Most fans won’t remember now, but the spring before the Denver Broncos’ 2015 Super Bowl winning season the team quietly made an important stride in player safety. Since its first season, back in 2001, Invesco/Sports Authority/Broncos Stadium/Empower Field at Mile High had used a synthetic-grass blend for the playing surface. But that offseason, as part of an array of other stadium upgrades and as part of a focus on “providing the safest and best possible playing surface”, replaced that system with 100% natural Kentucky bluegrass sod. And that’s what the mile high field has been made of ever since.
Today, the Broncos are 1 of 16 NFL teams that use natural grass playing surfaces at their stadiums. The other 16 teams, including both pairs of teams that share stadiums, use a variety of artificial turfs.
If teams are voting with their dollars, it would appear to be a split decision between turf and grass. So why does it matter that the Broncos took the natural route? In short, because the player safety differences are pretty stark. Check out the stats, courtesy of NFLPA President and former Packers & Browns center, JC Tretter:
“Based on NFL injury data collected from 2012 to 2018, not only was the contact injury rate for lower extremities higher during practices and games held on artificial turf, NFL players consistently experienced a much higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries on turf compared to natural surfaces. Specifically, players have a 28% higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries when playing on artificial turf. Of those non-contact injuries, players have a 32% higher rate of non-contact knee injuries on turf and a staggering 69% higher rate of non-contact foot/ankle injuries on turf compared to grass.” And it’s not just an opinion- plenty of other studies back up these results.
But why? Why does the playing surface make such a big difference?
I’ll let Mr. Tretter give it to you straight from a player’s mouth: “First, a bit of physics: Professional football players put extremely high levels of force and rotation onto the playing surface. Grass will eventually give, which often releases the cleat prior to reaching an injurious load. On synthetic surfaces, there is less give, meaning our feet, ankles and knees absorb the force, which makes injury more likely to follow.”
Well, if artificial fields are so much worse than natural ones, why do so many teams use them? In short, there’s really not a good reason. The main reason, I would argue, is that it’s a symptom of teams caring more about profit than players.
Turf fields cost $750,000 to $1,350,000 to install, and $6,000 to $10,000 per year to maintain. Meanwhile, a grass field costs $400,000 to $820,000 to install and requires $18,000 to $44,000 of maintenance per year. Generally speaking, in a 10 year lifecyle, grass fields actually cost $400,000 to $500,000 less than artificial turf.
So how can using turf fields be about profit? It’s all about utilization time.
Admittedly, that’s a huge concern for an NFL venue. After all, if your team doesn’t make the playoffs, they’ll only be using your field 8 or 9 times per year. So if you want to have a profitable stadium, you’ve got to fill some of the 356 other days of the year with things like concerts, campaign rallies, trade shows, facility tours, and even golf courses.
But all of those other things, added on to the football schedule, can be pretty darn hard on natural grass. And there’s the big difference. Where a grass field can be utilized for about 800 hours per year without serious damage, an artificial turf field can withstand about 2,800 hours of punishment per year. And that’s a lot more money made; far more than the (by NFL standards) pocket change level difference in installation and maintenance costs.
So the players play on artificial surfaces half the time, sustaining significantly more non-contact injuries so that the stadium’s owners can milk more profit out of it for the rest of the year. We see this tradeoff right before our eyes all the time, and it’s time that it stops getting ignored.
Consider Week 1 of the Broncos’ 2022 season. They played the Seahawks in Seattle, and Lumen Field is one of those 14 artificial turf fields in the NFL. By half time, Jamal Adams’ season was done with a torn quad. And after the game we learned that the Broncos would be losing Justin Simmons for a month with a thigh injury.
One game on a turf field; two All Pro tier safeties lost to serious soft tissue injuries.
Let’s roll it back a bit further to 2020, specifically September 15th. The Broncos practiced indoors that day in deference to a blizzard. That indoor practice facility uses artificial turf, which is probably to be expected. But on that particular day, during a practice in just shells, a player had a “freak” injury. And suddenly Von Miller’s 2020 season evaporated before it could even begin.
Also- that torn ACL that robbed Miller of his chance to play in the Broncos’ 2013 run to Super Bowl XLVIII? The injury that robbed all of us fans of an entire playoffs worth of watching one of the all-time great playoffs pass rushers working his craft at the dawn of his prime? It happened in Houston, playing on the Texans’ artificial turf field.
In another example, Odell Beckham Jr’s torn ACL in Super Bowl LVI happened on the artificial turf of SoFi Stadium, instantly impacting the course of the game. And don’t quickly forget the uproar just days ago when Giants WR Sterling Shepard tore his ACL on MetLife Stadium’s turf. For that matter, consider J.C. Tretter’s discussion of field physics above, and whether that might have made some small difference in what happened to Tua Tagovailoa on Paycor Stadium’s FieldTurf on Thursday night.
Were all of these injuries due to artificial turf? No, of course not. And we can’t even be sure which ones were or weren’t. But we can know that fewer of them would have happened if these games were played on grass.
This isn’t the NFL of a hundred years ago, held together by shoelaces, guts, and nearly complete disregard for quibbling things like safety. Every one of the 32 franchises is worth billions of dollars, and their owners are worth far more. There’s no excuse for them not to spend the extra money to provide safer playing surfaces for their players. Not even for the dome stadiums. Systems exist to assemble fields out of modular squares of sod brought in from an outside location. That’s also, of course, a viable solution for still selling those stadium seats throughout the rest of the year.
Last but certainly not least, it’s long past time that the NFL stops indirectly promoting turf fields as a preferential option in front of high schools, middle schools, etc where these fields endanger the sport’s future stars.
How do you feel about natural grass fields versus artificial turf fields?
This poll is closed
All natural, all the time
Turf is the way to go
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