Social impact

Chapter 8 of the Natural Grass vs. Synthetic Turf Surfaces Study Final Report.

User demand, perceptions and preferences

Cricket

The use of synthetic turf outfields for cricket is a new frontier.  In 2008 the AFL and CA released the criteria for synthetic turf to be used at the community level and the first certified field following these specifications is currently being developed at Point Cook, Victoria on the outskirts of Melbourne.  This ground will be used for training, and community competitions for both cricket and Australian Rules football.

As with other sports a major benefit of a synthetic turf oval will be the ability to schedule activity at any time and have consistent playing surface conditions.  There may also be a use in remote areas where water and maintenance is an issue, as it may be the only means of providing a quality playing ground.

The Western Australian Cricket Association sees the benefit for outfielding in terms of consistency of roll and the opportunity to program modified small games on a synthetic turf ground as they don’t require a cricket pitch.

Football (Australian Rules)

The use of synthetic turf for Australian Rules football is also a new frontier.  Synthetic turf ovals are not currently used in Australian Rules football and the AFL see the long term future of the game, at the elite level (State and National), being played on natural grass.

Construction of synthetic turfHowever, as discussed previously in this study, in 2008 the AFL and CA released the criteria for synthetic turf to be used at the community level and the first certified field following these specifications is currently being developed at Point Cooke, Victoria on the outskirts of Melbourne (Figure 1).  This ground will be used for training, and competitions for various levels of football and cricket.

Figure 1:  Construction of the first AFL and CA endorsed synthetic turf oval in Australia at Point Cooke, Melbourne.

As with other sports, a major benefit of synthetic turf grounds will be the ability to schedule activity at any time and the consistent playing surface conditions.  As more games are scheduled, there is the likelihood of an increase in participation which also has a positive social impact.

There may also be a use in remote areas where water and maintenance is an issue, as it may be the only means of providing a quality playing ground.

Hockey

As stated previously in this report hockey is well advanced in the provision of synthetic turf surfaces and these surfaces have been used for over three decades.

Hockey West have advised that natural grass is still preferred by the majority of veteran players, particularly given the recent rule changes that have increased the speed of the game.  They have seen a significant increase in the number of older in hockey teams (30+) that are moving from playing on synthetic turf to playing on natural grass.

Wet surfaces are still preferred by higher level players and juniors, and most grades are played on this type of surface in the Perth metropolitan area.

Wet dressed pitches can generally not be used for other sports although some junior sports have used the surface for modified games.  Sand dressed/filled pitches can be used for other sports such as tennis and lacrosse.

WA Hockey StadiumThe international body for hockey the FIH has been instigating innovation in terms of providing a surface that has similar levels of playability of a wet dressed synthetic turf but requires significantly less water to use.  A number of ‘hybrid’ or wet/dry products have been released to the market in recent years and this type of pitch has been installed at Aquinis College in Perth.

Figure 2:  WA Hockey Stadium which has two wet dressed hockey pitches

Lawn Bowls

The bowls community, particularly at the elite level, has a preference in general for the use of natural grass greens.  Natural grass is dormant between April and August and therefore is generally not used during this period.  Synthetic turf provides the opportunity for bowls to be played all year round.

In addition the following perceptions were provided by Bowls WA:

  • Of the 69 clubs in WA, 45 have at least one synthetic turf green and 10 clubs have all synthetic turf greens.  Country regions have a higher demand for synthetic turf primarily due to the green keeper skill shortage.
  • Synthetic turf has the benefit of all year round use and Bowls WA has found that it is mostly suitable to accommodate the social and corporate bowling markets.
  • Issues with synthetic turf include inconsistent role particularly as a surface ages or if the original base is not well constructed.
  • Greens tend to last between 6-7 years however the roll tends to be affected after five years.
  • Heat is a major issue and a number of clubs are installing or planning to install shade structures over their greens, therefore adding to the capital and ongoing maintenance costs.
  • Bowls WA is currently developing a guideline document for the development of synthetic turf greens for clubs.
  • Bowls Australia is developing a system which includes a list of specific contractors for base construction.

Synthetic turf lawn bowls 

Figure 3:  Synthetic turf lawn bowls green

Rugby Union

Rugby Union is a niche sport in WA, but there is a demand, as the sport has grown by over 65% in recent years.  The growth has primarily been in the Perth metropolitan area.  Clubs are often competing with other sports for green space to play competitions and train on, and the current facilities are accommodating the need, however, if the strong growth continues additional facilities/grounds will be required.

Synthetic turf surfaces are seen by Rugby WA as an option for training, however at this stage they could not see a need for access to synthetic turf fields for competition matches.

Other issues raised by Rugby WA included:

  • Rugby clubs tend to operate with low budgets, therefore cost increases could be an issue;
  • Traction is a key requirement for rugby particularly in scrum situations and this may be an issue on synthetic turf;
  • Priorities such as clubroom upgrades and other basic amenities are seen as priorities for clubs rather than access to synthetic turf field;
  • Concern was raised around multiple line markings for various sports and the compatibility of rugby and football (soccer);
  • Opportunities may exist to install synthetic turf in high use physical training areas; and
  • Risk management particularly in relation to player safety was raised as a potential issue.

Rugby being played on synthetic turf 

Figure 4: Rugby being played overseas on a synthetic turf field

Soccer

Although soccer is well advanced in terms of synthetic turf pitch provision worldwide within Australia it is a relatively new development.  Victoria is the state that is the most advanced, with over 40 synthetic turf pitches now in existence.  WA does not currently have a synthetic turf soccer pitch suitable for senior level games.

Synthetic turf is supported by the Football Federation of Western Australia (FFWA) and it is understood a prominent club in Perth is currently investigating the installation of a synthetic turf pitch.

The following perceptions were raised by the FFWA

  • Soccer has a strong demand for pitches across the state and sees that synthetic could assist with increasing capacity, particularly for training;
  • State league matches could not be played on multiple line markings however, at the community level this is not seen as such an issue;
  • Sees that the Council’s would have to drive the development of synthetic turf pitches into the future as many clubs would not have the resources to do so;
  • Perception that synthetic looks green all of the time so has aesthetic appeal; and
  • Recognises the water issues may drive the development of synthetic turf pitches in WA in the future.

Synthetic Soccer pitch

Figure 5:  Synthetic Soccer Pitch at Cheltenham, Victoria 

Tennis

Tennis, like hockey, has been exposed to synthetic turf surfaces for a number of decades.  As stated previously, tennis is the only sport that has multiple surface types for their elite competitions, i.e.; lawn, hard court (acrylic) and clay.  Synthetic turf is not endorsed for high level competitions but has proven to be a popular choice for clubs particularly in regional areas of WA.

The following perceptions and issues were raised by Tennis West

  • There is a demand for more casual use at non-traditional times such as week nights and week days;
  • WA and Perth in particular, has a high proportion of lawn courts compared with other states and this may not be sustainable into the future;
  • Tennis Australia financially supports the development of the Grand Slam surfaces (Acrylic, Lawn and Natural Clay).  Note:  Under the current program, the Australian Open Surface (cushioned acrylic hard court) and natural clay courts are given the highest level of subsidies by Tennis Australia (up to $18,000 per court).  Other acrylic surfaces and lawn courts are also supported financially to a lesser degree, however synthetic turf court surfaces are ineligible for subsidy with the exception of the lighting and fencing components;
  • The majority of country areas prefer synthetic turf over acrylic if lawn courts are unavailable/not sustainable primarily due to the heat issues associated with hard courts;
  • Tennis West sees a mix of surface types being provided in metropolitan Perth and an increase in the number of hard courts in the future;
  • Tennis Australia cites that acrylic surfaces are preferred as they facilitate improved skill development due to consistent bounce etc. Also acrylic is less expensive than synthetic turf from a lifecycle cost perspective;
  • There is no standard for synthetic turf provided by Tennis Australia although they are currently in the process of developing some guidelines.  Synthetic turf courts tend to be a slower court with variable bounce;
  • The preferred surface which is a cushioned acrylic the same surface used for the Australian Open is in the higher cost range. This may make it unaffordable for many local clubs; and
  • Only 15% of tennis participants are club members and Tennis West is looking at capturing the ‘casual’ market.

Aesthetic, wellbeing and mental health qualities

There are many variables when assessing people’s perceptions and personal views and benefits derived by the type of surface they prefer to play their sport on.  Some sports such as hockey and tennis, which have been using synthetic turf surfaces for many years, have participants that now prefer synthetic turf surfaces to traditional natural grass playing surfaces.  In other sports, where the technology is very new, and hasn’t had the time to advance and develop, many people may yet be unaware that endorsed synthetic turf options are available.

The following points are subjective and based on discussions with players, officials, researchers, product suppliers and visual inspections of a range of sites by the consulting team, but do offer some insight into the various qualities both surfaces offer.

Natural grass

  • Cooler feel, particularly in summer;
  • Softer and more forgiving;
  • Variable quality depending on the soil type and maintenance regime;
  • Traditional and served the various sports well for many years;
  • Natural and calming feel;
  • Pleasant smells e.g. freshly cut grass;
  • Visually appealing if well maintained; and
  • Provides environmental benefits in terms of carbon absorption and contribution to biodiversity.

Synthetic turf

  • Consistent surface;
  • Warmer and subject to glare when sunlight is present;
  • Consistent quality and set maintenance regime;
  • Modern and innovative product;
  • Artificial and unnatural feel;
  • Strong odour, particularly for synthetic turf with rubber granule infill;
  • Visually appealing as it looks ‘green’ all of the time;
  • Suitable in many types of weather conditions;
  • Durable and low maintenance; and
  • Provides environmental benefits in terms of water savings and reduced maintenance.  

General issues

In addition to the many issues raised in the previous sections of this report, there are some general social elements and impacts that need to be considered when investigating synthetic turf surfaces.

The effect on traditional club environments, including programming and scheduling needs to be considered.  For example, hockey was a traditional Saturday afternoon sport prior to the advent of synthetic turf.  As the number of synthetic turf pitches increased additional games were programmed at the new facilities.  Hockey is now played from Friday evenings to Sunday evenings with training on every other night of the week.

This is good from a facility usage perspective, however, it does interfere with the traditional after games social events and dinners that were previously scheduled on a Saturday evening.  This aspect does need to be considered for sports that are beginning to embrace synthetic turf surfaces as a district/regional level facility which will cater for a number of clubs.  They will have to address this issue as it goes to the core of many sporting club operations.

The benefit of this is having multiple clubs and users utilising the one facility.  In some cases, the facilities may be used for multiple sports and will assist in ensuring the ongoing viability of the facilities which have synthetic turf surfaces, as the initial cost of construction of synthetic surfaces, in many cases is higher than traditional natural grass surfaces.