keep the nap up. Total 
maintenance runs about $3,000 a year. (Compare that with the $35,000 
that one high school in Amarillo spent yearly just to water its 
football field.) The only drawback, according to some players, is that 
FieldTurf's little granules of rubber (nontoxic, Prevost swears) can, 
in the course of a game, pop up and leave unnerving pellets on players' 
mouth guards and faces.

More than anything else, though, FieldTurf resembles grass -- not just 
on TV, as important as that is, but up close -- in a way that the 
AstroTurf many of us remember from our high-school athletic careers 
never seemed close to doing. For a couple of thousand dollars, 
FieldTurf's installers will even throw in a special spray that makes 
the rows of petroleum-derived blades smell like a freshly cut field. 
Several clients requested that its FieldTurf be installed in wide 
strips of alternating shades of green -- to resemble the marks left by 
a lawn mower.

FieldTurf's first installation was a Hamilton, Ontario, indoor soccer 
field in 1993. It wore out in less than a year, so Prevost began 
tinkering again. Before long he had refined the grass-blade material to 
the point where the company could guarantee its product for 8 to 12 
years. A high-school football field here, a municipal soccer field 
there, and then one day in 1999, a chance meeting with the legendary 
former University of Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne eventually led 
to Gilman's securing a contract to install FieldTurf in one of the 
veritable temples of football, Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.

By this time, the boys from Montreal had already shown up on 
AstroTurf's radar. No longer a division of Monsanto, AstroTurf had 
played out a kind of end-of-last-century story, expanding ambitiously, 
being bought out by European partners, declaring bankruptcy as a result 
of that partner's financial shenanigans and winding up the property of 
Southwest Recreational Industries (SWRI, since renamed S.R.I. Sports). 
Still, through the upheaval, SWRI's AstroTurf -- its newer versions are 
marketed under the names AstroPlay or NeXturf -- continued to dominate. 
Well into the 90's, selling a product that was fundamentally unchanged 
over the years, AstroTurf owned half the worldwide artificial-turf 
market, 75 percent in North America.

The hardball started in 1998, when Gilman, suspicious about being 
underbid by SWRI for a job in Kentucky, hired a private detective to 
videotape the installation and sneak onto the field and report what it 
was made of. In a matter of hours after the installation was complete, 
FieldTurf sued SWRI for patent infringement, eventually settling out of 
court. In 2000, FieldTurf sued again, and a final decision is still 
pending. That same year, SWRI sued FieldTurf for, among other things, 
violating the confidentiality agreement imposed from the first suit. 
FieldTurf had to pay SWRI $1.2 million. To say that there is bad blood 
between the two companies is a serious understatement. Maybe it's 
because ex-athletes are involved, but unlike many corporate disputes, 
the artificial-turf battle has all the decorum of a hockey fight.

In his office full of jock memorabilia at FieldTurf headquarters, 
Gilman tries valiantly to restrain himself when talk turns to his 
competitors, but he is not a gag-order kind of guy. ''It is not in my 
nature,'' he says, ''to take a shot in the stomach and not come back 
and hit the guy in the mush.'' Before long he is denouncing, with 
irreproducible profanity, what he brands as AstroTurf's ''lies,'' its 
''complete and total arrogance,'' and vowing ''to fight to my dying 
breath for our rights.''

In the business world, of course, there's lying and there's marketing. 
Keenly conscious of the perception of AstroTurf as anathema to 
athletes, FieldTurf has successfully disseminated the story that the 
rubber element of its turf's infill is made from recycled Nike 
sneakers. Asked what percentage of the rubber actually comes from 
ground-up Nikes, Gilman smiles somewhat sheepishly and holds up three 
fingers. (To be fair, it's 3 to 5 percent.) The granulated rubber 
really comes from a much less glamorous and cheaper source -- used 

AstroTurf remains about four times the size of the little guys, but the 
little guys like their position. FieldTurf's revenue went from $1.7 
million in 1997 to $50 million in 2000, and the company reports a 60 
percent increase in sales in 2002 alone. And athletes do seem enamored 
of it. Seahawks Stadium, one of two N.F.L. FieldTurf surfaces, was 
voted by the N.F.L. Players Association as the best artificial surface 
in the league and the third-best surface of fields overall. Nineteen 
Division I college football programs now play on the stuff, as do Major 
League Baseball's Tampa Bay Devil Rays. FieldTurf has passed the 
600-field installation mark worldwide. Maybe the best measure of how 
the company has, in Prevost's words, ''resurrected the industry'' is 
the number of new competitors now nipping at its heels, with names like 
RealGrass and SprinTurf.

And then there's Giants Stadium, one of the marquee locations in all of 
sports. In late February, FieldTurf won a bid to install the surface 
that will be played upon by the Giants and Jets and was christened last 
week by Major League Soccer's MetroStars.

In 2001, the artificial-grass game got a lot more competitive when 
FIFA, soccer's global governing body, shocked the sporting world with a 
change in its regulations: World Cup preliminary matches, previously 
restricted to grass, could now be held on FIFA-approved artificial 
pitches. The first to receive such approval was Nickerson Field at 
Boston University, whose brand-new surface came from FieldTurf. 
Thirty-nine fields worldwide have been approved, from FieldTurf, 
AstroPlay and a variety of manufacturers.

But while football, baseball and soccer stadiums are certainly 
high-profile business, there's a finite number of them. A much deeper 
market is found in budget-conscious high schools and municipalities; 
FieldTurf is working on the Parade Grounds in Prospect Park in 
Brooklyn, for instance, and SWRI reports that its installations in 
schools and city parks more than doubled in 2001 alone.

And then there are more inventive applications. While golf tee boxes 
and driving ranges have been artificially turfed for many years, 
FieldTurf has just completed its first nine-hole course made entirely 
of artificial grass. (Think of it: no pesticides, no water, no mowing, 
no divots. . . . ) One of Gilman's pet projects is Air FieldTurf, 
artificial landscaping of the acres of wasteland surrounding airport 
runways: not only would maintenance costs be near zero, but the fake 
grass, unlike the real thing, would discourage the presence of birds 
and other wildlife. And why not lawns, an ersatz branch of nature under 
any circumstances? Four hundred to 500 people in the Southeast alone 
have already ripped up their lawns and replaced them with 
low-maintenance, eye-fooling FieldTurf.

But for a real glimpse of the future, all you have to do is leave 
Gilman's large, warm, dark-wood office, with its autographed photos and 
its array of football helmets, and walk down the hall to where Jean 
Prevost spends his working days, in a small office overlooking the 
parking lot. Here there are no comfortable chairs for visitors, no 
assistants bringing coffee; nothing hangs on the walls, and the floor 
is covered with papers and drawings and three-foot-square sections of 
turf tagged ''Hawaii'' or ''San Diego.'' Prevost still has that 
inventor's glint in his eye. His horizon line extends well beyond the 
desire to deliver a knockout blow to the archrivals at AstroTurf.

One of the company's most treasured stories about itself, which borders 
on the biblical, concerns the time a sapling was found growing in the 
end zone of a FieldTurf installation in Seattle. While true, it wasn't 
quite the revelation that company literature makes it out to be. Way 
back when he was installing tennis courts, Prevost confesses that 
''clients would call me up to complain that their artificial-grass 
tennis court had real grass growing in it.''

It's true: real vegetation, counterintuitive as it seems, will actually 
take root and grow in Prevost's fake earth. The idea clearly consumes 
him. In the end, if he has his way, his legacy won't be just an 
invention that saved wear and tear on the joints of millionaire 
athletes: FieldTurf will feed the world. ''My pet project,'' he says, 
''is the arid countries of Africa, areas where the land is not arable 
because the topsoil blows away. One 40-square-foot container of 
FieldTurf could feed a thousand people.''

With this picture in his mind's eye, the company's potentially 
explosive financial success starts to look more like a means than an 
end. ''I feel good about where the company is now,'' he says. ''That's 
going to allow me to do the bioengineering research I need. I'm putting 
together a team right now. The depth and range of this project will 
knock people's socks off. It's going to be huge.'' He sits back in his 
chair, seeing the heretofore unseen, and there's nothing fake about it.

Jonathan Dee is the author, most recently, of the novel ''Palladio.'' 
He last wrote for the magazine about the myth of the 18-to-34 
demographic group.

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