Super Bowl Soggy Sod Debate Returns to Rainy Las Vegas

There can’t be a Super Bowl week without at least one field controversy, and Las Vegas has doubled down for its championship debut. Field issues have surfaced at Allegiant Stadium, where the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs face the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl 58 on Sunday, and at the Niners practice facility at University of Nevada—Las Vegas.

Media who arrived in a pounding rain at the home of the Los Angeles Raiders on Monday for a show and tell of the facilities found Sunday’s natural turf field on a pallet outside the stadium uncovered and exposed to the elements. By day’s end, the entire 100-yard surface, including end zones, was covered by a tarp.

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“That’s a new field that’s come in,” Katie Keenan, senior director of events for the NFL, said when asked why it was being exposed to the rain six days before the big game. “We have a great plan and a maintenance team that’s working on all that. It’s outside so that it can get sunlight and rain and keep the field safe from all the activity that’s going on inside the stadium right now.”

Monday’s Opening Night presentation, with fans in the stands and players speaking with media, was conducted on an artificial surface.

“What’s great about Allegiant is that it’s an innovative stadium for us,” Nick Pappas, the NFL’s field director, said in a promotional video posted on the NFL’s official football operations website. “We get an opportunity to grow a field outside, keep it out in the elements. Whether warm or cold we get to take advantage of all that.”

The league declined to make Pappas available for an interview or further comment.

Last year’s Super Bowl 57 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., used a similar system. A farm in California called West Coast Turf grew the Super Bowl sod on its premise, and like last year, transported the surface to the venue. Both State Farm and Allegiant have a system that allows the field to air outside in the elements on a huge metal tray and then be mechanically moved into the stadium in time for the game.

Last year, the field was over-watered and not allowed enough time to dry out before it was moved inside, creating slippery conditions for the game. State Farm is equipped with a retractable dome, but that didn’t matter.

Consider the fact that there was no rain last year in the Phoenix area, and the conditions were warm and spring-like heading up to the time of the game. This year in Vegas, rain was still falling on Tuesday and temperatures are predicted to be no higher than the mid-50s all week, although the game will be played under Allegiant’s bubble-like permanent dome.

What could go wrong? The turf condition is now more data driven, Pappas said.

“We utilize technology to our advantage. We utilize warmth blankets,” he added. “We utilize under field heating under this field tray to keep the field warm. Then before the game we move it into the stadium, utilize it for team walks-throughs, kickers coming in early, half-time rehearsals.”

Last year, the NFL made field guru George Toma available to the media early in the week before the game. Toma wore a gray sweatshirt with the word “Sodfather” splashed across the front, representing one of his many nicknames.

“Some call me the Sultan of Sod or the Sod God,” Toma said in an interview that day. “The NFL presented me this shirt, and they wanted me to wear it at the Super Bowl.”

Toma, now 95, was in charge or at least a consultant on the field for the first 57 Super Bowl games. The NFL has replaced the regular season natural grass in each of the Super Bowl stadiums since 1993. On the artificial surfaces Toma oversaw the painting and artistic design of the turf.

This is the first Super Bowl without the man who’s acclaimed to be one of the greatest sod masters in baseball and football history. He said last year he would probably retire after Super Bowl 57, but after the slippery surface debacle he sped up the process.

“Me and the league are finished,” Toma said. “They can’t tell me what to do anymore. We’re done.”

The Niners’ practice field has drawn its own share of the sod spotlight. The NFL pre-covered a pair of artificial turf surfaces with grass, which turned out to be too soft to practice on for the NFC champions’ taste.

As the AFC host team for this Super Bowl, the Chiefs can attempt to win back-to-back titles for the first time by any club in almost 20 years by utilizing the Raiders’ top-of-the-line practice facilities, replete with two outdoor grass fields and an indoor turf field.

The Niners, shunted to a college facility, found their complaints falling on somewhat deaf ears.

“We’ve had 23 experts out there. We had the union out there. All of them think it’s a very playable surface,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said on Monday at his annual Super Bowl press conference, staged this year in the Raider locker room. “It’s softer than what they practiced on, but that happens. It’s well within all of our testing standards.”

A compromise of sorts was reached for later in the week to allow the Niners some hard practice time at the Raider facility when it won’t conflict with what the Chiefs are doing. Until then, they’ll complete lighter workouts on the softer fields.

Come Sunday, we’ll see how the main field plans at Allegiant Stadium all work out.

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