Thanks to Joshua Mayers' reporting, we know the possibility of installing grass at Qwest Field is formally being explored. To get a little more information about the situation, I talked to Sounders GM Adrian Hanauer.
First, a little background. The current FieldTurf was installed before the 2009 soccer season. Hanauer didn't say whether or not they were expecting it to hold up better than it has, but at this point there's little denying that the field has taken a bit of a beating since then. In addition to Sounders and Seahawks games, there have been various outdoor events such as concerts held at Qwest. What we are left with is a field that, while certainly not bad, is less-than-ideal for soccer.
"There’s no getting around the fact that as soon as you lay synthetic turf, it starts to deteriorate," Hanauer told Sounder at Heart. "For soccer at least, it’s just a reality, whether it’s the fields here at Starfire, which are only used for soccer, or at Qwest which is used for other events."
While installing a grass surface would be ideal from a Sounders point of view, it is not quite as simple as that. Hanauer was quick to point out that grass is not inherently better than FieldTurf.
"As long as it’s good grass, we want grass," he said. "We’ve played on some grass fields in the league and if you were going to give our guys the choice of some green sand and some blades of grass or FieldTurf, they’d choose FieldTurf."
Whatever solution is decided upon is going to have to work with the idea that more than one team is going to be using it and other events will probably be held there as well. While a perfect grass pitch is the clear preference of the Sounders, it's not as clear that the Seahawks would automatically prefer grass. Preferences aside, a grass pitch would also require some kind of special grow lights, which Hanauer estimated as costing about $1 million.
"A lot of variables will go into it," Hanauer said of the study. "The ultimate conclusion may be to just keep doing what we’re doing. But the story is that we’re all (the Sounders, Seahawks and First & Goal, which operates Qwest) communicating and it’s a good time to revisit it. Technology has changed for grass and synthetic and maybe there's something out there that we’re not aware of."
Among the variables that Hanauer did not seem particularly worried about was the University of Washington football team using Qwest next season. He said that accommodating their schedule should be easy enough just by having fewer non-football/soccer events next season.
"I think that if you’re talking about adding six more football games and that is it and that replaces a monster truck pull and a concert - it’s why we’re doing the study - but I wouldn’t imagine that that is going to make or break (the possibility of grass being put in)," Hanauer said.
As for the possible outcomes of the study, there are many beyond installing a permanent grass pitch. Hanauer mentioned the possibility of some kind of temporary grass turf that might only be used during soccer season that would be laid on top of a synthetic field. There are hyrbids out there that combine both grass and synthetic. Hanauer also pointed out that the study could reveal that FieldTurf really is the best option.
"Maybe in the end, FieldTurf is best and maybe it has to be replaced more often or we have FieldTurf and less other events," he said.
Although the Sounders will be importing a grass field for the Manchester United match and using it for a couple MLS matches, Hanauer said they weren't expecting those games to be any kind of trial run for a grass surface. In the past when grass has been brought in for one-time events like this, it's only designed to be used a few times and is only practical during the summer when there's enough sunlight for it to grow enough to take hold. It also costs about $150,000-200,000 to install, while replacing the current surface with new FieldTurf would cost about $500,000 if none of the infrastructure needed to be changed, Hanauer said.