Protecting The Pitch

The Toronto Argonauts are moving into BMO Field this year and that fact has left Toronto FC supporters concerned, and understandably so, about the integrity of the pitch going forward.

Football and soccer are very different sports, and while that is definitely not breaking news by any stretch, soccer fans in Toronto are wondering what is being done to ensure BMO Field remains a soccer first venue.

The short answer? Plenty. Now for the long one.

I spoke with two of the main players involved in this project. BMO Field’s head groundskeeper Robert Heggie and Dan Almond of Millennium Sports Technologies, who is serving as a consultant to MLSE.

Almond has over 30 years of experience in the design, consulting and construction management of natural and synthetic turf athletic fields in North America and abroad. Heggie is a winner of Sports Turf Canada's sports turf manager of the year.

“I’ve been researching the idea of football and soccer sharing the same field for two and a half years,” said Heggie on Thursday afternoon from his office at the Kia Training Ground. “The first thing I did was talk to my peers. The crew at FC Dallas deals with a lot of high school football games during the season, I talked to people at Lambeau Field, but the folks that provided the most insight were the people at Wembley Stadium.”

Wembley hosts over 400 hours of events throughout a calendar year, including NFL games as well as a number of soccer fixtures. For comparison's sake, BMO Field will host just over 200 hours of events in 2016.

Football lines remaining on the field during TFC games has been one of the biggest concerns. The grounds staff at Wembley referred Heggie to a product from Australia that they use to ensure football lines do not remain on the pitch for soccer games.

“[They] referred me to Supaturf,” said Heggie. “After all of my research we settled on eight types of paint that had enough backing that made them worth the try. We tested the paints for nine weeks, painting, removing, painting, removing so that we’re not just basing it off of one application because we’re not doing one application this year, we’re doing 10 applications. We did this with all of the paints and the last one standing was the Supaturf.”

Paint application

Protecting The Pitch At BMO Field  -

Paint removal

Protecting The Pitch At BMO Field  -

MLSE has invested more than $1 million to give Heggie and his crew everything they need to help the field breathe and thrive under a heavier workload.

“The biggest thing is the artificial lighting,” Heggie explained. “With these light rigs that are put down on the field we can start making up more hours in the day. We can make two days out of one day in the eyes of the plant. There’s over 100 stadiums in the world that have grow lighting, and they’re your high end EPL stadiums and across the high end European leagues. That’s the quality we’re after. We want to be like them.”

“We’ve been planning for this for some time,” added Almond.

MLSE has invested in backup fields, being grown in Mount Hope, Ont., that will allow the grounds crew to replace damaged sections of the field at anytime.

“Let’s say we have an area in front of the goalmouth that’s starting to show some significant wear,” Almond posited. “That grass would be removed at BMO. They would then harvest the grass at the sod farm, which is about 18 months old. The sod rolls are a meter in width, the soil that comes from the farm would be an inch and a half cut. Those rolls are 2,500 pounds a piece with the idea being that the grass is so heavy it won’t move when it’s played on. We all have all these processes ready to go if we need them, but hopefully we won’t. You never know with the weather we could have”

Heggie cites the schedule as another factor in his crew’s favour, with five to six days separating football from soccer events, and that’s with a backloaded home schedule due to phase two of the renovations at BMO Field. MLSE has been working with MLS and the CFL to ensure optimum scheduling, ensuring that Argos game can follow a TFC game but not vice versa and spacing between events to allow Heggie and his team to turn the field around.
With just over four months to go until the home opener, Heggie is confident.
“Everyone in Toronto is worried about it, but the head groundskeeper, the guy that should be, isn’t,” he said. “I see us as good as Wembley Stadium now. There’s nothing they haven’t bought me that they would buy for Wembley. It’s game time. Let’s see what we can do.”
Toronto FC will host FC Dallas on May 7th in the 10th home opener in club history.