Back in May, on the heels of another loss at Gillette Stadium, I dedicated a 6ix on a Wave to the subject of turf in MLS. I had some questions. I threw out some merciless hot-takes. I wondered, as we all do from time to time, if synthetic turf should be outright banned for professional soccer in North America.
Off the back of this, I was invited to have a chat with Robert Heggie, Head Groundskeeper at BMO Field and passionate member of the Sports Turf Managers Association, to set the record straight and discuss some of those knee-jerk reactions in detail. The timing was nearly perfect, as BMO itself was scheduled to get a facelift only a few weeks later in early-June.
I connected with Rob via phone during the opening ceremony of the World Cup (we both had Robbie Williams on mute — totally missed the ‘double-birds’). After a charming hour-long back and forth, I can safely say that Robert Heggie sure knows his “(s)turf” (sorry, simply could not resist).
Rob should already be familiar to the Toronto FC faithful thanks to his social media kung-fu. The BMO grounds crew maintains an active presence on the Internet, which is something of a rarity in professional sports. They pull back the curtain on their processes and the challenges they face, and it’s massively appreciated by the fans, myself included.
“It helps elevate what a groundskeeper does in a professional demeanor. It is a very professional industry. We’re handling multi-million-dollar budgets. We deal with chemistry, math, science, biology. There’s a bit of everything in there. I use [social media] as a tool to inform the supporters and [others] that we do our best. It’s just when you come to a natural living surface, sometimes it has its ups, and it has its downs.”
Born in Barbados, Rob has worked in the industry since he was fourteen years old, pretty much by accident.
“I just kind of fell into it,” he says. “I finished high school and then started working on a golf course. [I took] a couple of night courses, turf courses, did really well and really enjoyed myself, and I kind of went running with it from there. No real aha moment. I’m one of those believers that certain people’s jobs find them. This job found me.”
Rob next attended the University of Guelph and studied both Horticulture and Turf Grass Management. In 2010, after seven years at Club Link, Rattle Snake Point Golf Course, He took over as head groundskeeper at BMO, at first a technicality, seeing as he was the only groundskeeper there.
“My staff went from just me doing everything, and slowly grew up to a staff of fourteen people, between the two facilities,” he says. “I have four assistants and a whole bunch of foremen and laborers and all that good stuff. The department has really grown.”
“I went to school for horticulture before I went for turf. There’s not many properties and facilities that you get these types of tools and instruments that we get here with the Grow Lights and the Covers, so really, to me, this is the pinnacle of horticulture. The pinnacle of turf is when you have all these tools. I don’t like to say it, but you’re playing God when you’re supporting every aspect of the plant growth. Because it’s almost a greenhouse production but on a massive scale. You’re actually growing grass outside, not plants in a pot.”
I wondered, considering the science involved, if Rob had any ties to the world of Academia:
“I talk all the time. I was at Ohio State a couple of months ago and I was over there at Wembley and Wimbledon in England and I’m going again next week. I talk at the University of Guelph constantly. A lot of what I do is just anecdotal, unfortunately, because the money isn’t there to do a lot of the research that they’d like, but anecdotal isn’t a bad thing. When you talk to certain people, you know they know their stuff. You don’t necessarily need the science facts, you have to trust your gut sometimes. But I definitely stay in touch with those types of people and push the industry the most professional way we can.”
He was quick to add “The investment from MLSE into TFC — bar none, I don’t think it’s matched in North America for any sport. Maybe NFL, but with the NFL a lot of the times they don’t really invest. They just rip it out and put new grass in or they just put turf down.”
I suggested that the NFL has “Hollywood Money,” in that they can simply toss cash at any problem. “We have a lot of MLSE money.” Rob answered. “MLSE has money, as everyone knows, but it’s not the same as the NFL world”.
What it’s like to be TFC’s Groundskeeper
I next asked Rob about the ups and downs specific to his job:
“There’s always your pros and your cons. This has been my ninth season with TFC, so I did the original conversion from artificial turf to natural grass. Four or five years later we did the construction of the practice facility up at Downsview, its four natural pitches and an artificial pitch, plus the gardens and all that jazz. So, I have been overseeing it; Along with that, the quality obviously has gone up, because what Aaron Winter wanted and what Preki wanted, isn’t the same as what [Paul] Mariner wanted, isn’t the same as what [Ryan] Nelsen wanted, isn’t the same as what the current coach [Greg Vanney] wants.”
“As your players get better, or your players come from overseas, they’ve played on higher quality pitches, and they’re a little bit more demanding on high cut feeds, and then firmness and things like that, which really drives the grounds department, because the grounds department is not going to get any money or anything when we ask, but when a player asks, and a player is not getting what he wants, that’s what really gives the Grounds Department the voice that they need. We can ask until we’re blue in the face. We might get it, but if Michael Bradley is not happy with the surface that he’s playing on, very quickly you’re more likely to get some help.”
“The least favourite would just be the hardships of being a groundsman, explaining what we find to be common sense to the public which might not be common sense. Or just the frustration, like having to defend ourselves in February why our grass wasn’t great. We really need to get into the logistics of biology and why grass doesn’t grow on February 27? But I did have to explain myself over and over and over again, even though to me, it should just be common sense. ‘Hey! The grass is green. It looks good.’ That’s good enough, but everyone wants the playability. I make everyone aware that playability is a tough thing in February.”
What? No grass in February?
I next asked Rob if he agrees with my perception that MLS is a testing ground for these newer technologies to see how they will be incorporated into the world game, using VAR as the obvious example.
“I think the North Americans are a little more comfortable with taking a risk here and there. Our stadiums aren’t 200 years old. We don’t have the history that the Europeans do. I think the some of the Europeans are little more hesitant; they deal with what they know and are a little bit hesitant to try what they don’t.”
I felt it was high time to get some clarity on what had gone down at BMO. I asked Rob to explain the timing and rationale for the decision to re-sod the surface.
“This decision was made last year when they said they wanted to start February 27th and I said your field is just going to deteriorate. From February 27th until we re-sod, your field is going to deteriorate. They knew, we knew, that the schedule was aggressive — between starting in February and having the CONCACAF, having MLS games, and all these TFC II games that no one seems to remember about, and you have all these training sessions for the Mexican teams. I had 18 events at BMO field before we re-sodded it from February 27 to May 26. That’s a very aggressive schedule. There are stadiums in North America that do 18 events over months and months and months in the middle of the summer, never mind starting in February. So, we knew that the schedule was over-loaded. We knew that the schedule was aggressive. We knew we were going to have field condition issues. We hoped that we wouldn’t, but you never know with Mother Nature. When you ask me in October what it’s going to do in February, I don’t know Mother Nature’s phone number so –- when you get it, let me know, right?
“I can give you the best-case scenario, I can give you the worst-case scenario. Last year was a pretty warm winter, February fools people that haven’t been in Canada for very long that, hey, maybe February won’t be so bad and in March we can start growing grass and all that, because that’s what we did last year. As you know, this year was a little more of a traditional Canadian winter. It dragged on, so that’s why we had so many difficulties. It’s just Mother Nature and the limitations of the natural grass surface.”
I find Canadians forget en masse how warm the summers are, how cold the winters are. So every year we’re surprised. “Oh, it’s hot! What happened?” I expressed to Rob that it sounds to me like he had a meeting and decided things are not going to be ideal.
“Right, [TFC] wanted to start in their stadium. They didn’t want to go down to the Rogers Centre and pay the Rogers Centre, and lose the fans, and lose the intimacy of the venue. I believe that’s why they wanted to come to the stadium, just because it’s their home, but obviously that came with issues and we just kept on bowing to those issues. Like, for example, we had February 27, we had March 1 or 2, and we had March 7 or whatever. We had three games in the first week, which is crazy enough. My issue was with the MLS game, because MLS didn’t have to put that game there. CONCACAF is CONCACAF and we’re stuck with CONCACAF, that’s a world schedule. But MLS did not have to come to Toronto on March 2. It wasn’t fair on any of the schedule, between the field and the team and everything else, Major League Soccer, they kind of dropped the ball on that one.”
BMO gets a new face
I asked Rob if there were any surprises during the re-sod process.
“No, it was all standard. We tried a few little things here and there, like conditioning the field with certain fertilizers, certain hormones, before we cut the sod out of the field, like on the Hamilton side. We think that might have helped with the root growth and the success we had over the past couple of weeks, but nothing out of the norm for this job.”
I wondered how long it’s going to be before he has to start thinking about re-sodding again.
“This field’s probably good at least until the end of this year, but then we’re probably going to be sticking hybrids into the field, if it’s the option we go with. If we go with that hybrid option then we’re never going to re-sod again. That is a thing of the past, basically.”
The “H” Stands for “Hybrid”
It turns out that I knew very little about Hybrid Surfaces (much more on that later) beyond the obvious — that Hybrid surfaces are an attempt at the best of both worlds; primarily natural grass but turbocharged with synthetic fibres. Rob was quick to correct my assumption that Hybrid systems begin and end with a single vendor, Grassmaster.
“Not necessarily,” he cautioned. “There’s Sisgrass, There’s Grassmaster, there’s Hero. There’s dozens of different types of hybrid grass. Grassmaster was your original, but they’ve been losing market share pretty quickly. A lot more Sisgrass is being stitched these days to the death of Grassmaster. Certain stadiums like [Anfield] in Liverpool, just re-stitched [Grassmaster], but I think it also comes back to people stitching what they know and not necessarily wanting to try something that might be newer and better which is the Sisgrass, Hero, or any of those other options.”
With this new knowledge, I had to wonder just how competitive these rival systems are. Do they offer perks for choosing them over the other options?
“No, not really.” Rob answered “They all have their advantages. One might have a stronger fiber, One might have a faster machine. One has two colours of artificial fibre they sew in. There are benefits and downsides to all the products, just like everything in the world. You pick whatever you’re most comfortable with and whatever you feel will be best for your climate. Because, even for me, talking to someone in Spain or talking to someone in Brazil, that’s not Toronto, I’m better off talking to Alan [Johnson] in Green Bay, for example. Green Bay had six hybrid fields that are all Grassmaster. This year, they ripped out the stadium field and stitched Grassmaster’s competitor, Sisgrass. So that says right there why some people would own six and get rid of one and use the competitor, right?”
It was at this point I decided to admit that I had come to this interview thinking the re-sod just past had been, in fact, the switch to a hybrid surface. Of course, it occurred to me that I had already answered my own question.
“No, the transition to Grassmaster is going to be a lot longer.” Rob chuckled. “This took 22 hours. With the Grassmaster, we’re going to be re-doing the irrigation system, upgrading the hydronic system, stitching in the hybrid, lots of things are going to be going on. That’s an off-season thing.”
It’s a jungle out there
It seemed time to quiz Rob on one of my bigger hot-takes in the original op-ed, the lack of available information on what FIFA and MLS standards are for playing surfaces. To say Rob’s response was a surprise is a massive understatement.
“Neither of them have any rules.”
I nearly did a spit-take.
“You’d think that, wouldn’t you?”
I brought up the mini-pitch that NYCFC play on at Yankee Stadium (I prefer to call it a ‘turbo-pitch’ on account of that 7-0 aggregate thrashing we gave them in the 2016 playoffs) as an example of a playing surface that has to be on the knife’s edge of legality.
“59 yards – it’s not even.” Rob answered.” It’s smaller than what they’re telling everyone it is. From my eyeball, where the 18-yard line meets the 11-yard hash on the side, it’s not what’s advertised. Because the 11-yard hash is 11 yards, and the 18-yard box is 44 yards wide – next time you’re there, add everything up in your head.”.
I was flabbergasted, and suggested this is akin to the wild wild west.
“The only thing that is dictated is the sizing of the pitch. I think it’s 100 yards to 120 long and 65 to 75 wide. That’s all they really have for standards. They have a suggested mowing pattern, but they don’t have anything to do with, like, firmness. The NFL tests for firmness with their sledgehammers for concussions. I do all these measurements anyway, every game. I share them with the coach. I share them with the team, but the league doesn’t have any sort of standard from field to field.”
Rob continues, “It’s mental, but that’s also what home field advantage is in soccer. Like If TFC is going to D.C., maybe D.C. grows the grass up to 2 inches and they soak the hell out of it so the ball just plugs and TFC doesn’t get that game that they want. Counter to that, you come to BMO Field, its a very hard pitch and we cut it very short, so now, certain teams have trouble keeping their feet on the ball because the ball is always just zipping past them. With FIFA, there’s maybe a paragraph about field condition, but if you ask FIFA what they have to say about artificial grass, they’ll give you something that’s probably 900 pages long. They have all the information in the world about artificial grass and FIFA star ratings, FIFA 1-Star, FIFA 2-Star, but not a lick of information about natural grass. The groundskeepers, we all sit around at our conference every year yelling at MLS, and saying that this is ridiculous.”
I never would have guessed for all the world that there wasn’t some kind of boiler-plate standard, because essentially what Rob is saying is that the playing surface becomes another chess move in your game plan.
“Yeah, totally. You can change the game to suit, basically.”
I asked Rob how much time he gets to realize these requests.
“It’s just a healthy balance of agronomy and growing the grass correctly and keeping the players happy. You can’t do 100% of both. We do the best we can with the time that we have. If we want to slow someone down, we just grow the grass up. we stop mowing it. Cut it up to 2 inches. Really soak the field for a couple of days, and just before the game to get it good and wet. I’m talking about soaking the soil profile so that when you walk across it, you’re actually losing energy because your cleats are sinking in while you walk. Contrary to that, if you had a slow team coming in and you want to screw with them by speeding the pitch up, we cut it shorter, dry it out, give it a couple more rolls than you normally would. Then they’re going to have trouble on their first and second touches because the ball’s going to be jumping around too much.”
I found this absolutely fascinating, so Rob went into a bit more detail:
“Groundskeepers play a role. Take Major League Baseball; if you have fast or slow infielders, the ball tends to follow the grain of the grass. If you were to mow all of your grass towards the foul line, you’re actually going to produce the ball on a bunt to more likely roll foul. You’re going to bunt it, it’s going to hit the grass and it’s going to kick the grain of the grass and the potential is to roll out before it gets to the base because of the mow pattern. If you have slow infielders, a lot of the time you’ll notice the infield is mowed towards the foul line to speed the ball up to get it out of play, so that [the opposing team] can’t bunt, basically. There’s a lot that goes into grass that people don’t think about.”
Turf bad. Grass good.
I took this as my cue to get down and dirty with perhaps my biggest hot take from the article, this false binary argument from the Eurosnobs that “Artificial Turf = Bad / Natural Grass = Good”. It’s an argument used to support the tired position that MLS is “bush league” because of these artificial playing surfaces. An argument proven false because, after writing the article, I found out just how many Stadiums in Europe, how many Soccer Palaces, had already been stitched with Hybrid systems.
“Oh yeah, more than half of them.” Rob offered.
I asked him why it seemed to me to be such a guarded secret.
“Because that’s not artificial, right?” He corrected. “Grassmaster is 5% artificial and 95% natural, and if it’s grown well, you don’t know the difference, so it still plays like a natural pitch.”
A bit deflated by this, I whisper-asked Rob if he agreed with the dichotomy of opinions on artificial turf.
“Yeah, a little bit. I like my artificial field in December, January, February and besides that, I wouldn’t go on it either, if I were them. I couldn’t pay a professional athlete to go on that field. They just want the natural grass.”
As for the players suiting up for huge games on these hybrid surfaces, Rob offered; “They don’t even know it’s there. If you went to half of these stadiums that have Grassmaster and you asked the players “Do you know there’s synthetic stuff bunched in there?” They wouldn’t even know. “What are you talking about? This is grass.”.”
Still pushing the issue, I wondered how much publicity, if any, the restitching to Hybrid received at the outset, because, for the sake of the faulty Eurosnob argument, 5% artificial is still artificial.
“I don’t think anyone’s interested.” Rob stressed. ”I don’t see why anyone would have a problem with that. If these places like Lambeau Field, for example, they’ve had it for the last 11 years, Reading has just ripped theirs out but had it up there for 15 years, Liverpool had it for 17 years and they ripped it out and re-stitched it it this year, so a lot of them have had it for so long there probably was a press release 17 years ago and it went to the wayside and no-one talked about it again, right, because the grass holds together. If a hybrid field failed, then you’d be talking about it.”
He continued, “A good example, Green Bay, three years ago, they hosted the San Francisco 49ers in January. The field was as brown as brown can be, but the field held together and the only reason was the hybrid system. At that point, there was a lot of people talking about it. (TV) talked to the groundskeeper before the game. It was showcased — ‘Hey, look how bad this grass looks, but we’re still playing.’ A hybrid surface, grown well, you don’t know it’s there, and then even when the field starts to deteriorate — you look at a lot of EPL, Bundesliga stadiums towards the end of their seasons, the goalmouth’s dead, from the mouth to the 12 yard dot, basically, but you never see someone slipping or sliding or it chunking up, and the reason is because that 5% is what’s holding everything together toward the end of the season.”
Sensing my disappointment at having my hot-take doused in cold water, Rob was quick to add “I don’t think most people even know what the word “hybrid pitch” even really means.”
“I cut my head grass at three-quarters of an inch. The hybrid would only stick out a quarter of an inch from the soil. Really, you don’t even know it’s there. It’s just giving that root zone and the crown of the plant room to survive.”.
Besides, Rob stressed, the difference between “natural” and “artificial” in 2018 is a game of inches. “When I have the grow lights and the covers and everything else out there, I’m defying Mother Nature on every other angle.”
“[Hybrid] comes with its ups and its downs. It’s definitely going to have its challenges through the winters and renovating it every year, but I’ll take that headache over the headache of Michael Bradley, Seba and all them being upset with the field and complaining about it.”
CanMNT to open World Cup 2026 at BMO Field?
Winding the chat down, I switched gears to the World Cup, seeing as the bid of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico had just been successful, and the ink was still wet on Canada, and BMO Field, getting some World Cup goodness in 2026.
“I would put $1,000 on it right now that Team Canada plays on BMO Field today (June 13, 2026) because today (June 13, 2018) is actually the first day of the World Cup, so that match will be today in eight years.”
I asked him what hosting World Cup matches means in terms of the pitch at BMO:
“It’s hard to say. MLSE have been very gracious on what they’ve spent on the grounds department over the past eight years. We really almost have it all, but who knows what new technology will come out in the next eight years. I don’t foresee any massive changes between now and then except for new technology, new fertilizer, new feed, things like that. I think there would be a few modifications because I do believe there is no pedestrian seating on the ground level of the World Cup — so all those BMO seats, and the Ferrari seats at field level, I’m pretty sure all those have got to go. Everything on the ground level is basically for the play. I think the field of play is fine, it’s full size down there so that’s not the problem, I think we don’t have enough extra.
“I think we have to put artificial grass around the entire field. Because if you look at how much grass there is on the field when they play the World Cup, it’s not just the field, it’s the training surfaces and there’s a lot of extra. It would be more changes to the building than the grass. It will be more interesting to see where they have all the teams practice. Canada Soccer has some investment to do in the next eight years. You figure we’re going to have eight or more teams playing out of Toronto, and that each one deserves their own practice facility with one or two fields, and those fields have to be comparable to the fields they’re playing on (BMO Field). Those fields need to be cut at three-quarters of an inch and maintained at a high level.”
I asked him if he thinks the stadiums the Canadian Premier League will play in might be repurposed for such use.
“The thing about them is the artificial grass.” Rob mused. “I’d be on board in helping them in any way I can, but I don’t see the Canadian Premier League having enough money for natural grass. A big part of why TFC II is not playing at the OSA Centre anymore is that it’s the slowest artificial turf you can find anywhere in Ontario. They’re going to have a similar problem at Lamport Stadium. Lamport was designed more for a rugby turf. They’re going to get out there and start kicking the ball around and I think it will be as slow as the OSA Centre. The players are only as good as the surface they’re playing on, and a lot of these artificial surfaces need to be multi-use, so they don’t put down the appropriate surface for a professional soccer player. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out.”
Too many carpet salesmen
I offered that this is all down to the almighty buck, and Rob’s back went up:
“It is and it isn’t. I think there’s a lot of good carpet salesmen in the world. If I was to put artificial grass in you’re looking at a million or so to install an artificial grass surface. You’re going to have another $400,000 to $500,000 on the back end for the removal of that surface. Let’s call it a $1.5-2 million investment. Let’s call it $2 million, because every year you have to do maintenance and it might last 10 years. It’s closer to seven or eight years, but let’s call it 10 — It’s just easier for the math. That’s $200,000 per year over the next 10 years, so it amortizes out that way.”
“Now, for a grass surface, I could build a nice natural grass surface, with irrigation and proper drainage, not a BMO Field, but a nice grass surface, that will be operable from the beginning of May to the end of October. So it can’t do what an artificial does, I’m not saying that it can run a full season once a year, but it will be from May 1 to the end of October, and that’s your season, really, anyway. I can build a nice natural grass for $3-400,000. That leaves me $1.6-1.7 million to maintain that field over the next 10 years. To maintain one acre at that kind of cost, you can have a really nice piece of grass. But people don’t sit down and cost it out, and then some carpet salesman comes in and tells them that they can buy this thing for $1 million outright, and they never have to maintain it, and they can put as many hours on it as they want. Some of this is valid. You can put a lot more hours on it, you don’t see the damage, but there’s not enough people picking natural grass, and saying ‘Hey, if you build it right, and you invest a bit of money, it can compare to what you’re doing over there, and you don’t have these carcinogens, you don’t have the heat exhaustion,’ all these types of things that come with the artificial.”
With that, I thanked Rob again for keeping our church on the Lakeshore in such good stead, and called time on our chat. I had certainly been schooled on some of my assumptions, and been broadsided by some new information. I’m still hot-blooded, possibly even more, by the Eurosnobs and their cries of foul on anything artificial, but I’m even more incensed by the lack of standards on natural grass throughout world soccer. It was a real treat to discuss this with someone as knowledgeable and personable as Rob. I can’t speak for the team, and where they will end up after the dust settles on this bizarre season, but I would bet the farm that, thanks to Rob Heggie and his staff, the pitch at BMO will be in great hands.