Innovative hardware, software and connected technology has brought efficiencies and savings to most businesses and sport is no different. There is currently wide coverage of how live data is impacting sport, but less focus on how technology is affecting the role of groundsmen.
Harrod Sport works closely with many of the people who build and maintain the best pitches and grounds in the world – from bespoke shelters, goals and posts to high-quality off-the-shelf solutions. That’s why we wanted to dig deeper into the world of the groundsmen to find out how technology is changing the role, what innovations are new or forthcoming and whether technology will ultimately replace the role?
To find out, we spoke to Gary Kemp, head groundsman at Norwich City FC and Scott Brooks, Head of Grounds & Estates at St George’s Park the FA’s national football centre.
How has technology impacted the role of groundsman in the last 10-20 years? Gary has been a groundsman for more than 30 years, watching technology affect almost every aspect of his profession.
“Norwich City isn’t even up there with the larger clubs and we have lighting systems and heating systems that can all be operated from a phone. The most indispensable piece of technology is the irrigation system. Years ago we’d have had to do it manually but now we can set it up to run for 30 seconds ten times a day. It certainly makes life easier.”
A key innovation has been the Desso Grassmaster, a pitch that uses plastic fibres to reinforce natural grass. Arriving on the market around 20 years ago, some aspects of it have changed, but the core technology remains the same. “The first ones used to be rock hard,” says Gary, “but they’ve brought in new technology to tackle that.”
“Full synthetics have come on leaps and bounds in the last 5-10 years. They’re well constructed to FIFA recommendations,” says Scott. “We’ve got them at the training ground and they’re a huge asset. That said, all players prefer to play on grass. I can’t see natural grass disappearing. Technology will help, but we’ll never move away from natural grass.”
Scott adds: “There has been a massive increase in the amount of data that gets collected from all pitches. Performance testing, readings for moisture and even checking the electroconductivity of a pitch to see what you’re lacking in terms of nutrients.
“We’ve got in-pitch sensors to monitor soil temperatures and the amount of water that passes through the profile at different depths. This is so we can manipulate the programme of irrigation to improve the pitch’s performance.
“All this data also means we can get an idea of what’s going to happen a few days before it does. And it’s all done on a computer screen without having to look at the pitch. The new breed of groundsmen is using data, not just as a test of their performance, but to benchmark for future performance.
Scott admits that “automation is massive. We’re quite close to having an automated mowing system.”
“Today,” says Gary, “there are even machines where you can just hit a button and mark out a pitch.”
Harrod Sport’s Director of Sports Sales & Marketing, Kevin Utton says: “Adoption of technology has been very gradual within the sports industry, but with the introduction of grow lights, airflow systems and hybrid pitches it will push on at a greater pace in the future.”
Current pitch technology
Scott describes the various pitches at the National Training Ground, used by the England side as well as many other teams.
“We have two hybrid fibre/sand pitches: sand-based with poly-propylene blended in. We have two Desso Grassmaster pitches, two SisGrass hybrid pitches, four synthetic pitches and some old natural pitches that are just sand soil combination.”
Gary manages the Carrow Road Norwich City home ground, as well as the training ground at Colney, some four miles away. The stadium had a Desso Grassmaster installed in 2004 and the training ground also has one. It has a gravel-layer for drainage and under-soil heating.
The training ground is more of a natural soil-based pitch because, as Gary explains: “We’re looking at installing another Desso pitch at the training ground which will cost £700k or more because we can get a lot more wear out of them.”
Gary and Scott agree that a pitch’s lifespan is governed by how it’s maintained. “I’ve seen 15-year-old pitches in great condition and five-year-old ones in poor condition,” says Scott. “Typically, you’d expect them to last 10 years.
“As for natural pitches, I’ve seen some that are 20 years old.”
“This pitch [at Carrow Road] is guaranteed for 10 seasons and we’ve had it for 14 so far. That’s all down to looking after it. We renovate the pitch every year which means stripping the grass. We’ve re-Dessod and re-stitched it last season so I’m looking at this for another 10 or 14 years before we have to look at replacing it.”
The cost of pitch maintenance
Again, Gary and Scott agree that costs can vary, governed by the condition of the pitch and the impact of disease. “It can cost around £20,000 to renovate a hybrid pitch,” says Scott. “A premier league club might spend £30,000. “Then there are sundries: scarifiers and aerators. That can be upwards of £40,000 per pitch. Natural pitches are a bit cheaper because renovation is not as intensive – less nutrition and irrigation. That might cost under £30,000.”
“With the stadium and our 26-acre training ground, maintenance costs around £400-500k per year,” says Gary, adding: “That’s by no means a big budget. Manchester United and Arsenal probably spend double that.”
Gary describes how costs can be impacted by disease: “You can have disease issues because the pitch is unnatural – it’s enclosed. If you get a fungus infestation you’ll have to spray it a lot more and the costs go up. A spray can cost up to £800. If I have a bad season with disease it’s not unusual to spray 10 or 12 times.”
Keeping up with innovation
There’s no secret to keeping up with the latest trends and best practice: Scott says that communication within the industry is good. “We all get along and there are no secrets. We’re all driven by the desire to keep pushing things forward – looking for better ways to do things.”
Gary describes how “everything is online and we’re always being visited by reps selling the latest technology.”
The biggest challenges facing groundsmen today
Scott says that the biggest challenge facing groundsmen is the “education” of those above them – a lack of understanding of managers and bosses about the needs and responsibilities of the role of groundsman. “I spend a lot of time with people. I have my own pitch and estate strategy meeting to explain what developments are coming to educate the management team here to get their buy-in for when I want investment.”
For Gary, the biggest challenge is damage to the pitch.
“80% of the damage to the pitch is caused before a ball has even been kicked: players warming up and other people on the pitch. “The other challenge is to keep the pitches in the condition clubs want with the increased pressure on time due to other events. Clubs and stadiums aren’t just sports clubs any more, they’re venues for concerts and car shows and so on. That means the role of the groundsmen has changed – we need to run the pitch like a business.”
What’s next for pitches?
Gary and Scott can both see changes coming. The Norwich City groundsman can see more clubs running multi-purpose stadiums that can easily cater for a range of events. For example, Tottenham Hotspur’s new ground allows the pitch to be removed and replaced with a venue floor for 80-90,000 people. The opportunity for clubs to make revenue from other events is too good to miss, but how many clubs will be able to afford the development remains to be seen.
Scott can see the development of future technology such as artificial intelligence, as data and monitoring play a greater and greater role in pitch management.
“I’m helping to develop a system that monitors the usage on the artificial pitch and tells you how many players are on the pitch and where they’ve been. It draws you a heat map and then it can tell you when you’ve had a given amount of usage and it needs to be brushed. We are now developing this for natural surfaces as well. The beauty of the system is that it teaches itself how to improve. It’s almost automatic.
“I’d also like to see a bigger shift towards sustainability and things like battery-powered machines that can reduce noise and vibration levels.
“The key for the future of pitch technology will be a system that draws all of the data together into a single system that talks to the various parts. A system that allows you to book a pitch, use a pitch and then tell us what we need to do to maintain that pitch and how long it needs to rest for – how long will be needed to repair it. A pitch that looks after itself.”
Will the role of groundsmen change in the future?
Gary and Scott agree that technology will continue to impact pitches, and while the day-to-day activity of groundsmen may change, the core responsibility for building and maintaining the best possible pitch will not. Neither are worried about their jobs…
“New technology will be introduced to help people look after the pitch, but there will always need to be someone there to manage it,” says Gary.
“You have to embrace technology,” adds Scott. “In my role, the more data I can gather without having to do anything the better. To get an email or alert means that one of my team doesn’t have to go out and do something – it’s a massive benefit. People worry that they’re going to be out of work, but it’s likely that technology will free them up to do something more useful.
“I would say,” he adds. “That there’s still nothing like going for a walk to see what’s happened [on a pitch]. There will be factors that the computers don’t know to look at or sense what a human can see. If a groundsman thinks he can sit in his office and do his job he’s sadly mistaken.”
Gary cautions that “the only potential issue with all this remote technology is that it can start to encroach on your home life. If you have that technology sitting in front of you at home, you’re never going to switch it off. And is that how you want to live your life? It’s bad for your health! It’s important to find a happy medium.”
As for the role of the groundsman, Gary explains his main concern for the future: “We are increasingly restricted with the amount of time we have to prepare a pitch and do renovations due to outside events and a short closed season. This is all dictated by other departments within the club and now means that we have half the time to do our work than we had 10 years ago.”
As innovators in sports equipment, Harrod Sport works closely with groundsmen at every level to understand their needs and the challenges they face. This is why we collaborate closely to build ongoing relationships that benefit players, groundsmen and the sport as a whole.