The Great Outdoors

January 29, 2015
Outdoor athletic facilities look much different than when we began publishing 25 years ago. Here are our picks for the 25 biggest innovations over the past quarter-century.
By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is an Associate Editor at Athletic Management. He can be reached at:

Whether it's a wind-blown fly ball in baseball, a football game played in pouring rain, or soccer fans enjoying a sun-filled day in the bleachers, the weather often plays a role in outdoor sports. So when we determined the top 25 innovations in outdoor facilities to help celebrate our 25th year, we found that many of the changes involved overcoming the elements.

The biggest advances have come in playing surfaces. Modern synthetic turf systems have given athletic directors a very effective weapon against the weather, allowing teams to play in almost any conditions. In northern states, synthetic turf has meant fall teams can enjoy clean and safe playing surfaces well into November while spring sports can get started even when the snow is still flying.

At the same time, natural turf has seen advances of its own that have extended playing seasons and reduced weather-related cancellations. And all surfaces have benefited from new drainage systems that can handle copious amounts of rain, keeping track meets running and letting baseball games resume shortly after a downpour stops.

Of course, other areas have also enjoyed great advancements over the past quarter-century, many related to fan amenities, such as entertaining and informative scoreboards and more comfortable seating. We hope you enjoy reading our picks for the 25 advancements in outdoor facilities over our 25 years of publishing. It was developed in consultation with veteran athletic directors at the high school and college levels who helped identify the biggest trends and rank which were most significant.

1 Rise of Synthetic Turf
A quarter-century ago, synthetic turf (then known as "artificial" turf) faced a crossroads. Synthetic turf fields were commonly viewed as a luxury item for large colleges and universities. Yet concerns over the quality of these playing surfaces were leading some schools to return to grass. The industry responded by developing new types of synthetic turf that feel and perform more like natural grass and cost far less, to the point where they are now commonly seen at high schools. These products have allowed athletic administrators at all levels to get more use out of their facilities and in some cases, even brand their program by using colors never seen in natural turf.

2 Natural Grass Turf Systems
Hand-in-hand with better synthetic turf have been improvements to natural turf fields, which are quite different than those of the late 1980s. New hybrid grass seeds produce turf that is more resistant to wear and requires less water to thrive. Soil science and pest management have also progressed tremendously, offering facility managers better ways to keep natural grass fields healthy and ready for action.

3 Large-Scale Video Boards
Not that long ago, scoreboards showed the score, time remaining, and a few other numbers. Today, sports fans expect to also be entertained by a media center that has grown from the simple scoreboard. With the largest models covering more space than a basketball court, video boards provide fans with a view of the entire game, the chance to watch instant replays, and diversions during lulls in the action. In addition to firing up the crowd, video scoreboards offer unprecedented exposure for sponsors, helping schools at all levels generate revenue.

4 Efficient Lighting
While it's obvious that the only way to play outdoor games at night is with artificial lighting, not all the gains made in sports lighting are as easy to see. New bulbs provide brighter light, while advancements in lighting fixtures and increased use of visors mean more of that light is directed to the playing surface. This allows athletic directors to save money by using fewer lights, spend less on power, and reduce complaints from stadium neighbors. In addition, new ballast systems mean lights can be powered on more quickly, and remote control systems allow administrators to turn the lights on and off from almost anywhere.

5 Safer Soccer Goals
When they inadvertently tipped over, outdoor soccer goals caused numerous deaths and thousands of serious injuries. Today, portable soccer goals are designed to be easily anchored to the ground, which is crucial to protecting both
student-athletes and unauthorized users.

6 Drainage Systems
Public enemy number one for outdoor sports teams is rain. And while Mother Nature is still unbeaten, advancements in drainage systems have allowed athletic administrators to even the score a bit. The increased use of sand bases under natural and synthetic turf fields with piping systems that can drain away large amount of water allows outdoor facilities to remain playable despite heavy rains. Tracks are now fitted with perimeter drainage systems to prevent pooling and avoid flooding adjacent areas.

7 Fencing Safety
Today's outdoor fields are safer than those of 25 years ago thanks to many innovations, including fencing products. New portable fencing is much sturdier than the orange warning/snow fencing used in years past and can be easily set up and taken down. This has allowed fences to be added to everything from baseball and softball fields to tailgate areas. In addition, plastic fence guards are now commonly seen atop most athletic field fencing, reducing injuries to athletes who run into them during play.

8 Synthetic Turf Infill, Adhesive & Padding Products
The ultimate in "behind-the-scenes" products, improvements in infill, adhesives, and underlayment are partly responsible for the success of today's state-of-the-art synthetic turf. Typically composed of sand or rubber, current infill systems provide additional comfort and safety to athletes while helping the turf itself perform better by keeping the blades more upright. The materials used in adhesive do a better job at adhering the turf to the base, prolonging the life expectancy of fields. And new underlayment systems result in softer surfaces that can improve performance and reduce the risk of injury.

9 Portable Scoreboards
For a long time, outdoor scoreboards were structures anchored to one spot with sturdy poles. Today, top-quality portable scoreboards are available that can be transported from field to field as needed, while still offering attractive easy-to-see electronic displays. Many even include remote control devices. To enhance portability, rechargeable batteries are a common feature.

10 Infield Conditioning Products
Turf tends to get all the attention, but baseball and softball infields can be just as difficult to maintain properly. Over the past 25 years, advances in many products are helping deliver a consistent playing surface. Red clay has become especially popular among baseball coaches. New methods for processing clays have resulted in drying agents that greatly reduce the number of rain-outs. And infield conditioners retain moisture better than ever, reducing the amount of water needed to maintain proper soil conditions.

11 Line-Marking Machines & Materials
It's easy to overlook the importance of field markings, but their visibility is key for players, officials, and spectators. Administrators and field maintenance staff have a wide variety of new tools to make these lines look sharp while reducing labor time. The biggest advancements include equipment that attaches to other field maintenance machines, more self-propelled devices that increase ease of use, and laser-guided equipment to make more precise lines. The lines themselves have also undergone changes with new environmentally friendly materials that are better for the turf and athletes alike.

12 Windscreens
Long a staple of tennis courts, windscreens are now commonly seen at many outdoor facilities, including baseball, softball, soccer, and lacrosse fields. New materials and manufacturing techniques developed over the last 25 years have produced screens that are lighter and more durable than ever, making them more cost-efficient and easier to manage. They are also designed to handle higher wind speeds, freeing up staff to focus on other needs after storms. And they've improved aesthetically as schools imprint them with custom logos and designs.

13 Synthetic Turf Maintenance Products
While reduced maintenance is one of the benefits of synthetic turf over natural turf, the importance of properly taking care of synthetic fields has become better understood and has been aided by advanced technology. There are now devices designed specifically for synthetic turf maintenance, including brushers, aerators, rakes, and sweepers that will increase the performance of the field and extend its useful life.

14 Natural Turf Maintenance
Caring for outdoor grass fields has become a science. Advances in machinery, including better mowers and groomers, more efficient blades, and easy-to-use brushers and aerators, have cut down on the amount of manual work needed to keep fields in top shape. Meanwhile, the increased emphasis on environmentally friendly products and materials has led to the need for specialized training and education for field managers.

15 Stadium Seating
In addition to railings and other safety features that have become standard on outdoor bleacher systems, the last quarter-century has seen increased seating comfort for fans at outdoor stadiums. New materials have made seats more environmentally friendly as well. Athletic directors have also been able to take advantage of the advent of portable personal bleacher seats that fans bring to games by imprinting them with their own logos and selling them as fundraisers.

16 Temporary Lighting
For schools at all levels, temporary lighting has become a viable way to play at night when permanent lighting fixtures are not an option. Whether it involves lighting a stadium for a one-time special event or using lights to extend outdoor practice times during the short days of late fall, temporary lighting systems provide athletic directors a convenient way to turn night into day. And portable systems are available that can easily be transported to different locations as needed.

17 Track Surfaces
While it was not unusual to see cinder tracks in the late 1980s, today they are made out of polyurethane, which offers a far more consistent surface. Recent advancements in polyurethane have resulted in tracks that are faster, while easier and less expensive to install. They also last longer than those of a quarter-century ago.

18 Safety Netting
With athletic administrators trying to get every bit of use out of their fields as possible, protective netting has become a major factor in keeping athletes safe by limiting the chance of balls, or other equipment, from flying into places where they don't belong. Modern netting systems can be easily set up where needed and then taken down when the season is over. Today's netting also keeps fans safe while still allowing them a clear view of the game. Nowhere is this more obvious than the netting now commonly installed behind football goalposts.

19 Irrigation Systems
Water is the lifeblood of natural grass athletic fields and it's become increasingly important for getting the most out of a synthetic playing surface as well. Recent advancements in irrigation systems have allowed schools to take better care of their facilities while reducing water and labor costs. Technology enables operators to control the watering of all their fields from one central location. In addition, new sensor systems can automatically start watering turf based on the soil or weather conditions. Today's sprinklers also accommodate pressure changes better and provide more accurate water distribution regardless of the conditions.

20 Pole Vault Padding & Pits
While there will always be risk involved in pole vaulting, today's vaulters are protected better than ever thanks to improved landing areas. New regulations call for soft padding over all the areas near the pole vault pit, and modern construction techniques have produced lighter weight pads that offer greater protection while still holding up to the elements.

21 Luxury and Press Boxes
While braving bad weather is part of the outdoor sports experience for many people, more and more fans prefer a climate-controlled atmosphere. Luxury boxes are a way for major college programs to raise additional revenues, and now even high schools are offering the opportunity to enjoy these premium seating options. Advancements in construction techniques allow schools to build combined structures containing both press box and luxury box accommodations at an affordable price.

22 Field Covers
Protecting key parts of playing fields from overuse and the elements has always been a challenge, but today's field covers make it easier than ever. New materials allow light and air to get through while still protecting the surface underneath, meaning the tarps and covers can be left in place for longer periods of time. Athletic directors can cover up high-traffic areas such as field crossovers and those around batting cages and once uncovered, find the ground underneath in its original condition. They even protect the tracks that surround many football fields from the abuse of an army of cleats that cross over them throughout the fall. Modern field covers are also lighter and easier to handle, while new weighting systems built into the covers keep them in place through high winds.

23 LED Scoreboards
While there may be nostalgic appeal to the hand-operated scoreboards of old, modern LED scoreboards offer athletic administrators unprecedented opportunities for providing information and entertainment to their fans through message boards and video. In addition to making video scoreboards possible, LEDs enhance the operation of traditional scoreboards. They also make the numbers easier to read, both in daylight and at night, while reducing energy costs.

24 Collapsible Goalposts
Nothing will halt the joy of a big football victory more quickly than an injury due to fans tearing down the goalposts. Past incidents have left schools liable for damages and athletic directors in search of a solution. As a result, some schools have turned to collapsible goalposts that are taken down in seconds immediately after the final whistle, before fans can get to them. These posts are easily reinstalled after the crowd clears.

25 Portable Tent Systems
When watching a busy track and field meet, it's hard to imagine a time when pop-up shade tents didn't dot the landscape. In many sports, teams use these tents as a home base, offering athletes and coaches a shared location to get out of the sun or rain while staking a piece of turf as their own. Now schools are extending this idea to fans, adding large canopies over seating sections to shade them from the sun.
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