Turf Battle in the NFL: Natural vs. Artificial

SoFi stadium photo with NFL logo at top left and headline Turf Fight: Grass or Artificial Turf?

Super Bowl games put a spotlight on the turf on which these epic battles are waged. Is that grass natural, artificial turf, or some hybrid? On your big-screen TV, you most likely can’t tell any difference. 

NFL players, though, feel differently about the debate over natural or artificial grass.

For years, football stadiums have been replacing green grass with green substitutes, but the pendulum may be swinging back a bit in Mother Nature’s favor. Player injuries are one reason for the shift.

In this article, we’ll cover:

The Shift from Natural to Artificial Grass

The first sports artificial playing surface debuted on the infield of the Astrodome in 1966. It was the home of the Houston Astros, the Major League Baseball expansion franchise. They learned in 1965 that grass would not grow well indoors. 

The success of the artificial grass in the dome led to it being rebranded AstroTurf.

That new infield looked green, but it had none of the forgiveness that grass did. Some players found that the artificial turf gave them more traction, but that traction came at the cost of the field’s surface being much harder. 

Both in baseball and football, knee and leg injuries spiked as teams transitioned from grass to artificial turf.

New Turfs (Grass and Artificial)

The last half century has seen considerable improvements in grass science. And there have been similar improvements in creating artificial turf. Proponents claim that the new stuff is easier on the body than that which came before.  

Even so, there are multiple different turf products. Some are rated fast, others are slow, some are hard and others are soft. And there is no general agreement among teams on which artificial playing surface is best.

Natural Grass Losing Some Ground in NFL

More than half (17) of the 32 NFL franchises play on an artificial surface of one form or another. The Tennessee Titans moved the needle a bit in announcing that Nashville’s Nissan Stadium was moving from grass to artificial turf.

But maybe the tide is turning. 

2023’s Super Bowl, though, is being played on the real deal, a Bermuda grass hybrid, Tahoma 31, and grown locally just outside Phoenix.

And 2022’s Super Bowl injury – and a grass seed maker’s campaign to pay the costs for stadiums to switch from artificial to natural turf – may spur a shift back to the real thing.

Player Injuries on Artificial Turf

At 2022’s Super Bowl, Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. suffered a torn ACL in his left knee during the second quarter on artificial turf.

The injury raised concerns about the venue, the Rams’ SoFi Stadium. That’s because Beckham’s injury came not as a result of a tackle or a collision. 

Rather, while wide-open running a crossing pattern, the cleats on Beckham’s left foot were caught in SoFi’s artificial turf. The ACL gave way.

Artificial turf has a troubling history at all levels of play.

A 2019 study out of Cleveland-based University Hospitals said that high school players – boys and girls – playing sports on turf fields suffered 58 percent more injuries than those playing on natural grass fields. 

Grass Seed Maker Urges Change

In 2022, grass seed maker Pennington took to the Super Bowl ad airwaves to make its case for a return to natural turn with a #FlipTheTurf petition. While all those crypto commercials during that big game didn’t stand the test of time, the natural vs. artificial grass debate continues. 

Yes, Pennington Grass Seed company has a financial incentive should stadiums NFL teams move to grass from the fake stuff. But it also offered to pay the cost for any NFL stadium flipping from artificial turf to natural grass.

To date, almost 29,000 have signed the #FlipTheTurf petition at change.org.

NFL Players Join the Epic Debate

While the company’s move would seem to be a good business ploy, the players’ motivation seems to come from self-preservation. 

For years, NFL players have been openly pleading for a return to grass. San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle went on Twitter to write, “Artificial turf feels like playing on cement,” linking it with a #FlipTheTurf hashtag.

And after the 2022 Super Bowl, Kittle’s 49ers teammate, edge rusher Nick Bosa, linked to the same petition while talking about his turf-related injury in 2020.

In San Francisco’s first road game of that season, he suffered a season-ending knee injury on the turf at the New York Jets’ home, New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium.

Bosa said he didn’t feel alone: “Every player is one play away from altering their career forever.” He was. Bosa didn’t play again until 2021.

NFL Investigates ‘Natural vs Artificial’

This turf war is far from over. 

Jeff Miller, the NFL’s executive vice president of health and safety affairs and executive VP of communications, public affairs and policy, said the league is currently conducting “a substantial research effort” looking at different playing fields. 

The league is partnering on the study with IQVIA, a health technology company jointly appointed by the NFL and NFLPA, and engineering firm Biocore to understand and compare different fields, including looking at how other major sports leagues study and test surfaces.

SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, for example, was created around Hellas Matrix Turf, the same stuff that covers the fields used by the Dallas Cowboys and the Houston Texans. 

This state-of-the-art turf is supposed to have more give in it than in earlier incarnations of artificial surfaces, but not every knee would agree.

The field in Santa Clara that both Kittle and Bosa call home, Levi’s Stadium, has a hybrid Bermuda grass field. That grass is sterile, which for groundcrews means the grass doesn’t produce pollen. And it produces fewer seed heads, meaning it’s easier to keep neatly mowed.

The war between NFL players, who by a significant majority prefer to play on grass fields, with or without pollen, and management, which can utilize the field more efficiently and more often when the turf is artificial, has been going on for decades. 

Deescalation does not seem imminent. 

Players Association Chief Makes the Case for Grass

JC Tretter, the Cleveland Browns center who currently serves as the president of the NFL Players Association, plays home games on bluegrass at First Energy Stadium. He’d like to see the 17 teams currently playing home games on artificial surfaces migrate toward grass.

“Our occupation is dangerous enough,” Tretter says, adding that a move to all-grass fields is one of the players’ key issues.

Using the NFL’s official injury reports from the seasons 2012-2018, Tretter made a case on the NFLPA’s website that natural grass fields provide a much lower risk for injuries.

A report released by the NFLPA broke down injury rates for turf vs. grass.

 “Specifically, players have a 28% higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries when playing on artificial turf,” the report read. 

“Of those non-contact injuries, players have a 32% higher rate of non-contact knee injuries on turf and a staggering 69% higher rate of non-contact foot/ankle injuries on turf compared to grass.”

49ers GM: Return to Grass Would Be ‘Great Step’

A day after that report was published, Tretter got support from the other side. John Lynch, the 49ers’ general manager, said he would like to see a large majority of NFL teams find fulfillment in natural grass. 

His 49ers have. San Francisco’s experiences with artificial surfaces have been painful. Earlier in that 2020 season, Lynch’s 49ers had lost not just Bosa but also defensive tackle Solomon Thomas to season-ending ACL injuries in that artificial turf game against the Jets. 

A San Francisco team that won 13 games the year before and would win 10 more a year later, won just six games in 2020 thanks in considerable part to those injuries.

Talking on the Peacock network, Lynch said the NFL “can’t run from” the results of using artificial turf. He applauded Premier League soccer players in Great Britain refusing to play on anything but natural grass. 

“Someday, I hope we get there,” he said, adding that it would be “a great step.”

For a change of pace, you might like to read my article on UK soccer’s devotion to natural grass: Hey, Ted Lasso, keep off the soccer grass!

Pro-Grass Bandwagon Gains Supporters

While you can look for Lynch’s hoped-for step to get a boost with the next contract negotiations between owners and players, change won’t come quickly. The current deal doesn’t run out until 2030.

In a pre-negotiation look ahead, Tretter said, “Our occupation is dangerous enough” and said that a move to all-grass fields is one of the players’ critical issues.

Lynch’s 49ers are not alone among NFL franchises in going the natural grass route. The Arizona Cardinals and the Las Vegas Raiders have opted for grass, even though the Cardinals play in a retractable roof stadium and the Raiders call a fixed-roof stadium home.

New Tech Helps Natural Grass Fields

The Cardinals roll out their grass field on a 40-inch-deep tray sitting on 546 steel wheels set in railroad-like tracks so the grass field can get sun when not in use. 

The Raiders’ new stadium contains a sliding tray that holds natural grass. It takes 72 motors gearing up to move the grass surface into the sunlight on non-game days.

For those on the pro-grass bandwagon, it’s a start. But it seems clear that this decade in the NFL will be an ongoing battle between the forces of natural grass and the forces of artificial turf.

Other Sports Lead the Way

The NFL is almost alone in this fight. 

  • Major League Baseball is weaning itself away from artificial turf; only five teams played on the fake stuff in 2022. 
  • In Premier League soccer/football in England, teams play on natural surfaces, mostly at the request of their players. 
  • In the World Cup and other FIFA competitions, natural turf is the default.

Eleven NFL stadiums were awarded bids for the 2026 World Cup co-hosted by the U.S., Mexico and Canada. To win those bids, the owners of the seven sites using artificial turf had to provide FIFA with a plan to meet its extensive standards or bring in grass. 

Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, where the standard playing surface is turf, will at least temporarily install natural grass to comply.

David Tepper, the Carolina Panthers owner, had Bank of America Stadium go from turf to grass for a match between Charlotte FC and Chelsea of the Premier League on July 20, 2022. Before the NFL season began, the grass was gone and turf was back.

It’s far from clear which side will emerge victorious in the NFL’s grass vs. turf war, although it should be noted that both 2023 NFL conference championship games and Super Bowl LVII in Glendale, Arizona, laid claim to natural grass.

Main Photo Credit: Logo and text overlaid on photo of SoFi Stadium / Thank You (21 Millions+) views / CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

John Hickey

John Hickey

John Hickey, contributing writer at LawnStarter, has been around sports as a writer and blogger since the earth was young. He's worked at the Oakland Tribune and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, for AOL/FanHouse and Sports Illustrated. As he writes this, he looks out his window and sees a lawn badly in need of mowing.