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Sports Surfaces: A History

Jake Watkins provides an overview of the types of playing surfaces that have been used in sports history.

Throughout history, different sports have been played on various different surfaces. The surface upon which a sport is played will have a significant impact on the plater's experience. Different surfaces have been used for different purposes - some will allow games to be played under conditions that would otherwise render them unplayable, and others will provide a higher level of comfort for the player. Take a look over the types of surfaces that have been used in sports history.

The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Many of today's popular sports have been played for hundreds of years. A good place to start is by looking at what they did with their surfaces back then. Methods were very different, and here are some examples of how sports surfaces were maintained back in the 17th and 18th centuries:

  • In the 1660s, bowling greens were known to be sodded
  • By the 1700s, they had started rolling these surfaces
  • Later that century, team sports fields were subject to sheep grazing
  • Around the 1750s, rolling was now done for cricket-wicket tables too
  • Towards the end of the 18th century, sand patching was used on damaged surfaces

Michigan State University has conducted an interesting study, which helps provide some insight into the past methods and illustrates the origins of modern techniques and ideas. Without modern technology, maintenance would have been a lot harder than it is today, and they would have been able to use much other than natural surfaces.

Early Artificial Pitches

From the 1970s to the 1980s, respected sporting organisations started using artificial pitches. However, the response from players around the world was primarily negative. Herman Edwards (formerly of the NFL) commented that the artificial pitches felt like playing on "concrete, " reflecting his discomfort.

Conversely, Dan Dierdorf (also of the NFL) expressed that he appreciated the additional traction that artificial pitches provide. But while his perception was not entirely negative, he also explained that they would "[tear] up your skin if you fell on [them]". He explained that later health concerns associated with artificial pitches would have swayed his judgement were they better known at the time.

Used by Respected Bodies

Artificial turf has gained recognition from several respected sporting bodies. Here are a few examples of the approaches taken by different organisations:

  • FIFA: They allow synthetic surfaces, but only as long as they meet their defined guidelines.
  • NFL: The NFL uses one particular brand of turf, which is FieldTurf.
  • MLB: Major League Baseball has been quite accepting of artificial turf and has been using it for over fifty years.
  • Olympics: Artificial grass has been used in the Olympics. The first example of this was in 1976, for field hockey.

Recycled Artificial Pitches

Artificial pitches are often made of recycled rubber to save resources in modern times. However, there have been concerns that these might be putting players at increased cancer risk. There have been a few prominent cases of this:

  • Many Major League Baseball players have been diagnosed with cancer, potentially resulting from this. Examples include Dick Howser, Darren Dalton, and Johnny Oates.
  • Dutch goalkeeper Lewis Macguire has been diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. There are worries that exposure to artificial pitches may have brought this on
  • Liverpool FC player Gary Ablett died from causes which his widow believes to have been caused by an artificial pitch

These are just three cases, though they are concerning. When deciding upon the best surface for your team to play upon, it would be wise to research the materials involved in the creation of your surfaces. You do not want to risk exposing your team to anything harmful.

2015 Women’s World Cup

The synthetic surfaces used in the 2015 Women's World Cup were the catalyst of controversy. In that year, the event was hosted in Canada and, as a result, it was entirely carried out on artificial turf. The reasoning for this was that the climate in Canada meant that a conventional soccer field was not an easy option.

The players were unhappy that they were forced to play so regularly on an uncomfortable, artificial turf, so they threatened legal action. There were even accusations that forcing the players to use artificial grass violated Canadian Human Rights. Ultimately, the lawsuits against FIFA were dropped, and the tournament proceeded without issue.

Synthetic Surfaces in the Present and Future

While there have been issues with synthetic sports surfaces, work on improving them continues today. There are two main areas in which improvement is needed:

  • Player comfort
  • The potential impact on player health
  • The visual and physical similarity to natural pitches

Once these issues have been tackled, synthetic sporting surfaces will probably become more popular, as their benefits will outweigh their weaknesses. They can be used to boost your performance, provide a useful surface in difficult climates, and reduce the cost of maintenance.


Many different surfaces have been used in sports throughout the years, and other organisations have taken different approaches to this. Natural pitches always seem the most desirable, but artificial turf has been convenient when that has not been possible. As the technology behind them improves, artificial pitches are likely to see much more use as the positive aspects begin to outweigh the dwindling negatives.

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • WATKINS, J. (2017) Sports Surfaces: A History [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Jake Watkins is a freelance writer from the UK. Previously a blogger for a content marketing agency, Jake has written for many leading businesses in the UK. He prides himself on providing insightful information. In his spare time, Jake enjoys learning more about the intricacies of sport and hiking in the hills. You can follow him on Twitter.