PBS opens on, against the best

Updated:
4-2-04, 5:45 p.m.

BY GEOFF HOBSON

Bengals linebacker Brian Simmons used to compare the Paul Brown Stadium grass "to going to Wal-Mart to buy tires for a Lamborghini." But on Friday, Simmons smiled when he saw what rolled into the garage.

"I would say we've got the tires to match," said Simmons of the Bengals' decision to use FieldTurf. "I love this stuff. It's better than grass."

The Bengals opted for the industry leader in synthetic grass when they tapped FieldTurf, which has surfaces in five other NFL stadiums and an estimated 25 major colleges that include the University of Cincinnati and Miami University of Ohio. Installation to replace the grass begins in the next two weeks, triggering a new look in the four-year-old stadium matching head coach Marvin Lewis' roster overhaul.

Instead of paint, the Bengals plan to sew permanent football markings and logos into a surface they expect to last eight years and hopefully beyond. For the last six years the Bengals have painted tiger stripes in both end zones and they figure to keep that in some form.

The club is also discussing possibly decorating the walls around the field in time for the Aug. 21 pre-season home opener against the Super Bowl champion Patriots.

"What amazes me every time I've seen it," Lewis said, "is you walk on it and you think you are on grass."

What Lewis and his players are going to be on is a loose-fiber surface in which a patented "infill system" replicates natural soil, and is a mixture of sand and recycled rubber. The big attractions to the softer surface are that shoes don't stick to produce devastating knee and leg injuries, and it minimizes compression injuries.

"We are going with a proven winner," said Troy Blackburn, Bengals director of business development. "This is the most proven synthetic surface for the NFL and for major college football. There's a track record of success to rely upon.

"They have evolved to the point where they are gaining quickly as a preferred surface to natural grass, particularly in northern climates," Blackburn said. "This decision not only will give us a superior playing surface for Bengals games, but will also reduce possible conflicts with other events."

Bengals business manager Bill Connelly said the new field allows the Bengals to host other events, such as a high school game on a Friday and a NFL game on a Sunday. For instance, the prep triple-header on Sunday, Sept. 5 that features Anderson against Cincinnati's projected pre-season No. 1 in Colerain never could have come off. It only would have been just one game on a grass field a week before the Bengals possibly open the season.

Connelly wouldn't comment on the price, but similar fields have cost between $500,000 and $1 million. The club is paying all expenses, but if seven publicly-funded NFL stadiums or 14 NFL stadiums end up with the same surface, Hamilton County reimburses the team under terms of the Paul Brown Stadium lease agreement.

FieldTurf is also used at Giants Stadium in New Jersey, Ford Field in Detroit, the Metrodome in Minnesota, and Seahawks Stadium in Seattle. In Major League Baseball, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Minnesota Twins and Montreal Expos play their home games on it.

There appears to be a savings of more than $100,000 per year when it comes to maintenance. There is obviously no re-sodding, which the Bengals had to do about two or three times during the season.

"The maintenance you have on natural grass is much more than this," Connelly said. "You won't have the fertilizers and chemical applications on a natural product that you're going to have on this."

But Connelly said there is raking, grooming and watering (to tamp down the rubber) involved: "It relies on the sand and rubber to keep the fibers standing up."

Lewis said the new field gives him flexibility for scheduling practices early in the season. Instead of chewing up one of the grass practice fields, or watching players slide around the old-style Astroturf field, he can move the practice into the stadium.

Connelly said they'll hold some practices on the surface before playing the Patriots, which should be no problem because installation may not take more than two months. The grass and some sand have to be removed and then the base is going to be covered by crushed stone.

"It's better than grass because you know what you've got," Simmons said. "You know when you go to step that it's going to be there. Your traction is always going to be there. You don't have to worry about it."

Lewis called his first Bengals' game in Giants Stadium in last year's pre-season opener against the Jets, "a great advertisement," for a team in the market. Much of the game was played in a downpour.

"It was perfect. No slippage. Perfect, it's like it wasn't even raining," Simmons said. "The major cons against Astroturf were the burns and abrasions and the pounding on the joints. Without those two things, it's like being on grass. You think you're on grass.

A 2002 survey by the NFL Players Association confirms what Simmons is talking about. A survey of every player asked them to rate the NFL's 32 fields based on playability, safety and overall effectiveness. FieldTurf finished third, marking the first time that an artificial surface had cracked the NFLPA's top ten, putting it ahead of 20 of the league's 22 grass fields.

"FieldTurf has become the unmistakable turf of choice of National Football League teams, with 20 league clubs now using our product," FieldTurf CEO John Gilman said. "We are proud of our new association with the Bengals, the Brown family and Coach Lewis."

Connelly said the Bengals have negotiated into the contract some ways to make getting a similar field at their training camp at Georgetown College a little bit easier. But it won't be for the 2004 camp, the first of a two-year deal at the Georgetown, Ky. school. The college would have to come up with funding, and if it decides to convert it would be for the 2005 summer.

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