The most cutthroat turf wars in sports today are fought not by men in spandex and spikes but by men armed with carpet swatches and pie charts. More than 40 companies across the globe are engaging in whistle-stop warfare to tout their artificial turf products as safer, sleeker and cheaper than their competitors'. The newest player in this $300 million industry is Montreal-based Field-Turf, which, with Nike's golden touch, has introduced "artificial grass" that is less like the steel wool of recent years and more like the natural stuff of yesteryear.
Made from synthetic grass blades woven into an infill base of sand, rubber and Nike Grind (a ground material made from recycled sneakers), FieldTurf's eponymous surface can be found on 125 sports fields from Amarillo to Moscow. The infill allows athletes to plant their feet and twist and pivot in a way similar to what they do on real grass, while the blades are made of polyethylene, which gives them a slippery feel that allows athletes to slide tackle with the ease of kids on a Slip 'N Slide. "Even soccer teams like it, and that's a tough recommendation to come by," says Charles Dixon, president of Turf Diagnostics and Design, an independent consulting company in Olathe, Kans., that measured the resiliency of various athletic surfaces and how each absorbs impact, and found that FieldTurf had many of the characteristics of a well-maintained natural grass field.
According to FieldTurf cofounder John Gilman, a former luggage salesman who plays Monty Hall to partner Jean Prevost's absent-minded professor, the average cost of a FieldTurf football field, including excavation and base work, is about $650,000. "This, as opposed to the $1 million you'll pay for AstroTurf," says John Ingram, who as director of athletic facilities at Nebraska was instrumental in the decision this year to replace Memorial Stadium's seven-year-old AstroTurf 8 field with Field-Turf. FieldTurf requires none of the seeding, watering and mowing of live grass. Many artificial turf surfaces start to develop bald spots and a mint-green pallor after five seasons, but FieldTurf has a life expectancy of eight to 12 years.
FieldTurf's calling card, however, is safety. Citing data analyzed by orthopedist Bill Barnhill on athletic fields during one season in Amarillo, Texas, the people at FieldTurf claim that their surface demonstrates a 50% lower injury rate than even natural grass. "I've seen no major injuries yet this season," says Nebraska football trainer Doak Ostergard. "We have 180 guys, and no one is bellyaching about the turf."
The organization most impressed with FieldTurf seems to be its major competitor: AstroTurf rights holder Southwest Recreational Industries, Inc., which has introduced rubber infill in its new AstroPlay product. FieldTurf sued for patent infringement last fall. (The suit was settled in June, with the terms remaining confidential.) The granddaddy of artificial turf brands, AstroTurf debuted 35 years ago, and although the company says the "green stuff" is essentially the same, nearly everything else—the base and drainage system—has changed. Southwest has an estimated 50% share of the worldwide artificial turf market and 75% of the North American market.
Natural turf may continue to be everyone's dream, but FieldTurf technology, predicts Dixon, "will inspire a lot of knockoffs, real soon." The company's gross has grown from $1.7 million in 1997 to a projected $20 million in '99. In the last month they have installed half a dozen fields, including three in the U.S. for high school football and a practice rugby field in Auckland, New Zealand. Even those who feel that grass is always greener agree that FieldTurf "looks like grass, feels like grass, plays like grass" and—for $2,000 worth of spraying—can smell like grass.