Hybrid sports pitches are now the playing surface of choice in professional football. Every English Premier League club has a hybrid surface and they are increasingly being used by European teams – Barcelona, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund are among the top teams to have joined the hybrid revolution.
Rugby too, has adopted the technology. Out of the Six Nation stadiums, only Italy’s Stadio Olimpico in Rome doesn’t have a hybrid playing surface installed.
The principle of a hybrid pitch is simple. A small amount of synthetic, twisted yarn is stitched into a traditional, natural grass pitch in order to reinforce it. As the grass grows, it intertwines with the synthetic fabric, strengthening the surface and improving stability. The yarn also speeds up the recovery of the grass sward, allows better drainage and increases durability – enabling the pitches to be used more frequently.
Paul Burgess, grounds manager at Real Madrid, sums up the benefits: “The artificial grass makes the pitch stronger, more stable and better to play football on. It makes the pitch look better too.”
GRASSROOTS TO ELITE
While hybrids are now omnipresent across elite stadiums and clubs, they weren’t initially targeted at elite users. Developed by Dutch carpet specialist Desso in 1992, the first sports-specific hybrid pitch – called GrassMaster – was designed for publicly-owned playing fields.
“The GrassMaster was originally developed to allow for more playing hours on municipal fields and pitches,” says Marc Vercammen, vice president at Tarkett Sports – a multinational company that acquired Desso in 2015.
“If you want a natural pitch to remain at a decent playing quality, you need to restrict the hours of play on it. Back then, a natural pitch could take around 250 hours of play a year – or five hours a week.
“The introduction of GrassMaster quadrupled the amount of playing time to around 1,000 hours a year while still offering a good quality surface – thanks to the hybrid system being able to take more punishment. It quickly became very popular with public pitch owners.”
For a while, GrassMaster was first choice for grassroots operators looking to increase pitch usage. It wasn’t until the emergence of 3G synthetic products, which allow near 24-7 usage, that GrassMaster started to lose some market share within the public sector.
By then, however, hybrid technology had been embraced by elite sport – particularly football and rugby – and within 20 years of its launch, GrassMaster had cornered the hybrid pitch market. In fact, it was the only system of its kind – using a stitched-in yarn within a natural grass pitch – until UK-based SIS Pitches launched a similar product, called SISGrass, in 2015.
STITCHED TO LAST
In the quarter of a century since its launch, the stitched-yarn hybrid pitch has, as a concept, changed very little. “The only difference between the first GrassMaster pitches and the ones we supply today is the machine technology used to apply the stitching,” Vercammen says. “The system and yarn itself have remained the same. Some of our competitors might use different raw materials – and the future will tell if those changes are beneficial or not – but the technology is still pretty much the same.”
By “competitors”, Vercammen is referring to SIS Pitches, which has rapidly built a major presence in the market. Since launching SISGrass in June 2015, the company expects to reach 60 hybrid installations by the end of 2017. Its recent successes include securing contracts to supply surfaces to six of the 12 venues at the FIFA World Cup 2018 in Russia.
HITTING THE CARPET
Away from the stitched pitch system, there has been one major innovation in the hybrid pitch market: the introduction of “lay and play” carpet-based pitches. Rather than reinforcing a natural grass pitch by stitching the synthetic fibres into it on-site, the carpets are created by growing the grass around the synthetic fibres in a controlled environment. Once the grass has enveloped the fibres, the turf is picked up, transported to its destination and laid down.
Carpet systems have quickly grown in popularity and can now be found in some of Europe’s most high-profile stadiums, such as the Amsterdam Arena in the Netherlands and the Nuevo San Mamés, home of Spanish club Athletic Bilbao. There are now around 30 hybrid carpet systems on the market. Witnessing the potential of the carpet system has also lead Tarkett – owner of GrassMaster – to create its own lay and play system, called PlayMaster.
The benefits of the carpet system are ease of installation and the cost is sometimes less than that of a stitched pitch. A carpet-based hybrid also doesn’t require a six-week shutdown of the pitch each year to allow maintenance – as is the case with a stitched hybrid pitch. Therefore, carpet-based pitches are ideal for busy venues, which have a hectic events schedule.
While the consensus has so far been that carpet pitches are less durable, requiring replacing every few years – compared to the 10-plus years of a stitched pitch – the technology is catching up.
“With annual renovation and routine maintenance, some carpet systems now have an expected lifespan of more than 10 years,” says Sean Goodwin, director at UK-based contractor Talbot Sports Turf. “One of these is an Italian surface called PowerGrass, which can be installed directly on site and only requires a growing period of about four weeks before use.”
He adds: “Thanks to its softness and durability, it has similar resilience to that of synthetic surface. We’re moving to a situation where hybrid carpets could become affordable to everyone.”