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According to a recent survey by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), over 7.9 million U.S. students currently participate in high school athletics, breaking previous records for the 29th consecutive year. As participation and support for every sport from soccer to football, lacrosse, and track and field continues to grow, so do the needs and expectations for athletic facility design.

“High school athletic facilities are being used more than ever before,” states Clay Schneckloth, Landscape Architect for Snyder & Associates. “They’re a hub of community activity, and along with that comes new demands and challenges.”

New industry trends ensure high school athletic facilities are as user and spectator-friendly as the large, professional stadiums students aspire to play in.

Alternative Athletic Turf

For many people, an athletic playing field is simply the grassy backdrop of heated rivalries and historic victories.

We often don’t stop to think of how the quality of the turf and field amenities can impact the game.

“Project success begins with land survey, and advancements in survey technology play a crucial role,” explains Eric Miller, PLS, Survey Business Unit Leader for Snyder & Associates.

The majority of high school athletic fields are built on native soil, which is high in silt and clay with a low infiltration rate. Unable to absorb rain, native soil fields can become saturated and muddy when wet which reduces traction and stability. Poor athletic field conditions combined with heavy use can cause natural turfgrass failure and game cancellations until the field recovers.

As a result, some schools are switching to alternative turf options such as synthetic or sand-capped fields. Sand-capped fields provide a popular, cost-effective turf alternative allowing the field to drain quickly and withstand frequent use by adding four inches of a sand and topsoil mix right below the turf surfaceWith a synthetic field, there’s no need to worry about stress to the turf, but it’s also quite expensive notes Schneckloth. On projects where natural grass turf is preferred, Schneckloth and his colleagues focus on seven aspects of natural turf design that guide turf health and establishment.

Lighting Technology

The Ames Athletic Complex project incorporated a netting backstop system and elevated bleachers to enhance the spectator viewing experience for baseball games.

For decades, large, metal halide lights have loomed over high school athletic facilities, boldly illuminating the field long after nightfall. But as LED technology becomes more affordable — professional sports stadiums are making the switch in droves with high school athletic fields following suit.

“LEDs are still more expensive initially, but the cost of long-term maintenance is lower and they offer greater longevity and increased functionality,” says Schneckloth.

With at least five minutes needed until metal halide lights warm-up and reach maximum brightness, the amount of energy consumed and wasted is quite high. LED lights, with a reported energy savings of 65 to 85 percent, turn on instantly. In addition, they offer a more uniform source of light similar to sunlight which increases safety, visibility, and broadcast quality.

LED lights, with a reported energy savings of 65 to 85 percent, turn on instantly.

Touting a host of benefits, the use and popularity of LED technology on high school athletic fields isn’t limited just to field lights. With the ability to do animations, replays, and advertising, “many fields are also switching to LED scoreboards,” he mentioned.

Cohesive Athletic Facility Design 

Dull, cold concrete block and plain steel athletic facilities are becoming a thing of the past as more emphasis is being given to creating warm, inviting community spaces.

“From a finishing standpoint a custom theme throughout the facility is something to strive for,” states Schneckloth. “By introducing new elements and amenities, a much more appealing environment can be achieved through a cohesive athletic facility design.”

An image of the McFarland Baseball Field complete with team logos and colors.

The McFarland Spartans incorporated their team logo and colors into a new varsity baseball field.

In order to do so, logos and team colors are now part of the design for benches, trash receptacles, signage and more. Vinyl coated or decorative picket fencing is being used in place of a standard galvanized fence. Restrooms and concession stands are taking on a new look with the use of tile and soft lighting in place of concrete blocks and fluorescent lights. Including some of these elements can stir emotion, creating a more memorable experience.

Little details can go a long way in making a unique space people enjoy and a source of community pride.

“Even something as simple as decorative concrete or pedestrian pathway lighting can make a difference,” he says.

Enhanced Spectator Experience

As the number of students participating in high school sports continues to increase, so does the number of spectators and the time spent at athletic facilities. Time spent can range from a few hours to an entire weekend in the event of a tournament.

“Providing amenities for people to relax, play, and enjoy themselves is a nice feature and it enhances the spectator experience,” says Schneckloth.

More today than ever, social sharing has become a way for people to stay connected and share their experiences. As fans record and share game-winning plays and special moments, amenities such as Wi-Fi and phone charging stations have quickly become popular. By incorporating phone charging and Wi-Fi into the press box or light pole locations, users are able to quickly and easily connect.

Congregating/common area amenities add value and functionality.

Playground equipment and plaza areas where people can congregate out of the sun and away from the elements such as open shelters provide added value and functionality. While children love outdoor parks, so do parents. The equipment provides a family refuge from confining bleachers to allow the kids to run, jump and move around. In addition, shade trees and canvas canopies can be placed throughout the venue to create smaller spaces for groups to gather. Social gathering spaces allow for people to mingle and relax while maintaining close proximity to game day viewing.

Traffic before and after games are a frequent concern. To support equitable mobility to and from the game, trail connectivity has become a frequent request for many communities. While trail access promotes a healthy lifestyle, often times with careful design it can promote economic and environmental benefits as well. Incorporating multimodal connections can maximize the use and value of your facility.

“As the needs and expectations change for your sports facility, we are prepared to make recommendations on incorporating the latest design trends that will best suit your long-term needs,” shares Schneckloth. “Our goal is to design safe and top-performing high school athletic facilities and we do this by providing sound planning and guidance to our clients.”