Sunday night’s game between Seattle Sounders and Houston Dynamo at CenturyLink Field looked like the aftermath of a tire fire, and thanks to a national broadcast, everybody online took note. When the Sounders kicked off ESPN2′s Sunday night game, the turf at CenturyLink looked like it’d be drenched in ash, with the black, rubber pellets used to revitalize FieldTurf surfaces coming through new fertilizer on newly laid sod. With Amazon having used the venue for a corporate event the day before, the grounds crew had less time than usual to prepare for the game.
Though concentric circles radiating from the center spot spoke to the team’s effort, the display was still a detractor’s dream. Only a Mickey Mouse operation like MLS would allow something like this to happen.
No doubt, appearances gave a poor impression, and according to multiple players, the unsettled pellets created a more irregular, bouncy surface. While they also created a more forgiving field, thereby addressing the biggest concern with CenturyLink’s normal state, the display still gave turf-haters a chance to pounce. See how ridiculous this fake stuff can be?
The claim is also pretty ridiculous. Anybody drawing broad conclusions on FieldTurf based on Sunday’s outlying conditions were missing why the state was newsworthy. Seattle’s, normally a hard, fast surface tailored for the NFL’s Seahawks, field is normally the opposite of too bouncy. Acting like Sunday’s condition is something other than an extreme outlier is not only wrong, it misses the point.
(Ironically, the biggest problems with CenturyLink before Saturday were always about natural grass. When temporary surfaces were laid for Chelsea, Manchester United, and the U.S. Men’s National Team, huge seams formed before games, with passes played along the ground finding ridges between squares of sod. Potential injury was a spoken concern before the U.S. faced Panama last summer.)
The detractors’ point is that turf, under normal conditions, is unacceptable. Part of their case is based on tradition, another is based on aesthetics — be it how it looks or how its plays – while others are concerned about player injuries and recovery. Altogether, the use of synthetic surfaces is seen as a credibility issue.
On the ground in markets like Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, though, the use of artificial turf is a non-issue. If people are staying away because of turf, they’re also so far from the conversation that it’s doubtful they’d come back if natural grass was installed. Fans of the Sounders, Timbers, and Whitecaps don’t tie any of their teams’ identity to the carpet on the field. If there’s credibility to be lost, it’s happening out-of-market.
Unfortunately for that argument, evidence suggests two teams that play on turf games are drawing some of MLS’s biggest TV audiences. Seattle versus Portland games are regularly among the league’s most viewed events, with the Sounders carrying high numbers even when they’re not playing the rival Timbers. Among NBC’s top markets in it’s first season of MLS coverage (2012), Seattle and Portland ranked second and third. If turf is pushing fans away from the game, neither attendance nor television ratings tells that tale.
A greater likelihood is those that have turned their backs on turf, many of whom reveled on Sunday’s fiasco, are not going to make-or-break the league. While their concerns are not without merit, those who are willing to consume the games have created a sustainable market. It’s unclear why MLS should prioritize “fixing” New England, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver when only anecdotal evidence suggests anything’s broken.
Most of the people who could potentially put the league over the top – those who devote more time to the NFL or college sports – are already watching leagues that play on artificial surfaces. FieldTurf (and its competitors) have a number of issues, but credibility concerns that keeping people away from games aren’t among them.
For those who still dwell on the issue, trends hint they’re on the wrong side of history. Many top-flight clubs now have at least one practice field with artificial turf, while other prominent clubs (Arsenal included) now play on hybrid surfaces that blend artificial and natural elements. Companies like Nike and adidas develop gear with alternative surfaces in mind, while FieldTurf and the rest of the industry continue producing products with more natural play. As those products continue to improve, artificial surfaces will become more prevalent, particularly where cost, climate, or use by other sports is a major concern.
Critics will cite injury concerns, but again, they’re assumptions that are quickly becoming outdated. Turf has evolved. While people’s association with the surface may be its last days’ at places like Loftus Road, new surfaces may be as safe as grass, even if recovery, aesthetics, and tradition remain concerns.
That doesn’t mean people are going to be won over any time soon, but as more teams like Bayern Munich, complimentary of Portland’s pitch after last week’s All-Star Game, have positive experiences, concerns will wane. In the future, the debate may be less about grass versus turf than good field versus bad field, regardless of what that field’s makeup. No amount of focus on Seattle’s fiasco will change that course.