Artificial Turf versus Natural Grass: The Grass Isn’t Always Greener

If you’ve played field sports in the last decade then you’ve likely stepped onto a playing field surfaced with artificial turf. I’m not talking about the old quasi-carpet that was first introduced as “AstroTurf” back in 1967, but the modern, super cushy synthetic grass of today, which has grass like fibres filled in with various forms of rubber-infill.  It looks like this:


There are a few different brands of turf out there but they are all pretty similar to play on depending on the length of the fibres.

Sport and Social Club uses a lot of turf in our leagues and the reasoning is simple: despite the fact that it doesn’t need to be watered, fertilized, mown, or aerated, turf is almost never put out of commission because of too much wet weather (or not enough) and it can handle tremendous volumes of playing times.

That’s not to say turf is upkeep free. Municipalities and private owners DO need to replace turf at the end of its life cycle because it can wear out. All playing surfaces require on-going maintenance and replacement at some point and this is something we continue to bring to the attention of those owners. Municipalities need to change their approach to the financial side of maintaining infrastructure, but that is another blog post in itself. 

Bearing this in mind, I still maintain that artificial turf is the best surface for most recreational sports use.

Lets start with the Canadian climate.  In Ontario, we have about 3 months of “reliable” weather.  Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada give the GTA about 4 months of growing season, but we all know “growing things weather” and “getting to play on the grass field weather” are very different things.  In fact, Toronto Sport and Social Club’sfields-003 Toronto Ultimate Festival has faced many field cancellations in the past 5 years with its mid-May tournament date.  If we could use artificial turf, we would have had no issue playing at this time of year. Moreover, a wet spring can compromise the condition of a natural grass field for the rest of the season.  And as we all know, one game on a wet field can wreck it for months (See exhibit A). Having playing fields surfaced with natural grass to me is the equivalent of putting golf courses in the desert: they just don’t work. Considering it can take up to $250 000 a year to keep a grass field in top-notch condition, Ontario’s weather simply makes artificial turf a no-brainer.

You might be thinking: “Well, Sport and Social Club only likes artificial grass because it means that they can have more teams.” You’re not wrong, but we aren’t the only ones who benefit.  Synthetic playing surfaces can handle far more playing time than natural grass and if you install lights you essentially triple that venue’s playing capacity. This means that more fields can be used by more people –of any age or sport interest– for greater periods of time. The net result: more teams can play and more people can stay active.   For cities like Toronto that are chronically low on sports fields, it is the only logical choice.

Another common complaint is that artificial grass causes more injuries. Obviously NO playing surface is free from athletic injuries: this is simply a fact of sport.  And, while claims have been made on both sides, a collection of independent studies –some from the world’s soccer governing body FIFA– indicate that injury rates are in fact about the same.  Regarding Toronto FC’s argument for ‘real grass’ my opinion is that it had nothing to do with player safety, and everything to do with MLSE being able to host international test matches (read: acquire massive sources of TV revenue).  So while the world’s elite may feel real grass is better, when Canadian weather gets involved and maintenance goes down, realistically it’s no longer a viable option for Wednesday night division B soccer.

And let’s not forget perhaps the most compelling reason: artificial playing surfaces can be covered during winter months which allows us to play our favourite sports all year round.  Back in 1996, the only indoor soccer we could offer was bench ball in the gym because the few indoor turf facilities that existed then were too far away.  And, while players in our bench ball leagues had a lot of fun, there is no comparison between that game and the game played with nets on a turf field. These benefits also extend to youth players who get to work on skills like this all year around.  This could even mean a difference for Canada on the international scene in sports where we have historically had difficulty training during our (very) long winter months.

So, what do we know now:

  • Trying to grow and maintain grass in Canada for playing fields is difficult, time consuming, and expensive
  • Artificial turf fields allow more use by more people.  Wouldn’t it be nice to get everyone who wants to out and playing their sports?
  • For the once-a-week recreational user, artificial turf is statistically just as safe as grass.
  • Artificial grass allows you to play your favourite sport year round.

And if all of this isn’t enough, I will say this:  If artificial grass is good enough for the New Zealand All Blacks, it’s good enough for us.

England v New Zealand - QBE International

~Written by Rolston Miller

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