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Hybrid grass, football, and soccer: Can it work?

Hybrid grass is not a product that the average soccer fan is going to be familiar with but it has been growing in popularity in recent years. Some of the top clubs in the world play on it already and Toronto FC could be joining them before the Argos move in.

England really likes their hybrid grass
England really likes their hybrid grass
Laurence Griffiths

What do Arsenal, AZ Alkmaar, Aston Villa, Burnley, Cardiff City, Liverpool, Manchester City, Feyenoord, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Swansea City, Tottenham Hotspur, and the English National team have in common? Well, the simple answer is that they all play on a similar surface. The same surface type of surface was also used in multiple venues at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and will again be used this summer in Brazil.

That list is only a few example of teams that have installed hybrid playing surfaces in their stadiums and it is a list that Toronto FC will almost certainly join in the coming years. With the CFL's Toronto Argonauts set to move over to BMO Field the club needs to find a more durable playing surface. Natural grass would not be able to meet the demands of both teams and while only a few years ago a return to turf would have been the only option there is now an alternative in the market.

The leading product in hybrid surfaces which is used by all of those top clubs is known as Desso GrassMaster and it is not only used by soccer teams but also the Green Bay Packers and Denver Broncos of the NFL, and several European rugby teams.

GrassMaster has been most widely used in the United Kingdom so far where a number of clubs share facilities between their soccer team and a rugby team. In places like Doncaster, Leicester, Huddersfield, Watford, and even Swansea having a hybrid surface allows a single facility to support both soccer and rugby without having to deal with torn up grass or lines being left over when they switch from one sport to the other. GrassMaster has also been employed in facilities that face heavy demands from special events like Wembley Stadium in England, Aviva Stadium in Ireland, and even Stade de la Beaujoire in France. They can preserve their playing surface despite hosting large events on the field that would normally do serious harm to the grass.

Last fall was a prime example of just what Wembley Stadium is capable of doing thanks to their hybrid playing surface. On September 29th they hosted an NFL game between the Steelers and the Vikings. Two weeks later, on October 11th, they had the field ready to host a match between England and Montenegro which was followed by England against Poland just four days later. After that they had to change over to host a rugby match between Scaracens and Toulouse on the 18th. Then it was back to the NFL setup for the 27th when they hosted the Jaguars and 49ers. The pitch did get a bit of a break after that but it was back to being ready for soccer come November 15th when England hosted Chile and then Germany on the 19th.

The surface made it through all of those events without being destroyed and while still allowing the grounds crew to remove all the paint from the field between each event. It was a performance they have done at Wembley Stadium before and one that was only made possible by having a hybrid playing surface in place.

So what exactly is a hybrid playing surface all about? It is primarily a grass playing surface but what Desso Sports Systems do for their GrassMaster system is reinforce the grass with artificial fibres. The fibres are inserted roughly 20 CM into the ground with four fibres being used for every 2 CM squared. They leave about 2 1/2 CM of the fibre above the ground and to complete a field the size of the one of Wembley it takes them approximately 75,000 KM of synthetic fibres which is roughly 20 million blades made up of 114 million individual strands.

The process takes about 10 days to complete with three machines working nearly around the clock to get the job done. When it is completed the synthetic fibres intertwine with the natural grass allowing the blades to take deeper roots creating a stronger playing surface.

The benefit is that despite having all those synthetic fibres in the ground the majority of the playing surface remains grass and it continues to play similar to a grass playing surface. In fact, a lot of the success and quality of a hybrid surface comes down to the grass that is used and the proper maintenance of the grass. Once the synthetic fibres are in place the maintenance involved is very much the same as that with a natural grass surface but the surface is more resilient so there should be less need for repairs and the fibres allow for better drainage.

Another advantage of having a hybrid surface is that, unlike turf, you can adjust the firmness. Generally soccer teams will want to play on a softer pitch than an American football team will use so that added flexibility is useful. Like with grass the firmness of the surface can be altered either by rolling to add firmness or deep aeration to make it softer. Ideally the users would agree on a similar sort of playing surface to minimize the adjustment period when changing from one use to another.

The question with using a hybrid surface at BMO Field is that they would be putting it to a test that it has never really faced before. Wembley has gone from football to soccer to rugby and back again but even during their busiest time of the year they still have a decent amount of time to make the major change to and from the NFL setup with all its paint.

TFC and the Argos would not have the luxury of two weeks between games which would make it more difficult to remove all the lines that come from a football game. Normally those lines are pressure washed away but they take most of the grass with them in that process and it then requires time to regrow before being ready for the next event. That is what they do at Wembley to remove the thousands of gallons of paint that are left behind by an NFL game and it works thanks to having over a week to get it done.

In the case of stadiums that play home to both rugby and soccer teams the turnaround time is much shorter. Liberty Stadium is home to both Swansea City FC and Ospreys Rugby Club which means it hosts an average of 54 games a year between the two sports. That means high demand on the surface and the need for quick conversions between one sport and the other. The stadium is even capable of hosting soccer and rugby in the same weekend with the grounds crew able to make the conversion in 36 hours by working around the clock.

The difference between the lines for rugby and soccer are not that major though. In the case of Swansea they are able to green over the lines, which is essentially covering the white paint with a green that matches the playing surface, allowing the turnover to take place in less time. That works for rugby since you are removing very few lines but doing the same to all the lines from a CFL game would mean greening large chunks of the field which would not work.

It will help that the CFL end zones are not covered in paint like they often are in the NFL and they are also going to be located beyond the end of the soccer field. Removing that paint will not be the issue but it will be getting rid of all the yard lines and the collection of advertisements in the middle. That is a lot of paint to cover up or remove.

MLSE will need to find a solution for removing the lines that does not appear to exist on the current market. Having both teams playing will not leave time to wash off the paint and have the grass recover, there is too much paint to green over, and there appears to be no other option.

Tim Leiweke seems to think there is a way to make it work though. In an interview he did with Sportsnet in early January he suggested "there are now ways to do lines that are a paint-based concept where the paint literally can be taken right off and you'd never know it was there."

At the meeting last Wednesday night to discuss the expansion plans TFC's General Manager Tim Bezbatchenko was talking with our own Kristin Knowles about some elements of the plan. The club is still exploring options for the playing surface but they have not been shy about mentioning hybrid surfaces and GrassMaster is the leader in that field. They also mentioned that they are looking in to lines that will not be visible to fans and this won't happen if they can't find a way to make that work. Hopefully they are spending some of their billions on hiring scientists to design a paint that will work for this purpose and fade from the field between games or wash off without taking the grass with it.

There are products out there that make having a football team and a soccer team sharing the same field feasible. It has never been done like we are looking at in Toronto though and the timelines are where the issues seem to come in to play. Can they really work out a schedule where the two teams never play within 6 days of each other? That seems pretty doubtful if TFC ever return to the CONCACAF Champions League or make the playoffs.

The questions about the playing surface will probably not be answered until we actually see how this works out in reality. There are options out there besides turf but it is going to take a look of work to find a way to make this work. Colour me skeptical.