The Grass is Always Greener: A Brief History of Artificial Turf
There’s nothing that can compare to playing on nice, lush, grass—or is there? Many outdoor-only sport purists fall back on one argument against playing indoors: fake turf just isn’t the same. They might not be wrong, but they might not realize just how far artificial turf has come since its inception. Many of the domes we install for indoor sports like soccer, field hockey, or lacrosse, rely on artificial turf, so here’s a rundown of artificial turf’s short history.
Artificial turf has been around since the sixties and it saw its first large scale use in 1965. As the story goes, the Houston Astros home stadium, the Astrodome, had a problem. They wanted a covered playing surface, but because of the grass required on a baseball pitch, a transparent roof had to be installed to let enough light in to keep the grass alive.
The problem arose when players started to complain about light glinting off the clear ceiling and interfering with their ability to play. Have you ever tried to catch a ball with bright light in your face? Not the most pleasant of conditions. The solution: paint the roof to decrease the amount of sunlight shining in everyone’s eyes.
But, as you can imagine, the grass didn’t respond very well to the decrease in light. Luckily, the stadium found a solution to this from a new company that brought them the first artificial turf. The product would later be called, and forever be known as, “AstroTurf” as an homage its beginnings in the Astrodome.
The original AstroTurf provided an alternative to expensive-to-maintain grass and quickly spread to other venues, since the cost savings were significant.
There were some drawbacks to AstroTurf though. The surface has less give to it than living grass and, even worse, the surface was slippery. Second generation AstroTurf was developed by Monsanto’s R and D department and involved a new manufacturing process that provided more texture to the turf.
However, throughout the rest of the 20th century, few changes were made to AstroTurf. They were the only player in the industry and “Why fix what isn’t broken?” But this, would seem, is the wrong mindset. By the 90s, the artificial turf movement had begun to slow as athletes and venues found AstroTurf to be a harder, and more injury prone surface to play on than grass and many fields went back to trying to make real grass work.
It was in the early-2000s that things began to shift again. A new artificial turf burst into the scene and quickly snapped up the majority of playing surfaces from AstroTurf.
Designed to replicate real grass, FieldTurf burst onto the scene to reinvigorate the need for artificial turf. To simulate the real feel of grass, FieldTurf surfaces are composed of single polyethylene blend fibers embedded into a polypropylene backing. Beneath the fibers is an infill that consists of a bottom layer of sand, a middle layer of sand and rubber, and a top rubber layer. The infill simulates the “give” of real grass and the fibers simulate actual blades of grass.
FieldTurf now holds 85% of the market, and AstroTurf (having changed hands several times over the years) is playing catch up. While the name AstroTurf is synonymous with artificial turf, the majority of the turf played on is actually FieldTurf.
It is incredibly complicated to create artificial turf that feels and reacts the same way as real grass, but as many more sports move indoors (thanks to structures like air domes) there is increased drive to create even better artificial turf surfaces. Soon our domes might have artificial turf that might fool even the most savvy of grass connoisseurs!