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FIFA's World Cup 2026 turf challenge is in the hands of University of Tennessee scientists

In 2026, scientists from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville will take their work to the world's biggest stage – or, rather, 16 of the world's biggest stages.

A research team at the UT Institute of Agriculture is helping develop natural turf for the FIFA World Cup 26, set to be the largest global soccer tournament on record, with 48 teams playing 104 games in 16 stadiums across Canada, Mexico and the U.S.

The grass grown by UT scientists could have a generational impact not just on the World Cup, which draws a viewership of half the world, but on soccer itself.

And yes, that's grown. The World Cup does not use synthetic turf, even for domed stadiums that get little to no natural light. Half of the stadiums for 2026 are either enclosed or semi-enclosed. UT scientists are studying whether the experimental grass could be replicated other places.

An added challenge this time around is the continental sprawl of the tournament. The 16 stadiums – 11 in the U.S., three in Mexico and two in Canada – sit in three different climate zones and three different time zones. The 2022 World Cup, by comparison, was held in eight stadiums all clustered in the host nation Qatar, which is smaller than Connecticut.

Since 2021, UT researchers have completed over 75 research trials supported by FIFA, the international soccer governing body. The central challenges they hope to address are which varieties of grass can be used at which stadiums and how to keep living pitch healthy with grow lights instead of natural light in domed stadiums.

John Sorochan, a distinguished professor of turfgrass science at UT who has advised field managers for the NFL and MLS, leads the effort. Michigan State, another world leader in turf research, is collaborating on the project.

"We (UT and MSU) are conducting cutting-edge research that will hopefully revolutionize the sports turf industry," Sorochan said in a statement to Knox News.

A delegation from FIFA came to UT's Knoxville campus for a "field day" April 10-11 to see the research progress and connect the scientists with their customers, some of soccer's leading global figures.

"This opportunity means the world to me," Sorochan said. "I have been fortunate to meet and share experiences with people from all over the world."

FIFA, based in Zürich, Switzerland, chose to work with leading research universities rather than building its own research program from scratch. It was not difficult to select UT and Michigan State, said Alan Ferguson, FIFA's senior pitch management manager.

"They fairly well selected themselves if I'm honest," Ferguson told Knox News. "I knew what they could do. I knew a lot of the challenges we'd get around the stadiums here. They already had some research underway, and it just made sense for us to support that financially to another level."

FIFA's financial support has led to a new FIFA Indoor Research Building at the Plant Sciences Unit at the East Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center on Alcoa Highway. The facility replicates the interior of a domed World Cup stadium.

In addition to the World Cup, FIFA hosts six other soccer tournaments: the Women's World Cup, the Club World Cup and tournaments for players under 17 years old and 20 years old.

Manolo Zubiria, chief tournament officer, USA, and Heimo Schirgi, FIFA World Cup COO, watch Professor John Sorochan handle sod samples at the FIFA Indoor Research Building in Knoxville.
Manolo Zubiria, chief tournament officer, USA, and Heimo Schirgi, FIFA World Cup COO, watch Professor John Sorochan handle sod samples at the FIFA Indoor Research Building in Knoxville.

World Cup 2026 presents new turf challenges

Ferguson holds perhaps the highest turf leadership position in the world. Before FIFA, he worked at Wembley Stadium in England and at St. Andrews Links in his native Scotland, thought to be the world's oldest golf course. By 2026, he will have overseen pitches at 22 or 23 World Cup tournaments.

Ferguson's role was created to help standardize FIFA turf, but when it comes to the 2026 World Cup, "the challenge has never been as great," he said.

"We've got stadiums in Mexico, U.S. and Canada, so probably the most diverse tournament footprint ever. I think that's pretty safe to say," Ferguson said. "And it comes with a special set of challenges."

All 11 World Cup stadiums in the U.S. are home to NFL teams, and transitioning them to soccer fields involves removing seats to increase the size of the field. Some NFL stadiums use synthetic turf and will be transitioned temporarily to natural grass.

FIFA works with sod farmers in host countries to grow turf off-site, Ferguson said. Turf will be transported to stadiums and transplanted in the weeks leading up to the tournament.

Sorochan, the lead professor, told the university last November that the project includes collecting data from stadiums across North America. A team of students and technicians traveled to Mexico City to identify which grass varieties to use in high altitude venues, he said.

The 2026 World Cup will kick off June 11, 2026, at the Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, and the World Cup 2026 final will be held at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on July 19, 2026. The full schedule was announced Feb. 4.

It's the first time three nations have co-hosted the tournament, though Japan and South Korea co-hosted in 2002. It will be the first time Canada has hosted the tournament, the second time for the U.S. and the third time for Mexico. All three nations' national teams automatically qualify.

Though Tennessee is not home to a World Cup host city, UT researchers studied the economic impact if Nashville had been selected.

If Nashville hosted four World Cup games during one month in 2026, the tournament would generate $694 million in total economic output, 5,469 short-term jobs and $205 million in earnings to Tennessee workers, according to a 2021 study from the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at UT Knoxville.

The 16 host cities for 2026 include Atlanta, Boston, Miami, San Francisco and Vancouver, Canada.

University of Tennessee, FIFA partnership goes beyond 2026 World Cup

For UT, the partnership with FIFA doesn't just highlight its unique research into natural and hybrid sports turfs. It also means more opportunities for students, Chancellor Donde Plowman said in a statement.

“I could not be prouder to see the University of Tennessee's name alongside the world’s most prominent athletic event," Plowman said. "FIFA has put their trust in our experts and this project is the perfect example of what land-grant institutions were created for."

It's one thing for FIFA to put together its own research plan for turf technology. It's another for it to invest in science, a longtime goal of the organization, Ferguson said. Because the research with UT and Michigan State has been so successful, he said FIFA has no plans to end the partnership in 2026.

"I don't think we'll ever finish. I think we'll come to a conclusion for the 2026 tournament, but I think we've already invested so much time, money and effort here," Ferguson said. "The research work so far has been been absolutely fantastic."

(From left to right) Senior Vice Chancellor and Senior Vice President of the UT Institute of Agriculture Keith Carver; Chief Tournament Officer, USA, Manolo Zubiria; University of Tennessee System President Randy Boyd; University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Chancellor Donde Plowman; Michigan State University Interim Provost Thomas Jeitschko; FIFA World Cup Chief Operating Officer Heimo Schirgi; UT Distinguished Professor of Turfgrass Science and Management John Sorochan; and Michigan State University Professor of Turfgrass Research John “Trey” Rogers on April 10, 2024.

FIFA was getting an increasing number of requests from host cities for updates on the research. Its 211 member organizations around the globe also are watching.

"The game is getting bigger," Ferguson said. "There's greater participation from member associations, so the pressure to understand the new style pitches and the new style stadiums just continues to grow. I think it would be quite a sensible thing for us to do to carry on."

Daniel Dassow is a growth and development reporter focused on technology and energy. Phone 423-637-0878. Email daniel.dassow@knoxnews.com.

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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: University of Tennessee develops turf for FIFA 2026 World Cup