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Pitch technology: Hybrid turf

The millions of sports fans watching their favourite teams are unlikely to give much thought to the grass it’s being played on, but the surface can make a significant difference to the quality of play. Tom Walker looks at the rise of hybrid pitches and their impact on sport

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management Sep Oct 2017 issue 133
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Hybrid technologies strengthen the pitch surface
Hybrid technologies strengthen the pitch surface

Hybrid sports pitches are now the playing surface of choice in professional football. Every English Premier League club has a hybrid surface and they are increasingly being used by European teams – Barcelona, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund are among the top teams to have joined the hybrid revolution.

Rugby too, has adopted the technology. Out of the Six Nation stadiums, only Italy’s Stadio Olimpico in Rome doesn’t have a hybrid playing surface installed.

The principle of a hybrid pitch is simple. A small amount of synthetic, twisted yarn is stitched into a traditional, natural grass pitch in order to reinforce it. As the grass grows, it intertwines with the synthetic fabric, strengthening the surface and improving stability. The yarn also speeds up the recovery of the grass sward, allows better drainage and increases durability – enabling the pitches to be used more frequently.

Paul Burgess, grounds manager at Real Madrid, sums up the benefits: “The artificial grass makes the pitch stronger, more stable and better to play football on. It makes the pitch look better too.”

While hybrids are now omnipresent across elite stadiums and clubs, they weren’t initially targeted at elite users. Developed by Dutch carpet specialist Desso in 1992, the first sports-specific hybrid pitch – called GrassMaster – was designed for publicly-owned playing fields.

“The GrassMaster was originally developed to allow for more playing hours on municipal fields and pitches,” says Marc Vercammen, vice president at Tarkett Sports – a multinational company that acquired Desso in 2015.

“If you want a natural pitch to remain at a decent playing quality, you need to restrict the hours of play on it. Back then, a natural pitch could take around 250 hours of play a year – or five hours a week.

“The introduction of GrassMaster quadrupled the amount of playing time to around 1,000 hours a year while still offering a good quality surface – thanks to the hybrid system being able to take more punishment. It quickly became very popular with public pitch owners.”

For a while, GrassMaster was first choice for grassroots operators looking to increase pitch usage. It wasn’t until the emergence of 3G synthetic products, which allow near 24-7 usage, that GrassMaster started to lose some market share within the public sector.

By then, however, hybrid technology had been embraced by elite sport – particularly football and rugby – and within 20 years of its launch, GrassMaster had cornered the hybrid pitch market. In fact, it was the only system of its kind – using a stitched-in yarn within a natural grass pitch – until UK-based SIS Pitches launched a similar product, called SISGrass, in 2015.

In the quarter of a century since its launch, the stitched-yarn hybrid pitch has, as a concept, changed very little. “The only difference between the first GrassMaster pitches and the ones we supply today is the machine technology used to apply the stitching,” Vercammen says. “The system and yarn itself have remained the same. Some of our competitors might use different raw materials – and the future will tell if those changes are beneficial or not – but the technology is still pretty much the same.”

By “competitors”, Vercammen is referring to SIS Pitches, which has rapidly built a major presence in the market. Since launching SISGrass in June 2015, the company expects to reach 60 hybrid installations by the end of 2017. Its recent successes include securing contracts to supply surfaces to six of the 12 venues at the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia.

Away from the stitched pitch system, there has been one major innovation in the hybrid pitch market: the introduction of “lay and play” carpet-based pitches. Rather than reinforcing a natural grass pitch by stitching the synthetic fibres into it on-site, the carpets are created by growing the grass around the synthetic fibres in a controlled environment. Once the grass has enveloped the fibres, the turf is picked up, transported to its destination and laid down.

Carpet systems have quickly grown in popularity and can now be found in some of Europe’s most high-profile stadiums, such as the Amsterdam Arena in the Netherlands and the Nuevo San Mamés, home of Spanish club Athletic Bilbao. There are now around 30 hybrid carpet systems on the market. Witnessing the potential of the carpet system has also lead Tarkett – owner of GrassMaster – to create its own lay and play system, called PlayMaster.

The benefits of the carpet system are ease of installation and the cost is sometimes less than that of a stitched pitch. A carpet-based hybrid also doesn’t require a six-week shutdown of the pitch each year to allow maintenance – as is the case with a stitched hybrid pitch. Therefore, carpet-based pitches are ideal for busy venues, which have a hectic events schedule.

While the consensus has so far been that carpet pitches are less durable, requiring replacing every few years – compared to the 10-plus years of a stitched pitch – the technology is catching up.

“With annual renovation and routine maintenance, some carpet systems now have an expected lifespan of more than 10 years,” says Sean Goodwin, director at UK-based contractor Talbot Sports Turf. “One of these is an Italian surface called PowerGrass, which can be installed directly on site and only requires a growing period of about four weeks before use.”

He adds: “Thanks to its softness and durability, it has similar resilience to that of synthetic surface. We’re moving to a situation where hybrid carpets could become affordable to everyone.”

Hybrid in play

We take a look at the sports and stadiums embracing hybrid pitch technology

A carpet for a busy schedule
One of the first stadiums to have Tarkett Sports’ new carpet-based PlayMaster system installed is the Amsterdam Arena (soon to be renamed Johan Cruijff Arena) in the Netherlands. The new pitch was laid between July and August 2017.

The venue chose a carpet-based surface due to its hectic, year-round schedule of events. The busy timetable wouldn’t allow a six-week shutdown of the pitch each year – which would be required to allow maintenance on a stitched hybrid pitch.

Transforming community sport
London’s Royal Parks is trialling hybrid pitches in a community playing setting, as part of a unique UK pilot that could transform public sports fields across the country. The Royal Parks – which operates the sports facilities at London’s Regent’s Park – has received £353,000 from Sport England to install a hybrid pitch. It will be the first time a pitch of this type has been installed in outdoor public sports facilities in the UK.

Supplied by Italian company Powergrass – and installed by UK contractor Talbot Sports Turf – the new surface is part of plans to dramatically increase the usage of the Regent’s Park pitch. During the trial, the pitch will be installed and then monitored closely for a 12-month “growing in” period to achieve full establishment, then for a further four years by independent agronomists.

Unbeaten on hybrid
Croatian top-flight team HNK Rijeka caused a sensation during the 2016-17 HT Prva liga season. The club managed to break the dominance of defending champions Dinamo Zagreb, which had won the league title 11 seasons running.

Rijeka partly attributed its success to the new hybrid pitch at its Stadion Rujevica. Using a Mixto surface – designed and supplied by Italy-based Limonta Sport – the pitch ensured a consistent playing surface suited to Rijeka’s style of play.

Durability through stitching
The best example of how a stitched hybrid system can transform the fortunes of a pitch – and ensure longevity – is the playing surface at Liverpool’s famous Anfield stadium. The first GrassMaster pitch was laid down in 2001 and only this year, 2017, was deemed in need of a replacement.

Following the installation in July, the Reds will play their 2017-18 Premier League and European campaigns on a brand new GrassMaster pitch.

Liverpool FC’s Daniel Sturridge takes a kick at Anfield stadium / © Martin Rickett/PA Wire/PA Images
Liverpool FC’s Daniel Sturridge takes a kick at Anfield stadium/ © Martin Rickett/PA Wire/PA Images
Ajax Amsterdam plays FC Groningen on Amsterdam Arena’s Playmaster hybrid pitch / © Ronald Bonestroo fotografie/VI Images/PA Images
Ajax Amsterdam plays FC Groningen on Amsterdam Arena’s Playmaster hybrid pitch/ © Ronald Bonestroo fotografie/VI Images/PA Images
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