Written By: Joe Hill
Director of Field Operations
Reno Aces & Reno 1868FC
Greater Nevada Field
The answer is YES.
Everyone wants to know the same thing, “Did you know soccer was going to happen?” Yes, I did. And it is largely one of the reasons I accepted this position.
People are generally curious about the whole concept of soccer on a baseball field. Adding soccer wasn’t official at the time of my initial interview or even on my first day with the Reno Aces, but the idea was being discussed and it was getting more serious every time it was mentioned. In fact, my initial interview with our team President, Eric Edelstein had nothing to do with baseball at all. We discussed the idea of soccer, major concerts, and an overall event load that reflected what is being done at the Major League level. A heavy event load is not a new concept to ballparks and stadiums around the industry, but Greater Nevada Field had never hosted anything major besides baseball, so it was a new concept here. I was excited about the new concepts and the vision that Eric had for Greater Nevada Field, and it was easy for me to see that this is exactly where I wanted to be. On September 16, 2015, sixteen days after my first official day, we announced that we would be adding a USL soccer team to our ownership group and to the ballpark in 2017. Everything changed at this point.
Having an entire year to prepare for soccer was advantageous. I was able to get to know my new ballpark, understand its personality, study the weather patterns, get to know our local vendors and suppliers, develop my budget, and was able to take the time to do research into putting the right crew together; and as many turf managers know is key to having success. I was fortunate enough to hire an additional full-time assistant, which would be the biggest and most important upgrade to our department as the work load increased tenfold. As many turf managers know, adding another full-time position is a luxury that very few get and I was really excited and very fortunate that we not only got some more help, but that we are helping build the industry by creating another position for an up and coming “turfie”. I am very lucky to have two great assistants in Corey Diaz and Drew Tice, both fresh out of college. They have embraced the controlled chaos with a positive attitude and willingness to do just about anything. Both have exceeded all expectations and it would be impossible to accomplish the workload without them. Furthermore, throughout the year, I used the addition of soccer to expand and develop a more efficient program. I wiped the slate clean and started fresh with both baseball and soccer budgets. I wasn’t satisfied with how the baseball budget was set up when I first arrived, so I used my first season to dissect what exactly I wanted to change. I spent a majority of the offseason after 2016 working numbers and leaving room for adjustments, improvements or opportunities, and to get rid of something if it wasn’t working. Since then, I have had to make slight tweaks to some areas of the budget as I am learning a bit more about the numbers every time we complete a conversion. I continually strive to get the program as efficient as possible, and it is a work in progress. In total I had 18 months to build my program, budget, staff, and fleet of equipment to make sure we were ready. Seems like a lot of time, but my first year flew by and soccer was all of a sudden just around the corner.
On May 25, 2016, we had a friendly between Sacramento Republic FC and Liverpool Football Club U21’s. We were fortunate to have two matches before the 1868FC were established because it gave us an opportunity to try out a few different methods of what would work best for us on our field and for our facility. For example, during the first conversion we had a decent window on the front and back ends of the match to learn what a conversion really looked like and to understand what it took to get the field as game ready as we possibly could.
Additionally, during our second conversion, we experimented with using plastic under the sod where we used landscape fabric for the first match. During the match, we had a few seams pop up because the sod was unstable sitting on plastic and seemed vulnerable to moving around. The second match was the longest 2 hours of my career, and the minute the match was over we abandoned plastic and went back to landscape fabric. We really wanted to make sure that by the time we had our soccer team playing here that we had done all we could to give them the best playing surface possible. We want to make sure that they are comfortable playing on our field. If they’re thinking about the field during the game then their head is in the wrong place, which means we haven’t done our job. And that is not acceptable. We also experimented with laying the sod in a couple different directions to speed up the conversion, but no matter how we did it we were still right around 7 hours to build the soccer field.
Following the two friendlies and some trial and error, my staff and I were able to develop a conversion process that works for our particular field as well as individual and team schedules. Prior to sod going down we scratch our edges down an inch and taper them out roughly 15 inches away from the turf edge. This allows the sod edge to match the existing turf edge smoothly and helps hold the sod in place to prevent slipping or sliding. We cover up exactly 9,000 sq. ft. of our infield skin with Kentucky Bluegrass/Perennial Ryegrass sod that is grown locally. We are fortunate to have a great relationship with a local sod farm, Western Turf and Hardscape. They have been a tremendous partner in this process and always deliver a fantastic product, and are very committed to making soccer a success on our field and in our community. Just before we lay sod down we cover the infield skin with landscape fabric to protect our dirt. The fabric allows us to not only protect the skin but makes for a fast and easy cleanup which is beneficial when working against a clock. Once our sod is down, we roll it with a 1.5 ton roller to smooth it out as much as possible. As the sod is being laid we add moisture as we go, which has been the most challenging part of the conversion process. We want to be careful that we do not over water and damage the infield skin. But, we don’t want the sod to dry out so we spend lots of time nursing the sod along, constantly peeling pieces up to check the skin to make sure it isn’t getting too wet. It has been the part of the conversion process that has had the biggest learning curve for us. And as we approach our hot months we will have to take even more care and be more diligent in our efforts to keep the sod from drying up by doing much more “sod-sitting”. After we lay the sod, which takes between 6-7 hours, we paint our lines, put the goals up that are now permanently installed in our field, set up field boards, and then set up our VIP pitch side chairs that sit on top of a protective windscreen mesh. Typically, both teams practice on the field the day before a match so if our schedule allows we will have the field ready for play the day before a match. Chairs, field board and mesh all go down on game day.
The conversion back to baseball is a little more tedious and takes a little bit more time. With the help from our game staff, in a two-hour time frame, we remove sod and landscape fabric off of the skin as well as any signage, chairs, and mesh. We then remove the soccer goals which take an additional 30 minutes to get off the field and store. The most time-consuming work of the conversion is reinstalling our infield skin edges and removing the paint. To help with the paint removal process, we are testing out and using a new removable paint. It comes with a remover solution that we spray on the paint, wait 1 minute and then wash off. It has been a huge product for us as we aim to transition back and forth while leaving no evidence of the previous sport having just been played. Removing the paint takes us roughly 90 minutes, spending most of the time dragging the hose from coupler to coupler.
Lastly, is the backstop netting. We drop our backstop netting behind Homeplate for soccer matches and getting it back up is a timely process taking about 4 hours to reinstall.
With all of the added work to our field we have certainly had our growing pains with some minor struggles and learning experiences on the field and within the staff. But we are growing and getting better each and every day. As an entire organization, we strive in making Greater Nevada Field the gold standard by having a facility that is open 365 days a year. We have accomplished this so far by having had two full field conversion, 5 soccer matches and 25k people thru the turnstiles to watch soccer on a baseball field. We still have 9 field conversions scheduled this season for 18 matches, the possibility of 2 Open Cups, as well as the potential to have 2 major soccer clubs play some additional friendlies. All of these events come in conjunction to a season that already contains 71 Triple-A baseball games, a handful of high school baseball games, weddings and other corporate events. But from all of this we have added staff, doubled our equipment fleet, and tripled our budget. It has also given us the opportunity to explore some pretty great capital improvement projects for the near future that will only make Greater Nevada Field an even more impressive venue.
Adding soccer has given this ballpark some new life and the process that comes along with it has made me a better Sports Turf Manager. It has pushed me to think outside the box, try new things, balance my staff, and prioritize what is truly important at Greater Nevada Field. The process has been an exciting experience and has given me an opportunity to build a program within a program from ground up which has been incredibly satisfying. It’s hard to beat the feeling when there are 5,000+ soccer fans in the ballpark chanting, singing and screaming for the 1868’s. It will make the dog days of August longer and hotter, but when all the work is done, at least I will know the infield skin and edges will be dialed in for the Aces, who continue to remind me that there is no room for complacency. And I’d be lying to you if I told you I didn’t love every minute of it.