Sports Flooring: Sports flooring supports the athletes performing atop it - July 2021
By Jessica Chevalier
Sports flooring represents a diverse collection of products-both indoor and outdoor-designed to protect and support the athlete in motion atop it. Today’s sport flooring technologies are more sophisticated than in year’s past-designed for specific activities or groups of activities-as well as serving as a visual billboard that enhance both players’ and spectators’ experience.
Sports flooring surfaces vary greatly. The top-most layer may be hardwood, vinyl, rubber, linoleum or turf, and subfloor systems vary to support specific activities. Sports flooring systems are most commonly used within K-12, higher education, municipality/civic projects and retail gym facilities, though they may appear in healthcare, hospitality, senior living, corporate and additional retail settings as well.
By some estimates, the worldwide sports flooring market is expected to reach over $2 billion in the year 2026.
As technology in sports flooring has evolved, it has enabled manufacturers to create spaces specifically suited to particular sports. While, for instance, pickleball-the fastest-growing sport in the U.S.-can be played on a tennis court, ideally it is played on a court the provides just the right amount of bounce for the perforated polymer ball-similar to a wiffle ball-used in the sport. This is most important for courts that will be used for competition certified by a professional organization; often, documented achievements-such as world records and personal bests-must be completed atop a verified surface.
Similarly, technology advancements have improved multi-purpose courts, making them better suited to a variety of applications. Explains Bo Barber, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Ecore, “We make a new synthetic court that works for basketball, futsal, group fitness classes and can take some weight drops. In the past, there was either hardwood or synthetic courts that used foam underlayment, and both had their limits. Now there are options in between that enable a wider swath of sports atop the surface. So while there is more tailoring for individuals sports, there is also greater need for surfaces suited for a lot of sports.”
Jeff Krejsa, vice president of marketing and strategy for Gerflor, points to the café-gymnasium-auditorium hybrid spaces found in many K-12 institutions as examples of places where sports flooring must support a variety of disparate needs yet protect the young bodies in motion atop it. “Safety permeates everything in sports flooring,” says Krejsa. Gerflor offers Taraflex resilient sports surfacing systems for a variety of applications, including sports areas, gymnasiums, fitness centers, multipurpose areas, circulation and changing zones.
Today, sports floors may look different than they did in the past. Iannick Di Sanza, director of marketing at Tarkett Sports, reports that where hardwood was historically used, there are now new combination systems that utilize a synthetic top layer over an engineered wood subfloor with foam padding. “It’s the same construction as a wood court but with a synthetic top,” he says, “and that top results in added durability with similar performance to a wood court. Plus, it doesn’t have to be sanded and restained.” Tarkett Sports offers vinyl, rubber, linoleum and combination systems. Its FieldTurf brand has turf systems, and its Beynon Sports brand offers indoor and outdoor track and field surfaces. Tarkett’s Renner Sports Surfaces brand has tennis and pickleball surfacing systems, while GrassMaster Solutions offers hybrid turf solutions, in which natural turf is reinforced with synthetic fibers injected into the soil.
So while the basic requirements for a sports surface-such as force reduction (how much surface absorbs energy), vertical deflection and energy restitution (how much the surface returns energy)-remain static, the ability of surfaces to provide these in amounts ideal for a particular activity or set of activities has improved.
“Back in the day, sports surfaces offered simplistic performance and people accepted that,” notes Barber. “Today, that’s not the case.”
Specification of sports flooring surfaces generally includes a variety of decision-makers, composed in part of coaching staff. “This includes everyone from the strength, conditioning and training staff to facilities and real estate for athletic environments,” explains Barber. “Recreation and wellness facilities are typically controlled by the executive director or a reporting facilities staff, based on the scale of the operation. The architect and design community influence decisions heavily on new construction or major renovations that include performance surfaces, across the board.”
Public school district renovation and new construction must work through a public bid scenario. “These project don’t happen overnight, explains Di Sanza. “The buying lifecycle is typically one to three years and upwards.” Alternatively, some districts buy through cooperative purchasing, in which previously bid contracts with preferential pricing are accepted by the district, streamlining the process of each individual job.
Creating systems that both serve the athlete and the institution is key. “As much as we care about the athlete, what differentiates us is how we build systems for facilities too: easy to maintain, durable,” says Di Sanza. “People think that a synthetic system won’t need maintenance. That’s not true. We have great programs to educate and support our clients about maintenance. We don’t vanish after the sale.”
Barber currently sees the biggest growth area for sports flooring as the education space-middle school to higher education. He also notes significant investment in community-based recreation environments. “It could be a Jewish community center, a YMCA, or a residential community where the homebuilder is putting in fields, walking paths and courts,” says Barber. “Townships are investing more robustly in recreation at a higher level. Lots of folks are looking at ways to engage kids, to get them off computers and active.”
Krejsa notes that the education sector will drive sports flooring sales for the next five years and notes, “Pre-Covid, the segment was growing because there was more attention to health and wellness for individuals indoors, but today that has moved outdoors.”
Adds Di Sanza, “The American Rescue Plan [the $1.9 trillion Covid-relief bill passed in early 2021], ESSER [Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief] Fund and government programs will help the sports flooring sector, targeting K-12 with funding, which filtered money down to schools that have needed improvement for some time.”
Courts in education facilities are often used after hours by a variety of populations besides the official school teams-club sports, band, community events and more-which makes renovation work particularly cumbersome. With almost all events shut down amid Covid, educational facilities had the opportunity to renovate these high-use facilities without disrupting activities.
While sports flooring is utilized in physical therapy and rehabilitation areas in healthcare as well as in wellness centers, Ecore is making a push to apply its sports technology to non-sports areas where its features could be a benefit, such as hospital corridors. “Think about a nurse who is walking typically ten miles a day on her shift,” says Barber. “Is that not pretty much what sports surfaces support? Nurses suffer athletic injuries.”
Similarly, Ecore believes its technology is applicable to senior living, where it has the possibility of reducing injuries and concussions in falling events.
Ecore offers a wide variety of sports flooring systems, suited for cardio/selecorized strength areas, functional training applications/training centers, free weight areas and Olympic lifting areas, indoor courts, indoor tracks, indoor turf fields and bathroom/locker rooms.
Second only to safety, aesthetics are a highly important part of sports flooring. Educational institutions, at the college and university level, use branding and decoration to create an experience for both the athletes and the fans.
Di Sanza reports that Boise State’s iconic blue turf field, for instance, was born of “the athletic director trying to make his program more popular without the type of money that a team like the University of Alabama has behind it.” He hoped to use the field as a marketing tool to attract both student athletes and funding.
Krejsa notes that, in fact, coaches often use their courts as a means of recruitment, mentioning, for instance, Taraflex by name in the wooing of Division 1 women’s volleyball student-athletes. “In women’s volleyball, when athletes walk onto court, they dive and slide, so they want the confidence that they will be safe,” he says.
Today, branding court and fields with team colors, logos and mascots is standard in higher education, and high schools are now following suit.
Interestingly, in some cases, the promotional value of the flooring doesn’t cease with its removal. Krejsa reports that the championship court it provides annually for March Madness is usually purchased by the winning team, which displays the center graphic on campus and cuts apart the remaining court to sell as commemorative items for fundraising.
Says Barber, “Not only are people realizing the potential for flooring and surfacing to sustain the ability of the athlete to do what they love for longer, they are exploring this large and highly visible space for branding and messaging. Whether simply boosting school spirit or promoting everything from professional sponsorships to a high school booster club, flooring has become a billboard.”
As with sports flooring systems, turf is engineered and tested to perform at high levels to keep the athletes safe and support them in performing well. While, to the untrained eye, an outdoor turf field may appear equally well-suited for a game of football, soccer or field hockey, ideally, each of these sports requires different field features. A field perfectly designed for football, for instance, would provide too much ball bounce for soccer, and the turf suited to field hockey field is preferably very short-almost like a putting green-with a high amount of moisture that enables the ball to move quickly-which would perform terribly under heavy football players in cleats. Today’s manufacturers can provide turf systems perfectly suited for each sport, as well as fields not perfectly ideal for any of the three but suitable for all.
Over the last 60 years, turf systems have evolved greatly, from basic nylon fibers atop a hard base like concrete or asphalt to sophisticated surfaces developed for optimal performance and with the ability to provide biometric data.
Explains Chuck McClurg, executive vice president for Shaw Turf, “We set out to engineer systems to mimic the feel and performance of natural grass. The goal is to not be the best synthetic turf system but to be the best playing surface, period.”
One way in which manufacturers are improving their products is via cooling systems. Earlier generations of turfing systems were hotter than natural grass, but today, fiber technology and infill cooling techniques (including the utilization of infills that aren’t black rubber) has helped lower heat at the foot level to a degree very similar to that of natural grass. Both Tarkett (CoolPlay) and Shaw (Geofill) offer such systems. As with other sports flooring, turf specification is influenced by the coaching staff.
Some other turf technologies focus on the accessories around the product, such as smart field technologies that helps facilities manage and care for the systems.
Last year, Shaw Sports Turf introduced a performance shock pad made from recycled artificial turf and that product has been Cradle to Cradle Certified Bronze. For each pad produced, one turf field is diverted from the landfill.
In addition to its turf systems, Shaw offers Shawgrass, a landscape brand that offers a mix of products for residential and commercial landscape applications, pets and recreation, as well as Southwest Greens, a premier golf brand.
Regardless of who provided it, the hardwood top layer of a basketball court is almost exactly the same in every case: maple that has been inspected, graded and certified by the Maple Flooring Manufacturing Association. The maple must be grown above a certain parallel and harvested in a particular way. “What makes basketball courts different, then, is the subfloor,” says Krejsa. “That’s where all the innovation goes. Between the slab and hardwood is a subfloor of mechanisms to absorb shock, give energy restitution and provide vertical deflection.”
In many cases, previously used basketballs courts can be sanded, refinished and resold.
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