Updated: Nov 17
It's football season and researchers at Land-grant institutions across the nation are busy working to improve turfgrass to keep athletes safe and fans happy.
Written by representatives from the Southern Region Communications Consortium:
A. Denise Attaway, Writer/Editor, College of Agriculture, Forestry and Life Sciences, Public Service and Agriculture, Clemson University
Samantha Jones, Digital Communications Specialist and Science Communications Specialist, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, North Carolina State University
Alisa Boswell-Gore, Communications Coordinator, Oklahoma State University
Patricia McDaniels, Senior Media Relations Coordinator and Editor, University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture
Cassie Ann Kiggen, Chief Communications Officer, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of Georgia
(09/05/23) Whistles blow and referees across the nation signal for teams to take the fields. From elite college football players to those in preschool and elementary soccer leagues, athletes of all skill levels are busy running, kicking and throwing balls across a variety of surfaces.
As they compete, players’ bodies often are slammed, thrust and thrown across these surfaces. That’s just one of the reasons researchers at land-grant institutions across the nation are busy working to improve turfgrass to keep athletes safer. In addition, they also are studying how to help minimize negative environmental impacts from practices used to maintain these playing surfaces.
In the Southern United States, research ranges from developing different varieties of grasses, to studies of underlayment and construction of stadium fields and community soccer pitches, golf courses, home lawns and more.
Clemson University and North Carolina State University
To grow and keep turfgrass beautiful and safe, researchers at Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina and North Carolina State University in Raleigh have written a playbook for managing sports fields. Best Management Practices for Carolina Sports Fields, written by Lambert “Bert” McCarty at Clemson and Grady Miller at North Carolina State, contains research-based information and serves as a reference guide for sports field managers and students, as well as regulatory agencies worldwide.
Joseph Roberts, Clemson turfgrass pathologist and Extension nematology specialist, talks about research being conducted on turfgrass at Clemson’s Pee Dee REC in Florence and Darlington counties in South Carolina.
“Information included in this book is the most current available and includes traditional and recent agronomic trends necessary to provide desirable, yet safe, playing conditions,” McCarty said. “This information applies to natural grass fields as well as synthetic (turf) fields. It pertains to most fields and budgets, from professional to local parks and recreation fields, including football, soccer, baseball, softball, lacrosse and rugby.”
While being a surface where players can “utilize their talents to the fullest extent,” McCarty said sports fields also must be pleasing to look at.
“Television is an important part of the sports industry,” he said. “Images viewers see on the field and their television screens, requires the turf to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible. If one patch of turf is out of place or discolored, someone will notice.”
Large patches of diseased grass or discoloration from nutrient issues present an opportunity to provide guidance to turfgrass managers.
This is where Miller’s expertise comes in. Miller earned his doctorate in turfgrass management at another southern region land-grant institution, Auburn University in Alabama. As a distinguished professor of sustainability and an Extension turfgrass management specialist at North Carolina State, Miller is highly involved in turfgrass management. His research focuses on several areas including irrigation practices and turfgrass nutrition.
“Normally, irrigation is just needed to supplement rainfall since the southern region of the United States usually gets adequate total rainfall amounts to meet the needs of turfgrass,” Miller said. “However, there are times when rainfall frequency or distribution can result in drought-stressed turfgrasses.”
This can be especially problematic in sandy soil areas with low water-holding capacity.
“Periods of high heat can hasten water loss from plant surfaces,” Miller said. “So, states such as Florida, with both sandy soils and high evaporative rates, rely heavily on irrigation for consistent turfgrass health. A heavier soil, or soil with a greater percentage of clay will have a greater capacity to hold water, so irrigation may not play as critical a role in maintaining turfgrass health.”
Oklahoma State University
Researchers at Oklahoma State University have developed and commercialized 10 turfgrass varieties with two more varieties expected to be released soon. The university’s most recently released Bermudagrass variety, Tahoma 31, can be found on golf courses, football fields and soccer complexes nationwide, as well as in the stadiums and/or practice fields of the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Commanders, the Baltimore Ravens and the Chicago Bears.
Todd Tribble, athletic field superintendent at Oklahoma State, learned about turfgrass management as a Clemson University student studying under McCarty’s tutelage. Although the distance between the two universities is about 1,000 miles, Tribble said knowledge he gained while studying at Clemson “directly” correlates to what he does to maintain turfgrass at Oklahoma State.
“Both universities are in (USDA Plant Hardiness) Zone 7,” Tribble said. “So, the grasses we grow here are the same type of grasses grown at Clemson. Most day-to-day management tasks are very, very similar. The only real difference, possibly, is the amount of winterkill we see on bermudagrass here because our winters can sometimes be quite severe.”
University of Tennessee
At the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, researchers for the UT Center for Athletic Field Safety compare natural grass-playing surfaces to synthetic surfaces, with the goal of improving athletic performance and reducing athlete injuries.
Distinguished professor of plant sciences John Sorochan, the center’s director, also serves as a consultant to the National Football League (NFL) Players Association, the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) and other groups associated with turf venues and their management. Sorochan has been selected to oversee a massive research and installation project for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, which has expanded to include 48 teams playing at 16 venues across Canada, Mexico and the United States.
Although they work with pro athletes and famous stadiums and fields, Sorochan and the UT turfgrass team find time apply their work to benefit athletes at all levels of skill. For example, they research how different balls bounce when they land on different grasses and have designed a device to test stresses involved when different sized shoes perform on different turfs.
FIFA was founded in 1904 in Paris as the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, hence the acronym FIFA. The organization is known as the International Federation of Association Football in English.
University of Georgia
University of Georgia turf research program faculty and research scientists are taking their turfgrass information to a new level by providing information to Spanish-speaking audiences abroad. Led by Alfredo Martinez-Espinoza, a professor in UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and a UGA Cooperative Extension Service plant pathologist, members of the UGA Turf Team recently were invited to develop a training and certification program to support the field managers of Mexico’s premier soccer leagues as they prepare for the 2026 FIFA World Cup.
“This is the wonderful thing about working in applied science,” said Martinez-Espinoza. “Our jobs are to filter through all the problems presented to us and pinpoint research-based, actionable solutions that can be taught so our clients are competent and prepared as a result of working with us.”
So, whether it’s someone tying on their cleats or watching their child blaze across a field, turfgrass scientists across land-grant institutions are working diligently to ensure the aesthetic appeal and performance of the turfs that are played on meet the highest standards. From community parks and front yards to NFL fields, from World Cup pitches, championship golf courses and Little League outfields, the safety, economic and social benefits of sports fields are enhanced by the fundamentals of turfgrass science research and development conducted at land-grant institutions.
Clemson University, North Carolina State University, Oklahoma State University, University of Tennessee and University of Georgia are part of a system of 15 agricultural research centers at land-grant universities in the Southern United States where scientists collaborate to conduct research and outreach focused on conserving the region’s natural resources and sustainably feeding a growing global population.