Artificial Pitches: Is it Time to Review Performance Requirements?

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Artificial pitch requirements have been set in stone for a long time now. The first working limits on the performance of artificial turf for soccer appeared in the publication of the Winterbottom report in 1984.

In subsequent years, UEFA (1996) and then FIFA (2001) published limits based on good quality natural turf, following in-stadium performance studies. The date of the last major review to compare the performances of natural turf against artificial turf is unknown. Maybe it's time to have another look and bring current standards up to date. Doing so may reduce the negative feedback that the playing community has for artificial turf in leagues.
 
Sports Labs presents further information which may indicate why a review is required. Following extensive research testing of sports fields, we ascertained some interesting facts to share on the performance of natural pitches in stadiums around Europe.

Testing and the evaluation of results -- which are backed up by work done by a major Football Association and other independent Laboratories and Consultants based in Europe, as well as a manufacturer in the USA -- suggest that the best natural pitches are firmer but more shock absorptive than the best artificial pitches. Our research provided results which correlate well with these studies.
 
Using data collected over a two-year period on a large sample group, Sports Labs is able to summarise the performance of natural pitches using FIFA-type testing to characterise properties like shock absorption, deformation, rotational resistance, and HIC, etc.

The standout results which are of interest relate to shock absorption where natural turf is substantially firmer than artificial turf, no matter what type of turf was analysed. The shock absorption of a hybrid turf system is a whopping 33% less than a good artificial turf. The other standout difference relates to critical fall height; here Hybrid turf is 25% higher than a good quality artificial turf.

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Natural sand-based turf was found to be, on average, less firm than Hybrid turf but it was considerably more shock absorptive than the best artificial turf systems with the critical fall height being nearly double.

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So, what does this all mean for artificial turf going forward? There are several issues which need to be addressed. Player perception is a major issue for the industry, specifically the perception within the playing community that artificial turf is somehow inferior to natural turf and it's to blame for a higher incidence of injury. However, recent studies suggest that certain injuries such as knee ligament injuries are on the increase, but these stats are coming from leagues which do not allow artificial turf to be used.

The playing community seems to be pointing the finger at the increased use of hybrid turf in this league. The results which Sports Labs have found seem to indicate that the field of play in the top tier of the game is firm -- maybe too firm -- for player well-being? (SEE ARTICLE: Are serious knee injuries in the Premier League really at 'epidemic' levels?)

So, what do the results look like?

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To be clear, what these results show is that natural turf provides a unique playing surface for players -- a firm but shock-absorptive one. These qualities can be achieved in artificial turf through careful design and the selection of an artificial turf system (shock pad and turf combination) which mimic these properties. There exist a few systems which come close to this in the market, but a lack of understanding of how to properly design a system to perform more like natural turf -- and a market which is very cost-sensitive -- has elongated the time it is taking to focus attention on this.
 
Of fundamental importance is the need for future artificial turf systems to be designed to incorporate a shock pad into the make-up. Simply making artificial turf firmer is not the answer the industry needs to make artificial turf more like natural turf.
 
Eric O'Donnell
Managing Director, Sports Labs Ltd.

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