New turf in nation’s capital

The opening of the new 20,000-capacity Audi Field built specifically for Major League Soccer’s DC United caught my eye last summer. Naturally I was curious about the grass and discovered I could get some answers about it from Michael and Heather Sullenberger of Game Day Inc., in nearby Chantilly, VA. Heather is president and owner; Michael is sports field manager/boss. Their company is responsible for maintaining the new surface in Buzzard Point. I exchanged emails with the Sullenbergers and here’s their reply:

What turfgrass variety was picked, and why?

“The variety is Northbridge bermudagrass. We joined [reps from] the field builder Precision Turf, DC United, and Turner Construction to visit Oakwood Sod Farm in Delmar, MD in the fall of 2017 and again in the spring of 2018 to inspect the sod, including fields of Northbridge and Latitude 36 bermuda. Game Day also consulted with Dr. John Sorochan at the University of Tennessee and he provided valuable insight and advice based upon his research.

“Upon inspection, it was decided that the grass for Audi Field should be Northbridge, on a rootzone is a 97/3 blend of USGA sand and Dakota Peat supplied by Luck Ecosystems.”

At what point in the planning of the surface did Game Day get involved?

“Game Day Inc. has been caring for the DC United training facility adjacent to RFK Stadium since 2004. The training field grass is Latitude 36, also from Oakwood Sod Farm. Once the construction for Audi Field was underway, we weighed in on turfgrass variety and supported the choice in bermudagrass.

“After winning the Audi Field maintenance contract, we were able to visit the construction site every few weeks, and then every week, and then every other day until it was complete for the most part. There is still some work to do, some finishing touches, but the first three matches are on the books [as of August 9] and the new field has held up very well.”

According to builder Precision Turf, Sugar Hill, GA the drainage system is composed of two 24” collect lines and 6” lateral lines 10’ on center. There is roughly 2 miles (11,000 linear feet) of pipe trenched in the subgrade. All lines are dropped in a 1’ wide ditch with total encasement of gravel.

Like most of the new soccer-specific stadiums, having fans close to the action is a major marketing coup but it doesn’t do much for growing grass. “In short, we know that shade will be one challenge that comes with high stadium walls and partial overhanging roofs,” said the Sullenbergers.

Think you’ll have to do anything out of the ordinary re any cultural practices?

“We have some good ideas for how to address the challenges. For example, the use of grow lights is one practice used throughout the industry to address shade. We will continue to consider all options and to provide recommendations to the stadium leadership team.

“Game Day has a grounds manager, Brandon Porch, working full time at Audi Field. Brandon has a degree in plant sciences from the University of Tennessee and most recently worked as a sports field manager at the University of Miami. Brandon is supported by the Game Day Inc. production team of sports field managers.”

Heather continued, “Our company specializes in sports field maintenance, management, repair, and re-surfacing. We love growing grass! Every growing season, we plant new bermudagrass fields using either certified sprigs or sod to convert or repair sports fields; in addition, we maintain artificial turf.

“Situated in the DC Metro area, we have a unique opportunity to serve so many talented athletes from high school, to college, to professional sports. Our customers at the high schools are coaches, athletic directors, and parent boosters who are very often eager to learn about sports turf management. As part of every customer relationship, our team of sports field managers offers in-person instruction and consulting on the proper operation of mowers, on fertilizer application, on irrigation management, and on routine maintenance for synthetic turf. Michael has always encouraged our customers to become Sports Field Managers!

We are very thankful for the Field of the Year program and the membership resources that exist with the SFMA. The SFMA and all of its dedicated volunteers have helped us to build our business on the principles and practices that result in safe and playable sports fields,” Heather wrote.