There has been a recent surge of interest in the prospect of artificial pitches being used in sport, bringing with it a wealth of studies and opinions. Whilst there are many who still oppose their use, artificial pitches have been installed by an increasingly large number of schools and sporting organisations across the globe.
This isn’t the first time artificial pitches have been heralded as the future of sports such as football, rugby, cricket and hockey, but, with major advancements in technology and appealing financial gains, there’s a real feeling that this time they’re here to stay. Artificial pitches have already made a large impact on the professional scene. Both Rugby Union and Rugby League have artificial pitches in use with Saracens, Newcastle and the Vikings and, in football, both U.E.F.A. and F.I.F.A. have sanctioned artificial surfaces in their competitions. So far, top-flight clubs in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy have replaced grass with plastic pitches. What’s more, amateur and school sports clubs have also been massively affected by this rise in popularity, with AstroTurfs becoming a must-have for any ambitious organisation.
The main draw for the majority of sports clubs is financial gain. AstroTurf pitches cost around £500,000 to install, but this can be recouped in a matter of years because significantly less time and money is required to maintain the surface. AstroTurf’s ability to withstand an increased amount of use compared to grass also makes them suitable for renting out to the public, increasing revenue and making a sports club more involved with the community. The other major benefit of synthetic grass is the certainty of a playable surface all year round. Pitch quality is a real problem in sports, especially at grassroots levels. In Plymouth’s local amateur leagues, the pitches used are of poor quality and often deteriorate through a season. Almost without fail, fixtures across the winter months just don’t survive. Given the problems our national football team has encountered in the last 10 years, improving the quality of grassroots football and youth development should be a real focus for our FA. As they provide a consistent surface unaffected by weather, artificial surfaces would really improve sporting standards. Our school is a prime example; our AstroTurf has enabled our teams to play football of good quality throughout the season and allowed our students to use the pitch during break and lunch times. This was just not possible with the old grass pitch, which would always be a mud bath around this time of the year.
There was similar excitement in football in the 1980s over plastic pitches, and four professional clubs (Luton, Oldham, Q.P.R. and Preston) led the way, replacing their grass pitches with plastic ones with the expectation that many clubs would follow. What actually followed, however, was a ban on artificial surfaces by the F.A.. Balls would bounce comically high and the game was altered massively. ‘It was a false game’, according to Jim Smith, Q.P.R.’s manager at the time. ‘I knew exactly when we were going to score’. Injuries were also a massive problem, with both short-term injuries and burns and long-term joint damage on the rise. Artificial pitches have been seen as more of a joke than a long-term option ever since.
However, major developments in technology have led to the current third generation pitches, which are designed to give way under foot and to replicate the performance of grass. There are even studies indicating that artificial pitches result in fewer injuries than grass pitches, greatly improving their reputation. In some sports, such as hockey, these pitches have actually sped up the game and led to more attacking and exciting play, and their popularity is still rising. 29 out of the 48 members of leagues 1 and 2 recently voted in favour of reintroducing these pitches into the Football League as 3G looks to go professional in English football. With all this in mind, is there anything to stop artificial pitches from spreading throughout sport and possibly being viewed as a replacement to grass?
Well, there are still many who oppose these developments and there is great reluctance from clubs in the top two football tiers to go plastic. These clubs have an abundance of money and can afford to buy equipment such as under-soil heating, so poor weather conditions are no threat to their grass pitches.
There are also still question marks over the actual impact on the quality of the game. For example, Paul Fletcher of Burnley made suggestions that artificial pitches would take away from the experience of spectators as ‘It would be like seeing a game of five-a-side, not a real game of football.’ Gareth Bale’s recent comments on Andorra’s artificial home pitch, in which he declared it the ‘worst pitch I’ve played on’, also revealed further issues with the quality of artificial surfaces. This raises the question: is plastic really superior to grass?
With no strong appeal for elite clubs, it seems unlikely that artificial pitches will ever reach the highest level of sport or take over from grass. Nevertheless, there is definite potential for these pitches, which undoubtedly hold solutions to the problems facing grassroots and amateur sport. It has certainly made a difference in our school!
by Jamie Bennett-Ness