History of Synthetic Turf

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Introduction to synthetic turf

In 1965, the Astrodome in Houston, Texas was opened as the world’s first domed sports stadium. With a natural grass baseball field, it was important that sunlight was able to reach the surface so the dome was transparent.

This caused problems for players though as the glinting of the sun on the roof led to a visual obstruction when trying to catch fly balls. To solve the problem, the roof was painted but now the grass no longer received sunlight, the natural turf surface deteriorated quickly.

As a solution to this new problem, the stadium owners and engineers decided to replace the grass with the first ever synthetic turf playing surface; a green carpet made of nylon fibres. The surface was installed for the 1966 baseball season and a new era was born.

First generation synthetic turf

Synthetic turf carpet was introduced to Europe in the early 1970s, but instead of being made with nylon fibres, it used polypropylene fibres. These were cheaper than nylon and more comfortable as polypropylene is softer. This meant players were at less risk of injury when playing on artificial grass. This first generation of synthetic turf has closely packed tufts and was quite abrasive.

Second generation synthetic turf

In the late 1970s, further developments in synthetic turf began to emerge. The second generation grass features longer tufts spaced more widely apart, more closely mimicking natural grass. A sand infill was used between the fibres to create sufficient firmness and stability for players using the surface.

Second generation synthetic turf fields provided a flatter playing surface than natural grass, giving better ball control and preventing balls from shooting off in unexpected directions. This was a great improvement, especially for hockey, but widespread acceptance of synthetic turf was slow in coming. It took around another decade for artificial grass to widely replace natural grass for hockey pitches.

Second generation turf is less suitable, however, for other sports such as football and rugby. The playing characteristics and behaviour of the ball on these fields is not comparable to natural grass and the sand infill can be abrasive. Nevertheless, some football clubs did try out these fields in the 1980s, but it was not until 1996 that the next generation of surfaces was developed and proved truly suitable for contact sports.

Third generation synthetic turf

Scientific and technological advances led to a new type of field – third generation synthetic turf, also referred to as 3G. These products are manufactured with longer fibres (>55mm) which are spaced further apart in the carpet. They are not usually made of polypropylene but of polyethylene, which is softer and less abrasive and 3G surfaces are infilled with rubber granules in addition to a stabilising layer of sand. The combination of fibres and infill ensures a comfortable, safe, durable playing surface that looks and performs more like natural grass than ever before.

3G synthetic turf pitches are gaining an even broader acceptance among youth and university programs and are seen as an excellent all-weather training and playing facility for players at all levels of sport.

The next generation?

Whilst some companies refer to 4G or even 5G synthetic turf products, these are not yet recognised or accepted by any of the sports governing bodies, such as FIFA, FIH or World Rugby.

Perhaps the next generation will see non-infill surfaces with the same performance attributes and playing qualities that can be certified for play by the governing bodies.

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