How is turf grass impacting sports?

For athletes it can mean the difference between a win and a loss. Turf grass isn’t just an aesthetic choice, it’s an evolving science and a sixty-billion dollar industry. At the Joseph Valentine Turf Grass Research Center, a 17 acre research facility in University Park, Pennsylvania, scientists are learning how turf is impacting sports.


For athletes, it can mean the difference between a win and a loss.

Turfgrass isn't just an aesthetic choice.

It's an evolving science and a $60 billion industry.

At the Joseph Valentine Turfgrass Research Center, a 17-acre research facility in University Park, Pennsylvania, scientists are learning how turf is impacting sports.

Here's the story.

In science, few fields get more exposure.

You see it every week on TV -- perfect grass that puts your yard to shame.

But there's more to these manicured fields than sunshine and soil.

This is just the surface of a serious science and an estimated $60 billion industry.

When you consider that the entire Chesapeake Bay watershed, it's been estimated recently it's the largest crop in the entire watershed.

There's more turf than corn, for example.

You heard right.

More turf than corn -- roughly 3 million acres, or nearly 10% of the total land area.

Pete Landschoot is professor of turfgrass science at Penn State, a program with roots reaching back to 1928, when a group of golf-course superintendents, including a man named Joseph Valentine, asked the university to help them grow better grass.

A professor named Burt Musser, who was a clover breeder, was appointed to have a half-time position in turf.

So, that was during the late 1920s, and the program started very slowly through the '30s, into the '40s.

If you could go back to the 1950s and look at some of the grasses back then and compare them to what we have today, it's like night and day.

Today, the science continues here -- the Joseph Valentine Turfgrass Research Center, dedicated in 1970.

It's 17 acres of bluegrass, ryegrass, fescue, and bent grass, grass so green and so short, our photographer Tyler thought it was fake.

But on a small plot in the back corner, we got an up-close look at how turfgrass science is evolving and impacting sports at every level.

But before we explain this... we need to explain why the playing surface is so important to elite athletes.

So, we asked the defending national champs, the Penn State women's soccer team, to break it down.

We always say that Penn State is the best place in the country to play college soccer.

And the number-one reason why is because of Jeffrey Field and the quality of the surface.

We play on some other fields that they might be turf.

They might be a different kind of grass.

But, honestly, when we play on a field like this, it's the best surface, and we have our best touches and our best moments out here.

We've had a moment where our goalkeeper has slipped on a surface in an away match, and it cost us the game, right?

One moment, one instance can cost you a match.

So often, soccer games are 1-0 or 2-1, and that one goal makes all the difference in the world.

For the players, performance is everything.

But the glory of the game can fade in the face of injury, and that brings us back to the science... and Andrew McNitt.

He's the director of the Penn State Center for Sports Surface Research.

A player interacts with the surface in two ways.

They either fall on it, or they have a player-to-shoe-to-surface interaction.

So, what we want to do is look at making that field very playable, but at the same time safe.

Defining a surface-related injury can be complicated.

But studies dating back more than 30 years link about 20% of sports injuries to the playing surface.

The most serious include sprains, broken bones, ligament damage, and concussions.

To improve safety, McNitt and his colleagues are focusing on two key factors -- traction and surface hardness.

We look at methods in both synthetic and natural to try to make that surface softer when a player impacts that surface so that would try to lower our chances of concussions.

At the professional level, field managers across the country measure surface hardness with one of these -- a Clegg impact hammer.

It looks a little like a bicycle pump.

Here's how it works.

The user drops a weight, and an accelerometer measures how fast it stops.

The harder the surface, the higher the score.

Testing like this is mandatory in the National Football League, and it's something McNitt would like to see at all levels.

We've actually heard from some administrators at high schools in the past that 'We don't want to know, because then we're liable if we know.'

However, those days are almost gone.

The idea that you can just put your head in the sand and pretend like these issues don't exist is rapidly becoming an old thought.

But not all athletes can choose where they play.

If you can't pick your field, what you put on your feet can make a big difference.

While there is a difference between synthetic turf and natural turf, as far as the amount of traction it provides, that difference is this large.

And when we start to look at the difference due to shoes, that becomes much larger.

So, shoe selection by coaches, athletes, parents, trainers is very important.

Safe or unsafe traction levels haven't been established, but McNitt and his colleagues are looking into it.

They've tested dozens of cleats and maintain a database on their website.

We don't have a safety cutoff, but we sort of have a gradient, and you can pick a shoe that is medium in traction.

So, you could try to reduce injury that way.

Parents should simply be aware that the equipment that their youth athlete wears is often as important as the surface they're playing on.

You can't have one without the other.