Football Pitches: Quality Revisited

During my annual leave fortnight, with the World Cup in full swing, I thought a revisit of research from 30 years ago might be interesting to see how this might influence considerations of different levels of pitch quality and maintenance we encounter today. The Pitch Prototypes Project, 1986-1990, was undertaken by the STRI and University College of Wales, Aberystwyth, and was funded by the then Sports Council and the Department of Education and Science.

The original research focused on what usage could be accommodated by different pitch types to ensure a minimum standard of surface and playing quality was maintained throughout the playing season.

Sustainable Usage

Sustainable Usage (page 29)

Source: Baker, S.W., Gibbs, R.J. & Adams, W.A. ‘Case studies of the performance of different designs of winter games pithes. I. Playing quality and usage’, The Journal of the Sports Turf Research Institute Vol. 68 (1992), 20-32

Carrying capacity estimates have also been presented as a relationship between pitch type and maintenance costs per game:

Cost per game and carrying capacity for different pitch types

Cost per game and carrying capacity for different pitch types

Source: W.A. Adams & R.J. Gibbs (1994) ‘Natural Turf for Sport and Amenity: Science and Practice’, CAB International, p.232

Current carrying capacity figures for natural turf football pitches are based on this research from 30 years ago. Sport England (‘Natural Turf for Sport’, 2011: 27) provide the following helpful information on carrying capacity for different pitch constructions:

Sport England, pitch carrying capacity

Sport England, pitch carrying capacity

The main significant differences from then to now could be considered the widespread use of a range of different reinforcement materials to aid surface stability in sand based pitches, the increased expectations of pitches from players, spectators and also ground staff and the increased attention to detail which is applied in many cases, especially the higher up the footballing leagues one goes.

The original research focused on what would be termed a ‘standard’ quality, but I’ve called this a 2 star level in my diagram below, as this fits neatly with the other categories I have used.

A range of other performance (quality) standards (PQS) have been developed in the intervening years, but no carrying capacity figures have been related to them, so only a partial picture is currently being provided. Whether the funds are available for a similar type of research project covering a wider range of standards is open to debate, although objective research is needed to help better understand the relationship between the increased levels of quality and the different pitch types, which would now include a range of different reinforced surfaces.

The diagram aims to give an indicative feel for the carrying capacity of different pitch types related to quality, although clearly more research is needed to provide better objectivity here, however, at least it provides food for thought.

I’ve left out pipe drainage / mole drainage pitches in this example as realistically they add very little benefit on their own to pitch carrying capacity. I’ve also just given a ‘typical’ figure for carrying capacity rather than a range like the earlier examples above.

Pitch Quality and Carrying Capacity

Pitch Quality and Carrying Capacity

The level of maintenance inputs and their effectiveness will clearly depend upon a range of factors, including geographic location, soil texture, quality of the soil profile (e.g. compaction, the amount of macro-pores for good water transmission), available resources, the attention to detail, the competence and capability of the ground staff, the appropriateness of the maintenance programme, the appropriateness of applied materials, any cancellation policy to avoid overuse at unsuitable times, ……

I’ve provided the illustrated example using four different levels of quality (I’ve rated these from 1 star to 4 star); the usage in number of games that might be achieved if that level of quality is to be consistently achieved (which I think is often the key point often misunderstood by many users, but not ground staff) as well as a very general indication of the total maintenance hours inputs required to sustain the surfaces to the different levels of quality. The data is only indicative but with the aim to help individuals reflect on the potential trends of what might be achievable.

To achieve anything like an average of 2 games per week (or 70 games over the season) – which is really what most clubs would want – then a pitch with a sandy soil looks like it is needed as a minimum, requiring a general maintenance input of 100 – 160+ hours. With many pitches in England most likely having a worse soil condition than this then clearly there is a need to determine how best can these other pitches be cost-effectively improved so that they can be maintained on a sustainable basis.

One major approach to help address this issue is the Parklife initiative from the FA, Premier League and Sport England (backed by Government), with the premise that “The Parklife demand model calculates the supply requirements for both AGP’s and good quality grass pitches based upon the demand from current local authority pitch hirers.” (2017, ‘Prospectus: Parklife Football Hubs National Programme‘, p.16)

Having hubs of well maintained artificial grass pitches, with a wider integrated complement of good natural grass pitches  will help provide a focus for ensuring that pitch provision is managed in a sustainable way. By this I mean that the consequences of any pitch construction, even if a natural soil pitch, are fully understood in relation to carrying capacity, desired level of quality, relevant hire charges (which could readily be varied to match the different levels of quality), an inclusive stakeholder group, and by ensuring adequate resources are available – materials, equipment / machinery and staffing (including training and education) – to ensure the pitches can be maintained appropriately.

You never know, but maybe with the excellent performance from England this year, that in 4 years time we might just make it to the next level as well.

Chris Gray, 13th July 2018