Colts, Lucas Oil bucking recent trend toward grass

By Mickey Shuey

Indiana Business Journal

Plans for new artificial turf at Lucas Oil Stadium are moving ahead, despite renewed calls from the NFL Players Association that venues league-wide change their playing surfaces to natural grass.

The Capital Improvement Board, which operates the facility, said last month it would replace the field next summer, going from one type of synthetic turf to another. And that plan is still on track.

Pete Ward, chief operating officer for the Indianapolis Colts, confirmed the team hasn’t had conversations with the CIB about switching to natural grass.

“We’re always going to put player safety first, but we have to also do what’s practical for our venue,” he said.

The $1.24 million turf for Lucas Oil Stadium, which will be installed by Texas-based Hellas Construction, is a brand called Matrix. It’s the same turf that’s used at So-Fi Stadium in Los Angeles, AT&T Stadium in Dallas and NRG Stadium in Houston. Hellas was selected from five bidders on the project.

The removal of the existing turf will occur in March, while the new turf will be installed in late June after the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials conclude.

The monofilament-type surface is the kind the NFLPA initially asked venues with turf to switch to before Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers tore his Achilles tendon during the team’s home opener Sept. 11. Since then, the union’s attitude has shifted to a focus on a wholesale shift to natural grass.

“Moving all stadium fields to high quality natural grass surfaces is the easiest decision the NFL can make,” Lloyd Howell, executive director of the NFLPA, said in a statement last week. “The players overwhelmingly prefer it and the data is clear that grass is simply safer than artificial turf. It is an issue that has been near the top of the players’ list during my team visits and one I have raised with the NFL.

“While we know there is an investment to making this change, there is a bigger cost to everyone in our business if we keep losing our best players to unnecessary injuries… This is worth the investment and it simply needs to change now.”

The NFL Players Association did not respond to an email requesting comment on the plan at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Representatives for the CIB and Lucas Oil Stadium have also declined to speak in detail about the topic, releasing only a brief statement late last week.

“The selection of the new playing surface that will be installed at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2024 was made in close consultation with the Indianapolis Colts,” Eric Neuburger, director of Lucas Oil Stadium, said in a written statement. “Safety and performance were the primary considerations.”

The CIB did not answer several follow-up questions sent via email, including whether a shift to natural grass had been considered, what the cost would be, who would pay for it and whether it has been in contact with the NFLPA on the matter.

“There are a number of hurdles,” Ward said of switching to natural grass. “I don’t know how a natural grass would work in a stadium with a roof—that hasn’t been figured out yet.”

While some newer roofed facilities such as Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas and State Farm Stadium in Arizona can roll their playing surface from inside the venue to outside to expose it to sunlight, no such system was considered for Lucas Oil Stadium. The venue is not equipped for the kind of extensive irrigation and drainage needed to grow and maintain natural grass.

And according to Milt Thompson, a sports consultant who spent several years as a member of the CIB, the task of installing irrigation and drainage systems would be a costly endeavor.

“If they have to convert a field that has no irrigation and has no drainage, that’s a significant cost. It’s not just like an every-other-day cost; it’s a significant cost,” Thompson said.

A source familiar with the CIB’s operations, who spoke on conditions of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the NFLPA’s request and its potential impact on the league, said it would be impractical for the stadium to convert to natural grass because the playing field would be damaged by the constant convention activity that takes place in the venue.

The stadium is connected to the Indiana Convention Center and is frequently used as overflow convention space. For each event, a special heavy duty flooring is placed atop the turf. That flooring protects the turf but would be detrimental to natural grass.

FDIC International, a convention held annually in Indianapolis, showcases firetrucks on the field. Gen Con sets up gaming areas. And several sporting events, such as Nike’s Mideast Qualifier volleyball event set up courts on the field. Concerts also build their stages atop the playing surface.

The NFL has not expressed any concerns about the turf as it relates to the National Scouting Combine, which has been hosted in Indianapolis since 1987, the source said. The other cities now vying for rights to the event — Dallas and Los Angeles — also have artificial turf in their stadiums, and the league has made no mention of requiring natural grass for future bid cycles.

Thompson said the Colts and CIB likely would not consider a move to natural grass unless they are forced to do so through NFL rule changes. And while the league has stayed mum on the topic, such a mandate could be a bigger issue in 2030 when the current collective bargaining agreement between the NFLPA and the league is up for renegotiation.

It could also come sooner if the NFL opted to act on its own, he said.

“It’s going to be a costly issue, and they will pass that cost along to everybody,” Thompson said. “But what’s not going to happen is they change those rules carte blanche, immediately, without some accommodation for what those expenses look like.”

According to its master lease with the Colts, the Capital Improvement Board is responsible for upkeep of the playing surface “consistent with generally accepted industry standards for the repair, maintenance and replacement of playing surfaces in other NFL stadiums and as recommended by [the turf’s] manufacturer.”

The CIB is required to replace the playing surface once at least every 10 years, but the current turf is being replaced after five years. Most NFL stadiums with turf now replace their fields every two or three years.

The lease indicates the Colts are responsible for any replacements or repairs that are required by NFL rules. That means that if the NFL were to require a change to the playing surface, the team would contractually be on the hook for it.

The “CIB shall have no responsibility or liability whatsoever for the cost of stadium amenities, improvements, equipment, replacements, repairs or like items required solely as a result of changes, amendments, supplements or modifications to any NFL rules,” the agreement reads.

But who ultimately pays for such a change — if it comes — remains to be seen, Thompson said.

“When you change rules, everybody else has to change their rules …,” he said. “What these two are not going to do is break a 20- or 25-year lease in order to accommodate a rules change that couldn’t be foreseen. So it’s about who you shift the liability to and who pays for it. These are not simple issues.”

Both Ward and Thompson said they think the CIB would work with the Colts on a solution if a switch to grass was mandated by the NFL.

“I think, theoretically, they could act, but we’ve always operated in a wonderful spirit of cooperation,” Ward said.