Red Bull Arena trials pitch growth lights

Arena groundskeepers striving to improve natural playing surface though artificial means

Field Lights Trials 1

Photo Credit: 
RBNY

Red Bull Arena is still in its first year of existence, and like anything else at a young age, it is constantly growing and improving. Although the first year at Red Bull Arena was wildly successful, one of the areas the club feels the arena can improve the most is by growth; not the size of the building, but the grass on the pitch. 

During the short days of the fall and winter months, areas of the Red Bull Arena pitch are completely cut off to any sunlight, significantly shortening the time period for the grass to properly grow and be ready for the kickoff of the 2011 season. To counteract the issue, and in the hopes of seeking a better playing surface throughout the entire 2011 season, the club is trialing the use of artificial lights, a method to better grow grass that has been proven effective throughout Europe.

“With the roof that we have here, we have a shade issue,” Red Bull Arena Director of Grounds Dan Shemesh said. “We’re going to test these lights out to see the effectiveness of (artificial) growing light, whereas right now we’re getting little to zero sunlight on areas of the field that are played on. Basically, these lights will give us sunlight where we were not getting any before.”

Not only is the wavelength of the grow lights specifically manufactured to grow grass, but additionally, the temperature that emanates from them helps speed up the growth process and produce higher quality grass. So far during the trial run, the temperature of the areas being lit artificially has been about five degrees warmer than areas that are in natural sunlight, according to Shemesh. Five degrees may not sound like a lot, but it can indeed make a huge difference.

“The lights are giving off enough heat where we can keep it above freezing,” Shemesh said. “If we can keep the ground and the grass above freezing, we can see some real growth.”

Only one other American stadium has explored this method to help speed up the process of growing grass. Lambeau Field, home to the National Football League’s Green Bay Packers, started trialing with grow lights in October of this year in the hopes of helping their grass continue to grow through their frigid fall and winter months.

Currently, Red Bull Arena is trialing two different companies’ lights: Mobile Lighting Rig (MLR) and Stadium Grow Lighting (SGL), who the Packers are trialing with. MLR is a Norwegian-based company who has used their product to a great effect at Glasgow, Scotland’s Ibrox Stadium and Wimbledon’s Centre Court in England. On the other hand, SGL was used at five different stadiums in South Africa in anticipation of the 2010 FIFA World Cup, and is currently used at Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu and Chelsea FC’s Stamford Bridge, among many others. The Amsterdam, Holland company’s product has been used in over 50 stadiums across Europe. Both companies use the same Philips light bulbs, but according to Shemesh, they are different in the way their rigs are designed. 

If the process has proved to be effective in Europe, it begs the question as to why more American stadiums in colder climates haven’t utilized grow lights. However, it is the lack of sunlight that is more detrimental to the growth of grass. Most American stadiums with natural grass do not have this issue, as generally, stadiums have seats that are set back and no real roof structure. Red Bull Arena’s unique, European-style roof and its close-to-the-action design impedes sunlight to certain areas of the field at different points of the year. 

Cost, says Shemesh, is the biggest challenge in the whole process, but that the investment is worth it in the long run.

“It definitely will work,” Shemesh said. “These are very expensive, and the electricity to run them is also very expensive. It costs more than replacing the field, but over time if you replace the field less, you will recover the cost of the lights.”

Although approaching just the first anniversary of its grand opening, Red Bull Arena continues to look at ways to improve and remain the premier soccer venue in North America. How better to improve the stadium than to improve the pitch itself?

“We want a better playing surface,” Shemesh said as to why this initiative was taken. “We had some games (last season) where the field was pretty good, and some where it wasn’t up to par. If we can eliminate some of the environmental problems that we have, we’re going to get better grass.”

If the use of the grow lights works as expected, Red Bull Arena will not only provide the spectator with the preeminent soccer experience, but will give the Red Bulls players the best possible surface to apply their skills on.