This Grass Is Always Greener
JONATHAN DEE / NY Times 20apr03
Perhaps 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 grass-like 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, AstroTurf.
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 grass.
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 tires.
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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