Pitch Perfect

This article appeared in Rovers Review – the Raith Rovers matchday programme – on Saturday 30 October. Final score on the day was Raith Rovers 2-1 Ayr United

One of the revelations at Stark’s Park over the last few seasons has been our pitch. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being apprehensive at the prospect of moving from a grass surface to an artificial one. Our magnificent team goal against Dunfermline last season, where Regan Hendry orchestrated a passing move that started on our own 18-yard line and ended up in the back of the Pars goal, convinced me of the footballing benefits of the new surface. But whilst my fears have been well and truly blown away from a sporting perspective, the environmental merits of artificial pitches are less clear-cut.

Rubber balls of fury

Tiny rubber pellets are a critical component of a modern astroturf pitch. The pellets are there to keep the synthetic grass fibres upright and replicate the playing characteristics of real grass – as well as providing some cushioning for the players. However, recent research from Norway suggests that up to 40% of these rubber granules end up migrating away from the playing surface and into the surrounding environment. This won’t come as surprising news to anyone who’s spent days hoovering granules out of their car or hallway after a visit to the five-a-side courts. But at a bigger scale, there’s a danger that these pellets can end up migrating into soils, water courses or even the sea, where they can become a source of plastic pollution.

Feeling the heat

Another surprising thing I learned about artificial surfaces is that they get much warmer than their grass equivalents on hot days. Natural greenery is very good at cooling down the temperature on a hot day, whereas an artificial pitch just soaks the heat up. This was powerfully demonstrated to me by a researcher colleague of mine from Taiwan, who sent me a picture of Hampden taken by a thermal imaging satellite. As someone unfamiliar with football, let alone Scottish stadia, my colleague was at a loss to explain why the pitch in the main stadium had a much lower temperature than that of Lesser Hampden. Even accounting for the shade from the stands, the grass surface at Hampden was notably cooler than the artificial pitch at Lesser Hampden. Now playing football in a heatwave is hopefully not something we will ever have to face in Scotland, but at a global scale it does raise an interesting question about players’ welfare in a warming world.

To seed, or not to seed?

Having said all of that, the solution is not to rip up our plastic pitches immediately and re-seed the playing surface with grass. Studies have demonstrated that artificial surfaces require much less water to maintain than grass – even accounting for the liberal soaking we like to give the pitch before games at Stark’s! In a future where we will have more extreme weather events, artificial surfaces might also be less prone to cancellations. And as we learn more across the world about maintaining artificial pitches, we can also improve our understanding of how to keep the plastic and rubber out of the environment. Whether we are playing on grass or plastic, it’s inevitable we’ll have to adapt in the years to come.

Thermal image of Hampden Park – note different signature between grass pitch in main stadium and artificial surface at Lesser Hampden

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