Is Natural Grass Dying in College Football?

A grass surface like BYU's and Notre Dame's (pictured) is becoming more rare -- especially given the schools' latitude.

When BYU replaced the playing surface in LaVell Edwards Stadium prior to the 2009 season, it was the first complete surface overhaul at the school in 28 years. The apparent trend would have been to install an artificial turf, especially given the dry, desert climate that also experiences freezing temperatures. But the school installed a new grass field, and after a season to perfect it, the field is once again one of college football's nicest surfaces.

So when I saw friends @UR_Classless and @ScottEnyeart discussing the new grass going in LA Coliseum (they replace it every year), it got me wondering how many stadiums still maintain a natural grass surface? While I set out to just get one total number, an amazingly-clear trend revealed itself.

For my simple study, I used the number of teams and conference alignments as they will be for the 2013 season.

The total number is still interesting, so let's start there. The anecdotal truth I thought was true, is true. Artificial surfaces are the norm:

SURFACE

#

%

Artificial

82

65%

Grass

44

35%

Pretty simple, right? But when I organized those numbers by conference, it became clear that it's ALL about money. I'm sure you've heard reasoning behind the installation of artificial surfaces from athletic directors -- FieldTurf and other artificial surfaces are easier and less expensive to maintain. When given the "BCS" (ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac 12, SEC, with Independents included) versus "non-BCS" (the rest), it looks like this:

BCS

Non-BCS

Artificial

47%

94%

Grass

53%

6%

See those non-BCS numbers? Yes, 94% of non-BCS schools use artificial turf, while only 47% of BCS schools do. That 6% of non-BCSers with grass is just three schools: East Carolina, Florida Atlantic, and New Mexico State.

If you were to split the four Independents into the two with the most money (Notre Dame, BYU) and the two with the least (Army, Navy), it still holds: Notre Dame and BYU have grass, Army and Navy don't.

Broken into conferences, you'll see how geography starts to come into play -- at least for the schools with money:

CONFERENCE

% of Grass

SEC

79%

ACC

71%

Pac 12

42%*

Independents

50%

Big East

42%

Big Ten

33%

Big 12

30%

Sun Belt

10%

C-USA

8%

MWC

0%

MAC

0%

It seems pretty simple: schools with money and a moist climate usually have grass. Schools with money and arid climates (Big 12) or cold climates (Big Ten) gravitate towards artificial surfaces but generally have both, and schools with little money almost always have an artificial surface. This means that in the pre-2011 Mountain West, BYU, TCU, and New Mexico were oddities.

(The WAC was excluded from the above table as in 2013 it would have two schools. Idaho has artificial turf, New Mexico State has grass.)

Of note, the Mountain West would have had two schools with grass -- Fresno State and New Mexico -- but Fresno installed artificial turf last season, and New Mexico is laying down the synthetic stuff as you read this.

Simply put, grass costs money. A school has to pay to water it, to paint it, and for a staff to care for it. Grass fields are usually painted once a week during the season. Artificial surfaces require no water, can be painted once every two or three years, and would only require staff enough to clean off some occasional debris, which can probably be covered by staff already employed to clean the stadium, since no expertise is required.

As more schools face the need to replace their fields, it will be interesting to see if more choose synthetic surfaces, or if schools with money will choose to maintain grass fields.

Some other items I thought were interested regarding geography with which to send you away:

Schools with cold climates (freezing temps and snow are normal) who still have grass:
BYU
Colorado*
Connecticut
Michigan State
Notre Dame
Northwestern
Penn State
Pitt (NFL stadium)
Purdue

Schools with money and favorable climates who still have artificial turf:
Cal
Maryland
Mississippi
Missouri
Oregon
Oregon State
Vanderbilt (going in this season)
Wake Forest
Washington

*Since originally writing the article, I have learned that Colorado is installing an artificial surface. I have changed the numbers in the conference breakdown, but I have not yet changed overall numbers.

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