When the box arrived, school officials took turns gently stepping inside so their feet could get a feel for the small patch of soft surface. A few seconds later, like food critics carefully ruminating over the quality of food resting on their palates, they stepped out with their individual reviews.
The contents of the box delivered to the Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica, Calif., that day in 1999 passed the foot test, as well as other evaluations, and now cover the athletic fields and playground at the private K-12 school.
Kindergartners play games on the surface during recess, and 200-pound linebackers with size-12 cleats trample over it on the football field.
Like a small but growing number of other schools, Crossroads has switched from traditional grass athletic fields to a synthetic-grass surface that looks and plays like grass, school officials say, but requires hardly any maintenance, absorbs water so rainouts are infrequent, and offers some safety advantages.
Trading in the wear and tear of grass fields for a surface that doesn’t need much upkeep has been a welcome change, according to Frank Gillette, the plant manager at Crossroads. “It is a dream,” he said. “There is almost no maintenance.”
“It’s just taking off like wildfire,” said Nancy Castillo, the marketing-services coordinator at Southwest Recreational Industries, the Leander, Texas-based company that produces the synthetic surface, called AstroPlay.
In 1999, 19 high schools, two elementary schools, and nine colleges used AstroPlay, according to the company. Today, at least 40 high schools, four elementary schools, and 13 colleges have switched to the surface. Along with secondary schools, professional teams like the New York Giants of the National Football League and some European soccer teams use AstroPlay surfaces.
Other companies that produce similar products include 1st Turf Inc. in Tampa, Fla., and FieldTurf in Montreal.
Ray Ebersole, who heads an adjunct committee of the Indianapolis-based National Federation of State High School Associations looking into the variety of new artificial surfaces now available to schools, said schools are choosing such products for several reasons.
“School districts are looking in this direction because of space demands and the number of games they are playing on the same field,” he said.
Synthetic fields are installed like carpeting in deep patches to look like grass. Rubber pellets inside provide a soft filler so that when athletes fall, the impact is softer than on grass and said to be safer than on older- style artificial-turf fields. Artificial turf became popular among professional teams in the 1970s, but has a hard surface some sports officials have criticized for exacerbating injuries.
The first time Crossroads used the surface during athletic competition last year, torrential rains pounded the area. Three soccer games were scheduled back to back that afternoon. Because the synthetic surface has a network of underground pipes that quickly drains rainwater, all of the games were played.
“Had it been a sod field,” Mr. Gillette said, “it would have been destroyed on first usage.”
Joe Pica, an architect with the Los Angeles-based Pica & Sullivan Architects whose firm installed the surface for Crossroads as part of a larger project to upgrade the school’s athletic facilities, said that while schools usually express initial skepticism, word is spreading about the benefits of the new surface.
Higher Initial Cost
While installing an average soccer field using AstroPlay initially costs about $290,000—some $116,000 more than a traditional grass field—Mr. Pica said that after adding up the maintenance costs, the synthetic field pays for itself in three years.
Crossroads is the first school in the Los Angeles area to use the AstroPlay surface. But Mr. Pica said his firm has another interested client, the Westridge School for Girls in Pasadena, Calif. Westridge School, a 600- student private, college-preparatory school, at first shunned the idea of making the switch.
“My initial reaction was absolutely not,” said Brian Williams, Westridge’s facilities director. “I wasn’t even going to look at it.”
Mr. Williams traveled to a nearby school that uses a surface similar to AstroPlay and saw how much better the field looked than the older grass surface, which he said would be a “mud bowl” by the end of football season because of erosion. He came away impressed.
While a final decision won’t be made for a few months, Westridge is now considering installing a full-size soccer field and two full-size softball fields made of synthetic grass. Mr. Williams said the school would save the cost of one employee because of the reduced maintenance costs.
But some coaches, he said, are concerned about field temperature, which runs about 10 degrees hotter than natural grass because it reflects heat. Another potential problem is that gum or sunflower seeds can get caught in the surface and cause damage to the field by getting stuck in the drainpipes.
At East Rochester High School, a 7th-12th grade public school in Rochester, N.Y., athletic officials have given their new synthetic surface rave reviews. Mark Michele, the school’s athletic director, said that East Rochester used AstroPlay this past fall season after installing it over the summer.
Unlike older artificial-turf fields, which can cause athletes to get “turf toe” from sudden stops and suffer knee lockups because the harder surfaces don’t give as easily, synthetic grass helps limit athletes’ abrasions, Mr. Michele said.
“Our football kids love it because it’s soft when they fall,” he said. “The soccer players like it because you get a natural ball bounce. ... We can play on it 24-7, and it always looks great.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Turf Wars: A New Synthetic-Grass Product Takes the Field