Siobhan Harper goes Stateside – to Louisiana – and reports on the impressive sports facilities at the State University that operates on an annual budget of a staggering $75 million!
Louisiana State University (LSU) is college sport at its best. Not only do the extensive student recreation facilities include a fully-equipped gym, circuit room, studios, racquetball and squash courts, indoor swimming pool, indoor track, climbing gym, field complex, sand volleyball courts, tennis courts and outdoor basketball courts, as well as a sports and adventure complex, but the impressive college sports grounds also include a brand new 10,000-seater baseball stadium and a 94,000-seater football stadium for use exclusively by the college sports teams – for football, soccer, baseball, basketball, softball and golf.
The sports facilities are vast and prestigious, and they are also self-financing to the point of subsidising the university’s academic operation to the tune of $5 million a year!
“I’m responsible for everything to do with the college sports facilities – from the grounds and seats to the toilets - the lot,” says Todd Jeansonne, Assistant Director of Athletics Facilities and Grass. “The contractors have just handed over the new Alex Box (the Box) baseball ground, and I’m currently also overseeing the construction of our new Tiger Park softball ground,” he explains while standing in the middle of a building site on the perimeter of the Box and in the shadows of the Tiger Stadium (football).
More of a stadium and facilities manager, Todd has handed over the day-to-day maintenance and management of the grounds to Eric Foster, Sports Turf Manager and his assistant Michael Watson. They employ six contractors on a full-time basis. The grounds team works a 40-hour week plus approximately 500 hours of overtime per year. Across the grounds and facilities team as a whole, there are 65 employees plus student help, which is limited to 20 hours per week per student who deal mainly with basketball set ups and breakdowns.
“In the Box,” Todd continues, “we’ve used a Mississippi Choice Bermuda grass overseeded with rye. The Bermuda grass was sprigged by hand as the machine couldn’t handle the wiry nature of the plant. It was quite a job which involved gridding off the 89,000 ft2 area into 17 x 17 ft2 grids, and each grid needed two x 50 lbs bags of sprigs applied by hand, then worked in and fertilised. The rye grass was sown a couple of weeks ago and we’ve got to work hard now to get it to come through. The Bermuda grass type grows laterally making it a very tight knit surface allowing the players to play ‘on’ it rather than ‘in’ it. To make a divot on the baseball field you’d have to really dig your heels in.
“This three-way perennial rye blend is pretty usual for the area and it works well. We also use it on the four football practice fields but use Celebration Bermuda grass on the soccer and softball fields. There’s not too much between the two grasses but North Carolina state did some research on the grasses and Celebration came out as being bit more shade tolerant. In general, in the warmer southern climates, the two Bermuda grasses are recommended.
“Pests and diseases are limited on Bermuda grasses,” he says, “with most disease coming from overseeding with the rye grass. We sometimes get a little Pythium on the rye or when we’re really putting a lot of water down and hitting it with a lot of nitrogen to get it to grow and we’ll get some helmenthosporium [leaf spot]. We got it last year on the Mississipi Choice on one of the football practice fields. It was about 70 per cent grown in and looked fine on the Friday but by the Sunday afternoon we had lost 50 per of what had grown. The best treatment is prevention.
“In terms of pests, regardless of the grass type, we get fire ants and the mole crickets get everywhere - they tunnel all over the field and dig up the root structure. We’ll find holes that we can fit our fingers in and piles of sand everywhere. We treat it with a bifenthrin-based insecticide.”
Maintaining a baseball field offers unusual challenges, as the focus is as much on the dirt as on the turf, with 80-90 per cent of the game being played on the dirt. Sports Turf Manager, Eric Foster, outlines the principles: “The playability of the dirt has a big role in the outcome of the game. If the dirt isn’t right you could get a bad hop on the ground ball, or if the dirt is not as firm as it should be a base runner could slip taking off. The main thing is dealing with moisture management - we have to manage it as much in the dirt as we do in the grass. If it’s too wet it becomes mud; too dry and it becomes too hard and the players’ spikes will cause divots that will affect the ball. In terms of the grass, we’ll aerate monthly and top dress every two weeks once the rye is established. I’m a firm believer in aeration and verticutting, especially on Bermuda grass, to get it as thick and dense as we can both at the Box and at Tiger Stadium.”
Maintenance of the football field involves daily mowing, watering and fertilising, and striping for a match day. Aeration also plays a key role, as Eric explains: “We shallow core aerate at 3-4 inches down, we harvest those then work some topdressing in. We’ve been getting some compaction on the football practice fields so we’re doing some deep tine aeration with a soil reliever - we use a 16 inch solid tine and we usually get about 9 inches out of it. Last summer we did it six times even though some say deep tine aeration should only be done a couple of times a year. It hasn’t caused any adverse affects here.”
Budgetary constraints are not an issue for the sports turf team, since the LSU athletics department’s annual budget is $75 million - with no financial assistance from state or federal funds. In fact, they are self-sufficient to the point they fund the university’s academic operations to the tune of $5 million per year. Baseball and basketball are normally self-financing through ticket sales, concessions and merchandise but football is the real cash cow and covers all other expenditure within the department. That may seem extraordinary for college sport to be so lucrative, but that’s often the way in the US - college games are more popular than the professional sport – which is why a university can afford to fund a football stadium that is bigger than our national stadium!
Todd explains the finances: “Football is sold out for every game, with tickets costing $40 - $50. Baseball also sells out with season tickets going for around $500. The Box also has 18 corporate boxes with 12 seats in each and each seat is sold for $2,000. Phase Two of the build will happen next year and that will see around 2,000 more standard seats and two-six additional corporate boxes.
“The nature of college sport is very competitive, particularly within the South Eastern Conference of which LSU is part. The SEC is competitive both on and off the field. If you don’t have the same, or better, facilities as the school down the road in your league then you won’t attract the quality students who can play and compete on the field. That’s why we have these facilities.”
The sporting seasons run for almost nine months of the year with just the summer off. Although concerts are not currently hosted - except in the indoor basketball stadium which seats 14,000 for a game and accommodates around 9,000 for concerts – the facilities do host summer camps. “Camps are an opportunity for the coaches, many of whom work on a voluntary basis, to make their money,” says Todd. “Each camp takes up to 1,000 children and they are run on the football practice fields. This is the main reason for making one of the practice fields a synthetic, because the bulk of the children are on the field in one go. One camp runs for three days and there are around three/four camps each year.”
The football season runs from the end of August ‘til the end of November and the practice fields are used until the end of December. The spring practice season runs from the beginning of March ‘til mid April; soccer runs from the end of August to the end of October or early November, and the spring season begins in February and runs for a month. Softball and baseball start in February and run until the end of May and mid–June, respectively. The practice seasons run from September to the end of October or early November.
So, with so much investment in sport and facilities, widespread availability of quality turf science education and what appears to be fairly generous remuneration packages, how is the profession viewed in the states?
“Around 95 per cent of people who get into turf choose to follow a career in golf course management because there are more jobs available in golf than athletics,” says Todd. “Although sports facilities outnumber golf courses, anything below college grounds are maintained by volunteers - usually by the team coaches. There is a potential for more jobs than golf but the profession just isn’t there yet. The STMA (Sports Turf Managers Association of America) is trying to push the development of volunteers through training and education as well as by encouraging them to attend conferences, but there’s a way to go in this respect. The employers need to know this is a worthwhile profession and they need to invest in it.” he concludes.
Baseball field structure
“The baseball field is sand-based and has a 10 inch profile of which 90 per cent is sand and 10 per cent
worm castings, which are used instead of peat. Ferma Plex 26:22 is used which reacts with the worm castings and the roots have nowhere to go but down! The roots in the first four weeks were around eight-nine inches which is extraordinary.”
Football field structure
“The field was renovated in 1996 then we did a ‘band aid’ job in 2006. It had a heavy organic layer on the surface so we stripped off the top two inches and added five more inches of sand. I had sent samples to the lab and they said it needed to be close to a 90:10 sand to organic mix. After we added the sand it was
more of an 85:15 mix. New drainage lines were also added so we now have lateral drains every seven feet
but I’m getting localised puddling almost in straightlines. This makes me think that when they trenched
out the drain lines they didn’t excavate all the spores, which created a ridge and so the water isn’t getting to the drain lines and out of the field like it should. I’d like to go back and start from scratch - go all the way down to the sub-grade, re-shape it, put more drain lines in and re-vamp the irrigation. I think it really needs that.”
Natural disasters - the effects of Katrina
“The university became a shelter. We worked for 89 straight days after Katrina with minimum days of 14-16 hours. We had to monitor the situation, keep the supplies coming in, students were using the locker rooms to wash laundry from the shelters. It was a life-changing experience and one I don’t really want to go through again. I saw things you wouldn’t want to see. Our track facility was a landing pad for helicopters - Black Hawks and whatever were bringing people in. The indoor track facility became a special needs facility and that wasn’t that bad but the triage in the basketball arena and the morgue in the auxiliary gym in the basement saw some pretty bad things - people would come off the helicopters and they would already be dead. About 1,100 people in New Orleans lost their lives and 3½ years later they are still rebuilding and there are still people without homes.”
MS-Choice Bermuda grass
- No scalping under normal mowing
- Enhanced shade tolerance compared to other Bermuda grasses
- Highly rated in turf performance and quality.
- Thatch may accumulate under high fertility
- Slight susceptibility to dollarspot and mites
- Slow green-up in the spring if thatch accumulation is excessive.
- Mowing height ½ to 2 inches
- Nitrogen 2 to 6 pounds per 1,000 ft2 per year
- Dethatching once every 2 years.
Celebration Bermuda grass Merits Cold tolerant Extreme drought tolerance More shade tolerance High wear tolerance and divot recovery Striking blue-green colour.
- Not suitable for highly shaded areas.
Recommended Use Golf courses Parks and recreation Home lawns.
- Mowing height ½ to 1 inch.
What is Pythium?
Pathogen: Pithium aphanidermatum, P. arrhenomanes, P. graminicola, P. myriotylum, P. ultimum.
Season of Occurrence: Late spring, summer and early autumn.
Symptoms and Signs: Pythium blight is first seen as small, irregularly shaped purplish areas ranging from 1 to 4 inches in diameter. The individual leaves in the patches have a dark, water-soaked appearance. As colonisation by the fungus progresses, they become soft and slimy, and when they are in contact with each other, they mat together. In the early morning, or if there is high humidity throughout the day, the leaves of diseased plants may be covered with the white, cobwebby, mycelium of the pathogen. Also during these times the older patches often develop dark purplish borders up to 1 inch wide.
The colour of the affected leaves soon changes to light brown or reddish brown and they become dry and shrivelled. In the event that the growth of the pathogen is checked before the entire leaf is colonised, distinct straw-colored lesions of varying size will develop. Blighting of the foliage within the developing patches may be uniform or the affected areas may develop as frogeyes – circles of blighted grass with centres of green, apparently healthy plants. Individual patches of affected grass frequently coalesce to envelop sections of turf ranging from 1 to 10 feet in diameter. At times the affected areas may develop as elongated streaks. Development of this pattern of blighting is apparently the result of the pathogen being washed over the surface of the soil or ‘tracked’ by mowers.
Control Maintain satisfactory, but not luxuriant plant growth through the use of balanced fertiliser applications. Also decrease the length of time the leaves are wet.
What does it take to become a sports turf manager in North America?
Eric Foster - Sports Turf Manager Graduated in Turf Science from the University of Tennessee then took a position within minor league baseball. Gained five years experience as Sports Turf Manager at the University of Oregon.
Michael Watson - Assistant Sports Turf Manager Graduated in Turf Science from Penn State University and has three years practical experience in turf management.
Minimum requirements and salaries The minimum requirements at LSU for Sports Turf Manager positions are five years experience (three years for an assistant) and a Bachelors degree in turf. Average salaries for management positions in the US are $60,000, with contractors attracting around $35,000 including overtime. Sports turf managers in Major League baseball can command salaries in the region of up to $150,000.
Responsibilities for the grounds staff at LSU include: Baseball, softball, soccer, soccer practice fields, Tiger Stadium (football), four outdoor natural grass practice fields for football, and one indoor, full size, multi-use synthetic football pitch.
Synthetic or natural grass?
Despite the 3G synthetic pitch at the NFL Baltimore Ravens ground being rated number one by the players for the last five years, Todd Jeansonne believes the general preference is for natural grass if it can be maintained to the right standard. Todd explains just one of the problems with synthetics: “Heat is a real issue here. Louisiana Tech University, which is four hours north of here, has a synthetic pitch. They have a football camp in June and July and when they went out for their photo although the air temperature was only 86 deg, the temperature on the surface was 150 deg. The technology is evolving and it’s got its place but I prefer natural grass as it looks better.
“We may be faced with having a synthetic surface in the future at the Tiger Stadium. It’s not a case of wear as the only thing that happens there is football seven or so times a year - we don’t even let anyone run on the sidelines and we certainly don’t use it for anything like concerts. The problem is shade. There are discussions about building more seats at the south end at some point over the next five years, which is where the sun comes in. If that happens it would probably mean we’d have to go synthetic.”