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How The Super Bowl Has Ruined Your Local High School

Back to work the day after the Super Bowl is always a tough one. The football season has come to an end and all that's left behind is a bitter chill in the air. There's nothing overly exciting on the sports docket until Major League Baseball's new Thursday Opening Day and the first two days of March Madness — all of which should be national holidays. 

Until then, hockey and basketball teams will either be jockeying for playoff positioning or riding out the end of a disappointing season. That means an awful lot of tanking for Jack Hughes and Zion Williamson (personally I prefer R.J. Barrett), salary cap dumping, or attempting to land Artemi Panarin and Anthony Davis via trade. In each case, February has become more about off-field/court noise rather than the games themselves. Face it, most of the month is a real nothing burger for sports coverage. If you want to hear people talk on screen, your time would be better spent catching up on Netflix stand-up specials.

The fluff of Spring Training storylines will amuse some. European soccer will entertain far less. As far as I'm concerned, the end of every season makes me wish there was another championship to watch that following weekend. 

Returning to the couch tonight to find the Atlanta Hawks vs. Washington Wizards or Los Angeles Kings vs. New York Rangers is not exactly the encore I'm looking for. Something as important as the Super Bowl requires something better than a battle for the eleventh seed in the Eastern Conference. Then again, a meaningless NBA game just might be more entertaining than what we all witnessed last night.   

This longing for additional football was felt more today than ever before. And no, I don't think the upstart Alliance of American Football (AAF) will fill that void. Not only does a one-touchdown Super Bowl (with only 16 total points) call for an immediate do-over, but the project I'm working on today is... a natural-grass football field for a high school in Illinois. I've still got the itch. 

With my business, SightLine Design, these are as rare as a Jared Goff completed pass last night. And the question regularly comes up: "Why don't you draw up more [American] football fields?" The assumption is that I'm taking a stance against youth in this country from playing the sport. That's not it at all. College football ranks third behind baseball and hockey as my favorites to follow; the NFL is fifth. Though my son will never be allowed to play (like his uncle Cam), the sport will always remain a viable option for many other children out there. 

In short: football ain't going anywhere. Could it someday be marginalized to a "Ya gotta be crazy" blood sport — reserved for the folks that are so desperate to make it out of bad situations that serious injury and death are worth the risk? Sure, it wouldn't take much for me to see that as an outcome on the horizon. It happened to the once-proud world of boxing. Not too many people in the middle or upper class jumping into that ring these days. But, my point is, rings still exist. As to will football fields. So, I'm not not designing new ones because I see it as an industry sector on its way out. Trust me, I'm not savvy enough to be the sports version of Warren Buffett. Football is dead, boys. It's all about curling now. Put all your resources in curling halls across the country. 

The logic train leads people to follow up with "Oh, it must not be in your wheelhouse as a baseball, soccer, and golf guy." Wrong again. I've done a design for nearly every outdoor sport around. I've laid out two cricket pitches and know far less about that than football. This isn't about a knowledge gap. 

The answer is far simpler than messing around with future speculations and trying to time up the hot markets at their peaks. 

You may have already surmised the reason back when I said SightLine primarily works with real grass as its medium. You see, I don't mess around with synthetic turf and the market has shown, in the last two decades, that means football won't mess around with me. I know that's painting with a broad brush stroke, so let's dive into some history on this topic. 

Super Bowl XII, in 1978, was the first such NFL Championship played on a surface that was not alive. The Louisiana (now Mercedes-Benz) Superdome hosted the big game on their first-generation AstroTurf field. It was the beginning of the Golden Age for green plastic, and it was finally acceptable enough for the biggest sporting event on the planet. There was no turning back from that point.

In the 41 years that have followed, 18 more Super Bowls have been played on one type of man-made polymer product or another — with New Orleans' Superdome hosting six more times. The trend really exploded at the turn of the century, kicked off by the Georgia Dome in Super Bowl XXXIV (2000). 

For the first time in history, a decade saw more NFL Championships played on turf than natural grass (7:3 from 2010-19). This culminated with Super Bowl LIII yesterday; the third stadium in a row with a carpet interior. Ironically, it was Atlanta back in the rotation, but it was no longer the Georgia Dome. Even in a new building (Mercedes-Benz Stadium), it was the same story in terms of fake grass. 

The National Football League has always prided itself as the tough guy sport. "The Shield" echoes the Postal Service's promise to deliver "come rain, sleet, or snow." Yet, here we are, constantly making the situation as cushy as possible when the game matters the most. I don't understand the disconnect from what is able to transpire two weeks prior.   

Having a star quarterback raise a trophy while covered in freezing-cold mud is still acceptable for the NFC and AFC Championship Games. But, the Super Bowl has conditioned us to believe that the environment for the final Sunday should be climate controlled and precipitation free. The field needs to look as perfect at kick off as it does when the 4th quarter clock hits 0:00. And that's unrealistic to emulate. 

Further still, it's not really in the tough-nose nature of football's past either. It is a sport born from early-20th century military concepts: Slam into each other repetitively and be thankful for every yard of progress you make. Eventually that line will show a weakness and you can run right through. The gridiron looked more like modern rugby; with "leatherheads" avoiding violent tackles for more of a scrum mentality. Essentially, it was an inverse game Tug of War. 

That's just not the game of football any longer. With all this "you can't hit anybody anymore" rhetoric, the very playing surface is adding fuel to this fire. Go ask the equipment managers how many grass stains were on the Patriots or Rams jerseys postgame. Some call it soft. I prefer to call it sterile. 

This all has a major trickle-down effect on the consumers in the sports pyramid below the literal pinnacle of American sports. People use the term "Super Bowl" for the pinnacle of performance settings in whatever profession they've chosen for a reason. Everyone is watching. And young players hang onto every element of that visual spectacular; down to the very aesthetic of that field. That is how football is supposed to look. I should go to the college that has the turf facilities that best match that image in my head. Spoiler alert: That's now 91 of the 129 NCAA Division I FCS programs, and the percentage (currently 70.5%) has never experienced a decline since 1970. 

We are now judging books exclusively the their covers. It took me awhile to arrive at this seemingly-obvious answer, but I'm assured of the conclusion no matter the delay. 

I'm not even going down the rabbit hole of playing surface side effects. I don't need it to make my point: Lower levels of football must return to natural grass. Full stop. 

Our high schools are breaking their financial backs trying to keep up with the Joneses. One turf football field goes in and then the superintendents of the conference rivals immediately feel the pressure to keep up. A facilities arms race is not reserved to collegiate sports any longer. Private schools and areas with "school of choice" woo potential student-athletes with one of the most visible and ostentatious statement pieces on their site: The football field. This is academic curb appeal 101. 

Superintendents and school board presidents sure gloat about their expanses of green carpet in ways I can't really grasp. Should the man who paints his Scottsdale, Arizona "lawn" each summer be boastful in his ability to do the thing Mother Nature has been doing for 66 million years? 

The debate for or against synthetic turf has driven a major wedge into even the most tight-knit communities. The irony there is all the folks in these monthly school board meetings, jawing back and forth, root for the same team. Based on how they talk to one another, you'd assume their bitter rival were the ones on the other side of the issue. Ah, 2019 politics. There's nothing quite like parents who show their ugliest sides by fighting over a kid's game. 

It's reason enough for some community members to have plastic carpet backlash, so I'll let them do all that fighting for me. My argument is sturdy enough on its own with playability and budgeting facts to sink my teeth in on the ecological impact. I'm not going to bash the entire synthetic industry, because there is still too much we don't know for sure. 

For instance, FieldTurf touts findings from an in-house study that college football players suffered up to 20% fewer injuries on their playing surface than on natural grass. Without much digging, I could find "unbiased" research, put out by the companies that provide facilities with natural products, that say the exact opposite. For instance, a 2010 NFL players survey showed 82% believed artificial turf triggered more injuries than grass.

This turf war (pun not entirely intended) has waged on for decades now. We won't truly know if artificial turf is our generation's version of asbestos for some time now. The counter to all those crumb rubber carcinogen claims is a lack of pesticides/herbicides required with the fake stuff. On both sides of the fence, it's literal chemical warfare to prove which grass is greener. 

Where do I fall on all of this? Well, I stay far away from all of the grenade lobbing through social media. That's better left up to the parent forums that are heavily outspoken against everything that is harming their children. 

My heart says all outdoor sports belong on grass. I'm nostalgic and a purist at nearly every turn. My head says the convenience of artificial turf is undeniable. But shopping at Walmart for a big-ticket item — that you want to have last a decade — doesn't feel like the right way to go. Ease of a "set it and forget it" system cannot rule the day. 

Furthermore, the water conservation angle in the literature of synthetic companies is a boldfaced lie. With surface temperatures 20-50 degrees hotter than sod, I have seen many an artificial field watered for as long as its natural competitors. I've even had baseball shoes melt right underneath my feet. This occurred in July of 2016, in a renowned baseball complex north of Atlanta. Oddly enough, the Atlanta Falcons were practicing that very day in nearby Flowery Branch, GA. The conditions were nearly identical, with the major exception that the football team practiced on grass. That decision says all you need to know. So yeah, with a recent spike in heat stroke-related deaths among turf-based training camps, even the summer should be a consideration for your football field. 

Under any lens, it's criminal to charge communities twice as much as the alternative product, when that alternative product is just as viable — if not more so. 

Slick advertisers are to blame for making key decision makers believe Option B isn't as good, simply because it lacks pretty pictures in catalogs. The companies prey on the naivete of local architects and school boards that don't have the requisite knowledge on keeping in tip-top shape. While that falls in a moral gray area for turf salesmen, it also sheds light on a shortcoming of the natural-grass industry, too. Some of the smartest, most-talented groundskeepers, agronomists, and horticulturalists have to better educate the masses. Right now, the instructions they deliver are written in a foreign language, with products that are bulky and convoluted. Meanwhile, that green carpet could be on a truck tomorrow.

In outlining why I think turf is the wrong choice for many, I'm going to try to not sound holier than thou. As of today, I don't intend to ever rule out the material as a potential course of action for clients. There is no hard line drawn in our company's sand. Not when there is always a time and place for synthetic — as a last-ditch effort to get games played. The issue is with places that jump down the list to choose the "in case of emergency" option first. 

The perception of many: With budgets and climates that existed in Atlanta — i.e. Arthur Blank's deep pockets and subtropical warmth — the Falcons acted like they were a cash-strapped junior college and weather patterns akin to North Dakota. They certainly didn't need to play football indoors. Inexplicably turning against what grows all around their facility sends the wrong message to the masses. Smaller municipalities can't emulate that modern marvel of a roof, but they can steal a page from the playbook on what horizontal surface to install.  

The contrast is that Mercedes-Benz Stadium was designed to withstand approximately 60 paid events per year, and deliver each experience in an air-conditioned space to high-priced customers. It cannot be viewed in a vacuum as merely a football field. Choosing turf was mandatory for their joint-venture situation to succeed. The disconnect is that the average synthetic consumer believes the need-based decision in places like Atlanta is apples-to-apples with their own. If the Cincinnati Bengals require it for a few home games a year, then so do we. 

This just isn't the case, nor the proper understanding of a bigger story. Mercedes-Benz Stadium's total ticketing events amounts to eight NFL regular-season games, up to three more in the playoffs (including the Super Bowl), 17 more Major League Soccer (MLS) regular-season matches, up to four more in their playoffs (including MLS Cup), and a handful of domestic cup competitions/international friendlies. Eight levels of Georgia High School Association (GHSA) football are annually crowned there. The Chik-Fil-A Kickoff Game now routinely opens the college season, with the SEC Championship, Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl, and Chik-Fil-A Peach Ball on the back end. Sprinkle in multiple concerts, conventions, conferences, and stops by the monster truck and supercross series. Add in time for set up/tear down, practices/rehearsals; the number of days where people use the stadium's floor easily hits triple digits. In the past twelve months, the building nearly maxed out on all of these scenarios. 

Here in Missouri, as in most states, any high school below Class 4 cannot hold a candle to that many offerings. It takes a school large enough to provide students with both varsity and JV teams in football, boys' and girls' soccer, boys' and girls' lacrosse, and field hockey to even come close. In those rare instances, I will concede turf is the proper economical decision. Shy of that, the numbers don't add up. Schools with fewer than 50 events per year need to break the addiction with a substance meant for drastically different circumstances.

Yes, natural grass does require a dedicated practice and/or JV field to limit this number. And no, not all schools have the land or money to execute that. Clearly, no option is perfect. But, I will still say the propensity for high schools selecting turf football fields has set each one back in other aspects; mainly that pesky thing always getting in the way of school sports — the classroom. 

This op-ed will admittedly be light on cold, hard facts and more about conjecture; an observation from my business perspective as to why the world has changed in this direction. Rather than hit you over the head with data from skewed pseduo-science — in which both sides of this turf war are guilty of propaganda pushing — I'm going to make it more cut-and-dry. I'll lay out the debate in the form of a beauty pageant. It's obvious that is what is occurring in board rooms. 

If getting us back to natural grass is all a matter of appearance, I can make a soccer pitch look worthy of World Cup Final competitors. The only thing missing from those pictures and the ones you see on TV is the infrastructure for 60,000+ surrounding the bounding lines of the playing surface. But the field itself, looks every bit the part. It would explain why I've done far more soccer fields than football. 
Similarly, I can make a baseball field look like it is ready for Game 7 of the World Series — down to the DuraEdge infield mix, that is now in 22 of 30 MLB ballparks. Could this be the reason why baseball makes up 80% of my business? It sure suggests there's something to the theory: Amateur programs aim to mirror the specs of the big boys. 
I cannot, however, deliver the Mercedes-Benz Stadium field we all watched this Sunday. It would bankrupt the school. It would be designing a "solution" that looks like the professional stadiums do one day out of the entire calendar. That's not sustainable or smart. Does the school have another $1 million to replace it this soon? And that doesn't even mention the fact that when the carpet has served out its time, there is no place to take the old. China's not taking our plastic waste anymore. Since it never breaks down, no American landfill will take it either. 

Football has evolved (or maybe devolved) into a superficial art project. The same is true of basketball and hockey. The simple lines laid out by the rule book are no longer good enough. The sports have lost themselves. Want now supersedes need. Where is it spelled out in the football rule book that a large animal head on the 50 yard line is required in order to play the game? The terms of visual demarcating boundaries is now off the deep-end. 

This results in an industry that cannot keep up with irrational demands. You want your high school field to have a 3-foot thick out-of-bounds line around the perimeter of the entire field? How about a multi-colored 20 yard line to call out the red zone? Why stop there? Fill each end zone in team colors and give me graphics and logos everywhere.

Things you can get on a synthetic turf that are rare to be seen on natural grass:
  • Sideline hash marks
  • Multi-colored lines for midfield and/or the red zone
  • Painted end zones
  • 50-yard line logos
  • The name of the field, the conference affiliation, a watermarked hashtag, etc.
  • Two-tone grass every five yards
  • Thick perimeter out-of-bounds line
  • Yard line numbers (faux stenciled for "authenticity")
Quick question. If you have a natural grass field, who has the time or money to repaint all of these items? Your maintenance guy barely has enough time to mow it between now and Friday. And need I remind you, each is completely unnecessary to the playing surface being deemed legal to play? 

A 360' x 160' rectangle, with ten-yard end zones, continuous lines every five yards, and two sets of goal vertical goal posts is good enough to get the job done. The game used to be about the game. It was funny that way. You could host an NFL Championship in a cow pasture and no one would care. The takeaway was about the athletes and what they did on the field. 

In a sport that really pounded us over the head with commercials about inclusion, they certainly have established a very unhealthy "haves vs. have nots" disparity. And the choice of the material underfoot is solely to blame for this.  

The look of being "The Show" is now too large of a priority. Turf provides that easy way to get all the bells and whistles down in permanent ink, once and for all. This mentality completely disregards health concerns, both in the short-run and the unknown lasting effects. 

So, I have to ask you: Better 1... or 2?
This playful take on an optometry exam is a real-world issue with the decision makers within modern high schools. The obvious answer is the top image. It is oozing with sex appeal. It looks fresh and like the Super Bowl is being hosted in Smalltown, USA. The bottom image looks like a 1940s iteration of Northwestern's Ryan Field. And that is the stigma that needs broken. Programs are not poor in both financial means and on-field performance because their field is simple. There's nothing wrong with that at all.

I'm here to tell you that by nearly any objective measure, the bottom image is a better field for young athletes. 

Your local high school's homecoming game is not the Super Bowl, so stop treating it like it is. Let the kids be kids again. To me, that begins and ends with the right playing surface. Enjoy the sport before it further becomes unrecognizable in every way: On turf, with no tackling, and 60 passes per game. That's called recess and you can play that in a parking lot. 

Depending on the state's prevailing wage, the difference in ten-year cost (to both own and maintain) from the synthetic to the natural is as high as $400,000. Think of all the things a poor/rural/public school could do with that money if they didn't have to chase after that artificial status symbol. The number one complaint of natural-grass football: By the middle of the season the whole thing looks like a bomb went off. That's not the fault of the suddenly-dormant grass. And turf is low-hanging fruit that most people run to for a solution. The problem falls on a maintenance crew that is in charge of an entire campus to clean and look after. There are no aspersions being cast here, but this underappreciated group will be the first to tell you that maintaining an athletic field is beyond their scope of work. They are custodians, handymen, and grass cutters. 

In many cases, the task of topdressing, aerating, etc. is not something each has adequate time to devote, nor do many of them carry around state certification or college degrees in that focus. So what? Hire yourself someone whose line of work is that very thing. You just saved $400,000 in not putting in allegedly-toxic turf. Job creation and saving the planet; that's a win-win. Don't make the poorer schools feel less than because the money that could have been spent on a 518,400 square feet of carpet was put to better use in a classroom. And that's me, the biggest advocate of amateur sports in academia, saying that. 

Set aside a third of what a synthetic company will cost to install and my team can design and build the proper irrigation plan with drainage tiles, the proper grading plan, a gorgeous sand-capped "Bluemuda" (Bermuda-bluegrass hybrid), and the thing will play like Lambeau. It'll be exactly like the World Series Game 7 metaphor from before. The only thing missing will be the throngs of adoring fans. Between the lines — the part that matters most — will be every bit of "The Show."

Ready for the same eye exam, but with a different sport? Better 1... or 2?
Again, the top is rendered for synthetic turf and the bottom is natural grass. 

Baseball fields have outfield walls and perimeter fences that is beautifully ingrained infrastructure to the game. It is a blank canvas for team-specific graphics. That is where you can customize a field to put your imprint on it, without the field becoming busy. In meeting the dimension standards of a professional field, I can spec a high school Yankee Stadium — from the perspective of how a ground ball will play equally true and mound hold its shape. The only thing that will be missing from the grass will be that iconic interlocking "NY" behind home plate. And that is superfluous to the game and something outside the lines that count.

Inlaid flashy graphics are not as well received in many of the outdoor sports. Built upon foundational terms like "purity" and "tradition", chalk or paint that is 4" wide is all that is needed for these facilities to look as beautiful as the big leagues. Let's say you want the Gateway Arch in your baseball or softball outfield. Have a professional groundskeeper teach you the methods to do it right naturally rather than have it drawn up in different colored carpet. The same is not being said of football.

Basketball truly set us down this insane path. You're not anyone unless your court is as cluttered and busy with ridiculousness as Adam Levine's upper body. A plain court is for the local YMCA. Hell, look at my alma mater's current court. You have the parquet pattern — inspired by the old Boston Garden — plus a bold center-court logo, wordmarks galore, conference graphics, and two giant lightning wings. Because, you can. The area that was historically named "The Paint" — for a very good reason — is ironically the one patch of wood that new-school designers refuse to fill in. That was the bold, out-of-the-box concept of the past and now its inverse gets littered with graffiti-style content.  

Hockey is the same way, but gets a pass from me for a lack of autonomy. Most amateur teams don't own their own building, so the sub-ice surface ends up looking like a NASCAR driver's suit, just to keep the lights on. However, horror vacui doesn't translate well to the outdoors. For youth sports, the graphical busyness is the first things deemed unnecessary if the decision is for natural grass, but strangely near the top of the "must haves" if a vote opts for turf.

Funny thing about that: Where the skill is really the only thing on display, one actually has to deliver a product with substance. The off-Broadway performer without the Hamilton-caliber sets and costumes must really bring it. Looking the part has simply masked the fact that rich suburban kids really aren't that good at football. 

Ultimately, that is what is getting lost in this. 22 pimple-faced teenagers need a decent place to play. In saying that, I'm certainly not aiming to downplay the importance of high school sports. Quite the opposite, in fact. The players are at the top of my firm's user group in each and every project. Sadly, too many athletic facilities have been designed (ass-backward) for fan experience, at too low of a level. Again, the Super Bowl has ruined your high school football program. No one is spending $3,000 to sit on the 50 yard line on Senior Night. Stop catering to that lowest common denominator, all while the kids on the field risk injury due to value engineering.  

The cutting of budget corners is what has gotten natural-grass fields a bad reputation in the last two decades. Spend the money you do have in the right spot. Concession stands don't need the shiniest new hot dog warmers in them. Incorrect seed selection, subgrades (heavy in silt and clay) with poor percolation/infiltration rates, and awful crowning has caused more rain outs than ever. This is in a sport where the entire premise of a weather cancellation is blasphemy. 

Your revenue on those washed-out days are $0, so how do you feel about that $300,000 bleacher and light tower renovation project now? If that money went toward new drainage tiles and laser grading, the moisture management plan would have kept the game on the schedule.

And look, I get it. Football fields wear down in ways other sports do not. Every play consists of overweight men pushing against each other with all their force transferring into the ground. There is a reason the line of scrimmage is consistently referred to as the "battle in the trenches." Modern turfgrass technology and methods have done amazing work in this aspect, but the land between the hash marks at every level of the sport is a war zone by season's end. And that's partly due to the fact that the game is played at a time when Mother Nature isn't helping. 

In most places in this country, grass is going dormant in October and November. That's unfortunately right as the football season is heating up. To many, that is the no-win proposition that guides the decision to synthetics. It's just too much work to try to keep something alive that has that many variables working against it. The list of NFL teams willing to fight that good fight on an annual basis is now down to 11. 

Most of these still budget in the re-sodding of the center strip once a year. Do the math. Those stadiums have world-class grounds crews, the best technology and products money can buy, and they assume they'll only get five or six home games out of the grass between the hash marks. How does a high school stand a chance at matching that?  

Enter synthetic turf companies. They have flashy pictures and blare the "maintenance free" trumpets. But their multi-sport fields end up looking like New York City subway maps. Is blue out of bounds or is it the red line?

Remember that a single-occupant synthetic turf venue is extremely tough to find. The permanence of the lines — that are such an allure to getting the bells and whistles on the football once and for all — suddenly turn into the venue's own worst enemy. Now, when you have a lacrosse match and wish those soccer and football lines would just disappear, they're not going anywhere.  

Slight tangent: I firmly believe that this stimulation overload has added to our nation's tactical decline in soccer, most notably. Beyond helping defenders organize their offside line, having a football and/or lacrosse field overlaid does nothing good for teaching proper spacing within a formation. It's tough for a goalkeeper to not feel claustrophic with uprights looming overhead and up to four different sets of colored lines running through your penalty area. Hash marks cut the field into parcels that subconsciously restrict freedom of movement, in a game which — at its best — is all about playing balls into space. 

What hope does soccer have? Who is going to say "no" when the football-crazed community votes to bring in a new synthetic surface for the athletic complex? The options for the soccer program are to join up or be left out in the cold. No school board will have any money left in the coffers to fund a separate natural-grass soccer field in addition to this install. 

Forget all the clutter for a moment. Turf is still not your best place to showcase the skills of a soccer player. Not when possession of the ball at your foot is so paramount. On carpet, it bounces far too much for players to get a proper sense of pace on passes. Seemingly every ball needs to be won out of the air, while Europeans and South Americans have the ball on a string superglued to their boots. This is an issue even at the highest level of soccer in our nation today. 

The pro-synthetic camp loves to suggest that athletes need to train on what those at the next level are playing on. That may be all well and good for the state of Texas — who now uses college-width hash marks — which treats their Friday nights like SEC Saturday afternoons. Some of those schools even play in 18,000-seat stadiums. If you want to prepare the amateur player for the professional ranks that early, be my guest. Clearly, no one is putting up a road block on that mindset. The industry is now well into the billions filling every parent with hope that their child fits that mold.

Mimicking what something is supposed to look like cannot be the standard anymore. There has to be functionality justifying dollars spent. The two shades of green in 21st-century artificial turf is a prime example. Oo, it looks like you just mowed the field prior to kick off. 

There may have been a time where you fell for that illusion. Not in a literal "forgot it was fake", but enough to subconsciously appreciate that homage. In exchange for that visually-pleasing detail, your brain granted a pass to being told a lie — in a way that elements of Epcot make you feel like you are inexplicably walking from country to country in mere minutes. This optical trick doesn't have staying power, though. It now comes across as kitschy and, to me, makes the blades of Mercedes-Benz Stadium somehow look worse than before. 

From an engineering perspective, the town of Newton, Illinois (my current project) is going to be getting one of the most gorgeous fields in the country — even better than the one used in last night's big game. From a pure aesthetic point of view, not so much. To some, the frustrating thing is that a large portion of the money spent will be invisible to the crowds in attendance. That is a real challenge in marketing natural grass to youth programs. Funding is going to operational things below the playing surface and not the (new) traditional window dressing.  

My goal with SightLine is to do a better job of convincing others that Plain Jane is sexy once again. You know, all that "beauty on the inside" and "great personality" crap. But, in this case, it's actually true. With the right products on the skin, less is more when it comes to make-up. 

I'm not alone in believing these natural beauties will win out. The 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship was played on grass (Levi's Stadium). Additionally, Alabama and Clemson have distanced themselves above the entire pack as the best — and most visible — programs in their ranks. These are victories for the cause, since both Bryant-Denny and Memorial Stadium are natural surfaces.  

I'm heavily biased because my beloved Buckeyes graced one of the end zones, but there has never been a better looking football field in history than the one used for this year's Rose Bowl Game. In my humble opinion, it was as close as heaven on earth gets; a modern Rembrandt for the sports fan. 

Even as basic and refined as it was, it is impossible for a high school to match the peripheral details. While the fields for both the Rose Bowl and CFB National Championship were good enough to stand alone as grass and simple boundary lines, each got dolled up nevertheless. Blame that damned Super Bowl yet again. Too many sponsorship dollars and too many eyeballs behind television screens to not use hundreds of gallons of single-use colored paint. [Sigh]  

So, as tough as it is for me to let go, that attractive aspiration can't be the leading factor in budgeting or design any longer. All decisions need to be in the service of unpaid kids playing a sport they love as healthy and happy as they can. If that means that the local high school field starts to become a dirt track in Week 7 and beyond, then so be it. We have to take a collective step back and reprioritize.  

The good news: My anecdotal evidence suggests that these natural-grass football fields are far less the mud pits they used to be. We've gotten so much better with agronomy and investing proper money into people with the certified know-how to keep sod looking impeccable.

That, and the sport has evolved. The shift to pass-centric, shotgun-dependent, spread- and RPO-heavy, outside-the-pocket offenses has changed the way the turf between the hash marks weathers. Gone are the days of "Three yards and a cloud of dust." On both fronts, actually. Contemporary maintenance techniques are keeping the grass alive better than ever. So, it's not dust to begin with. Secondly, the quickness at which quarterbacks get the ball out of their hands has affected traditional offensive vs. defensive line battles. Pass rushers aren't coming out of the three-point stance like they used to. They are more athletic; able to cover as a fourth or fifth linebacker. The volume of inside runs, especially in the Pop Warner and high school ranks, is at a historic low. Every high school program is essentially the "Run & Shoot" or "Air Raid" for four quarters. The only running is done by the signal caller. All in all, the line of scrimmage isn't the "trench" it used to be. 

This all comes together to refocus the sport's identity, down to the surface selection. The time to swing the pendulum back to grass is rapidly approaching. In many prominent buildings, both in the NCAA and NFL, the self-proclaimed third generation (3G) of synthetic installations will be due for replacement in the next two to five years. The window for natural grass to make a resurgence is opening. 

Unfortunately, choosing anything but another round of carpet will be going against its subliminal attachment to the sport's biggest celebration. In the NFL, the pool of warm-weather, natural-grass Super Bowl candidates is set to shrink while more and more artificial options are coming online. By 2022, there will only be 10 of 32 franchises (26.7%) that play home games on grass. 

The next stadiums on the NFL's horizon are both slated to be paved with green plastic. The Los Angeles Rams and Chargers will share "Kroenke's World" — the Inglewood, CA mega dome that is currently under construction. It has already been pegged for Super Bowl LVI (February 6, 2022). The Vegas Raiders' new building intends to join that Super Bowl hosting club shortly thereafter.

Currently, the bids have been awarded up through 2024 (SB LVIII). The good news is that three of the next five will be played on the real stuff: Miami (next year), Tampa (February 7, 2021), and Arizona (February 5, 2023). The bad news is that those three, plus Jacksonville and San Francisco (Santa Clara), are the only cities with a natural-grass playing surface that have hosted the Super Bowl this century. And since they are being used in quick succession, we might have a synthetic streak that begins in 2024 (New Orleans) that runs for ten years or more.  

It is not that hard to envision a slate of New Orleans, Las Vegas, Dallas (Arlington), Indianapolis, Detroit, Houston, New York (East Rutherford, NJ), Minnesota, Los Angeles (Inglewood), and Atlanta as the Super Bowl hosts. There's not telling whether Miami, San Francisco, and Arizona will hold true to grass by the time they return to the rotation. Tampa Bay will likely be due for a new stadium plan by then. Jacksonville might not even be in the league. That's a scary proposition.  

You could see a scenario where the league office requires a transition to synthetic as a contingent factor in bid selection. By 2030, natural would be such a minority that there could be a continuity issue. Major League Baseball recently lost another one to the "dark side" — Arizona's Chase Field switching to turf after 22 years. 

I don't agree with, but understand the logic behind, gravitating toward artificial turf for baseball due to weather events. There are so many more games. As a former college baseball player and coach, the worst thing that could happen was a three-game weekend series where a stagnant patch of rain clouds made it impossible to play even a single game. February and March snow has also handcuffed all northern schools — playing on natural surfaces — from being adequately prepared for spring competition. For many, baseball and softball have nowhere to run to get all these games in. Turf is the only hope. 

Emulating the pros with an outdoor facility made from non-organic material is not always in the wrong. Look at the all-weather rubber track around most of the high school football fields across the country. Leaving the world of cinder ovals was a necessity. That is a case of bettering the product, not just showing off.

Football isn't nearly as need based. It has become all about the want. The pace of the sport — in terms of number of scheduled events and ample recovery days — suggest that it could make a return to its roots if it so desired. It would sure help disperse the funding to other athletic programs at each school. A high-maintenance field like baseball is the Peter being robbed so football (Paul) can have its surface decked out to the nines. 

When I started in this business, I wanted to be the artist that could provide clients with the most attention to detail — to make synthetic look even more like the real deal. But, time has given me perspective and my years have certainly taught me many lessons. We can't be greedy with the "coulda" and forget that there was no "shoulda" to validate it. I now believe ostentatious show pieces have no place in amateur sports, especially any facility that is taking in public money to fund construction.

Not much will truly change until it comes from the top. The NFL is still the key influencer that speaks through social media directly to the younger generation. The widest market sector — at the base of the pyramid — will always take its cues from those at the summit. If you don't believe in the power of such things, and specifically their detrimental effects on society, I have a few Fyre Festival documentaries you need to watch. 



And if I happen to actually have the NFL's attention with this, can we also get a better halftime show? How about real musicians with substantive lyrics, enough commercial success for the masses, and deep cuts for real rock fans? My nominee: Young the Giant. By 2023, they'll be on album number six and even more immensely popular. You combine that band with a natural field (State Farm Stadium) and the Super Bowl will be fixed... for that year, at least. 

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