Might sell more tickets?Field of Screens
In a few years NFL gridirons will become their own Jumbotrons. "Turf TV" might put the plasma in the den to shame.
Imagine this: you pull in your driveway after a long day at the office, step out of your car, and suddenly your lawn, yes, your lawn, lights up with a "Welcome Home, Honey!" Or how about this: The military has a runway deep in enemy territory that it wants to keep from getting blown up, so it changes the color of the landing turf to brown to blend in with the surrounding desert. When a plane comes in for a landing, two strips of lights appear. After the plane has landed, with a push of a button the strip reverts to camouflage mode.
Sounds cool, right? This technology will be available soon, making its grand entrance as a National Football League field. Mark Nicholls, the founder and chief executive of Sportexe, the number two maker of artificial turf in the NFL, has patented the process of "tufting" fiber optics with blades of plastic grass. "We will be able to turn the football field into a giant Jumbotron," says Nicholls.
A field can display a huge American flag during the national anthem. At halftime a sponsor such as Budweiser could cover the field with its logo. During the game, that virtual first-down marker you see on your TV could now be on the field itself before the ball is snapped. And because sensors beneath the fibers can sense when any given blade's light is obscured, referees can track the footsteps of a player to determine if he was in-bounds or not. Stadium owners would welcome the technology as well, as it would help them get more use out of the field: A few mouse clicks is all it takes to change the field from a gridiron to a soccer pitch. Compare that to the 2.5-hour, $650 process of cleaning and repainting lines on today's artificial fields.
Sportexe's interactive field is merely the latest salvo in the escalating artificial turf wars. AstroTurf, that pale green, postmodern creation of the 1960s, loathed by players and TV-viewers alike, is gone from NFL stadiums. It's been replaced by what's known as "in-fill" turf systems, which cover a football field with 50 million to 70 million 2.5-inch-tall blades of "grass" made from polyethylene, cushioned by a mixture of rubber pellets and silica that acts as the dirt. The in-fill fields look and feel more like natural grass; one company even supplies a spray that smells like freshly mowed grass.
The new fields claim to be softer and more forgiving than AstroTurf, which was a nylon rug laid over a shock-absorbing pad and concrete. The players like them better, too. But James Bradley, the Pittsburgh Steelers' chief physician, says not enough research has been done on the new fields to validate a safety advantage. "I'd still prefer to see every game played on grass," he says.
The in-fill system was patented in 1981 by a former professional golfer named Frederick Haas to make truer hitting surfaces in tee boxes. Its potential for sports fields was realized early on, but AstroTurf so dominated the artificial turf market that it wasn't until 2002 that the first in-fill field was installed in the NFL, at Seattle's Seahawks Stadium (now called Qwest (nyse: Q - news - people ) Field). All 12 of the 31 NFL stadiums with artificial turf now use in-fill systems. In-fill systems are also found at baseball stadiums and town parks, and were recently approved by the Fédération Internationale de Football Association for World Cup soccer qualifying matches.
FieldTurf in Montreal (revenue: $235 million), run by a former Canadian Football League quarterback, is the market leader with eight stadiums, including Ford (nyse: F - news - people ) Field in Detroit, host of last year's Super Bowl, the first ever played on an in-fill surface. FieldTurf says it has built 1,900 sports fields and 150 fields in town parks. The town of Redding, Calif. recently built four in-fill fields. Sportexe, in Fonthill, Ont. (revenue: $50 million), is the distant number two, with 300 fields, 2 of them for the NFL.
But Sportexe, 40% owned by former Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell, believes the future of turf is interactive. Here's how its "turf TV" works: A computer sends an image to the field, where it is distributed among 1,750 interconnected square trays, 7.5 feet on a side, that host their own light processing circuitry. Thousands of blades of polyethylene grass, blended with optical fibers, reflect light upward from the trays. It's like a computer monitor that you can walk on. A football field would have 128 million pixels, which works out to 1,280 per square foot. In pixels per square foot it can't hold a candle to your television set; in total pixels it's well ahead.
Unlike your flat screen at home, this display is equipped to withstand the impact of a 380-pound lineman. The blades are conducting light, not electricity, so athletes can't be electrocuted on rainy days, even if they're losing badly.
At $1.5 million, the purchase price of an interactive field will be three times that of an unilluminated in-fill field and eight times that of a natural grass field. But Sportexe's Nicholls points out that the ten-year maintenance bill on grass can approach $1 million, 20 times the cost of maintaining an in-fill field. A stadium owner may be able to pay the mortgage on the interactive grass with ad revenue or host more events if the field lines can be changed so easily and rapidly.
Nicholls says the lit-up fields are still two years away from commercialization. The technology, though, is already being employed, most notably on artificial Christmas trees.
"The technology isn't really that amazing," he says. "It's just that no one's done it on a field yet."