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FieldTurf at Soldier Field would benefit Bears, city, taxpayers

DevHester tears out chunk Soldier Field sod. The speedster once said he would like play artificial surface. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Devin Hester tears out a chunk of Soldier Field sod. The speedster once said he would like to play on artificial surface. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:24AM

In an age of commercialism, there’s much to admire about ­Soldier Field:

The refusal to sell the name to the highest bidder, or pack in more seats, even though it has the ­smallest seating capacity of any stadium in the NFL.

But the time has come for the Bears to embrace one modern movement so they can — literally — stop having to defend their turf.

They need FieldTurf.

A change will benefit everyone involved, from the Bears to the ­Chicago Park District to the ­taxpayers, who ultimately foot the bill.

“Traditionally, it’s always been natural grass,” said professor Michael Meyers, a senior research scientist at Montana State University. “But players have woken up to higher-tech equipment and play-calling, and now it’s time to step up to higher-tech playing surfaces.

“These players are running Mach 2, with their helmets on fire. FieldTurf is just the most consistent surface.”

Grass vs. other surfaces

On Tuesday, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he has tasked the Park District to make the “tough choices and the choices that are responsible” to serve players and fans who come to Soldier Field.

The Park District, though, doesn’t make the decision on the playing surface, instead deferring to the Bears, its primary tenants.

“Contractually, they have equal say,” said Luca Serra, the director of sponsorship and media at ­Soldier Field. “Technically speaking, we’re not able to make a unilateral stance.”

Bears chairman George McCaskey told the Sun-Times it’s an organizational decision to play on grass, noting that team president Ted Phillips spearheads a discussion that includes coach Lovie Smith, general manager Jerry Angelo and members of the training, equipment and groundskeeping staffs.

McCaskey said some players do provide feedback.

“But it’s not a vote,” McCaskey said. “The vote could be one way one week and another way the next week.”

On Sunday and Monday, the Sun-Times polled 32 players expected to make the regular-season roster. Only a dozen voted for FieldTurf, two for DD GrassMaster, which is featured at Lambeau Field, and the remaining 18 for grass . . . with a caveat.

“Natural grass,” Bears Pro Bowl linebacker Lance Briggs said. “But good natural grass.”

But to pin the blame on the Park District is largely unfair.

The Family Fest gaffe aside — when general manager Tim LeFevour admitted they didn’t water the field enough — the complaints from players generally come late in the season. Usually, grass becomes a challenge to grow by mid-October.

“Unfortunately, Mother Nature plays a much bigger role on us,” Serra said. “It doesn’t become as amplified if we had a synthetic field. But we’re doing everything humanly possibly to provide an NFL-caliber field.”

McCaskey said the chief concern is player safety, noting that there aren’t any studies that support that grass isn’t the safest playing surface for football.

Meyers has authored two studies published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine about grass vs. FieldTurf, one at the high school level and one at the college level. In the latter, over the course of three years, he evaluated 24 universities, and he determined there were fewer injuries, across the board, on FieldTurf as opposed to grass.

He said he has communicated with the NFL about leading a study, but it has declined. The league, however, did provide — although it did not publicize it — a study about injuries on grass vs. artificial surfaces.

“The only two published studies [on the subject] are mine,” Meyers said. “I’ve seen [the NFL study], and there are some tremendous challenges. If it wasn’t the NFL, we wouldn’t even be talking about the study, to tell you the truth.”

Specifically, Meyers said, the league’s study doesn’t factor in weather, noting that more injuries happen when there’s rain, snow or freezing conditions that make the playing surface concrete hard.

“They look at injuries in a vacuum,” Meyers said. “You have to take [weather] into consideration.”

Meyers openly divulged that FieldTurf paid for 40 percent of the cost of his college study, yet he insisted that he isn’t providing FieldTurf any favors.

“I’m just a conduit,” said Meyers, who received the data from college athletic trainers. “I have over 3 million bits of data. Do you think I could manipulate that? If I could, then I would try to win the Nobel Prize.”

Options and costs

A couple of years ago, when he heard the Green Bay Packers were changing their playing surface, Bears receiver Devin Hester said he was jealous.

“I want something like that,” he said. “I think that right there would help our offense out.”

That’s because the Bears are a team built for speed. Smith’s defense is predicated on an explosive front seven, and his offense features two of the league’s fastest players, Hester and receiver Johnny Knox.

But Hester said he has slipped far too many times at Soldier Field, although he acknowledged that the Bears still have a home-field advantage.

“We know the spots that are terrible,” Hester said.

The Bears are among a diminishing number of northern-climate football teams — pro or college — to still play on grass, joining, most notably, the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers.

Ten of 12 Big Ten teams play on FieldTurf, although Northwestern is one of the exceptions. And seven NFL stadiums, including New Meadowlands Stadium (home of the Jets and Giants), have FieldTurf.

But there are greater reasons to make a change, beyond the consistency of the playing surface in winter.

The cost is reasonable, and the gains are palpable.

The Park District pays about $500,000 a year to resod the field.

A FieldTurf representative said the projected cost to install his product at Soldier Field would be about $750,000, including sub-base work.

Mike McGraw, president of Desso Sports Systems, projected the installation of DD GrassMaster — a hybrid surface that weaves 20 million fibers into natural grass — to cost about $400,000.

Neither requires an ­annual maintenance cost, and both can be completed within two weeks. During the 2006 season, ­FieldTurf was installed at Gillette Stadium — home of the New ­England Patriots — in nine days.

While FieldTurf has a higher price tag than DD GrassMaster, the annual maintenance cost would be cheaper because the latter still features actual grass.

But both systems are more durable than grass, enabling the Park District to expand the ­number of events it hosts at ­Soldier Field, thus ­generating more ­revenue. Soldier Field ­averages about $5 million a year in profit, but that figure could jump ­dramatically if it was able to hold more events on the actual field.

“When the technology for an artificial surface gets to the point where we feel that’s the best surface for our team, primarily considering player safety, then we would make the move,” McCaskey said.

Added Serra, “We’re ready to make the transition to an artificial surface when [the Bears] are ready to go.”

That time is now.

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