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For Tampa Bay Rays, synthetic grass is greener when it's free

Talk about turf wars.

The Tampa Bay Rays are putting final touches on Tropicana Field's new installation of the latest version of AstroTurf.

I was out on the Rays outfield earlier this month. The new product felt pretty nice, as synthetic grass goes.

"The AstroTurf fiber and in-fill systems contain the very latest technology and will provide our players the best playing surface available," Rays president Matt Silverman said of the turf deal.

AstroTurf provided the original Rays field in 1998. In 2000, the Rays switched to a field from AstroTurf's arch rival, FieldTurf.

"We've brought the outside inside now," Vince Naimoli, then managing general partner, boasted of the $1 million field. "When you see this FieldTurf, I would defy anyone to say it doesn't look like real grass."

The Rays liked FieldTurf enough to put in a fresh version for the 2007 season.

Now, the Rays are back to AstroTurf.

Seesaw battles occur when big synthetic turf businesses battle for sports franchise bragging rights and sales. But there's more to the Trop's AstroTurf vs. FieldTurf competition.

AstroTurf cut a deal with Major League Baseball to become MLB's "Official Synthetic Turf."

But when AstroTurf said its new "GameDay Grass 3D60H" will adorn Tropicana Field, FieldTurf took exception.

The Rays won an American League championship, two American League East Division titles and played in the World Series on FieldTurf, the company said.

It added:

"What AstroTurf's press release didn't tell you is the real reason why Tampa Bay is installing their product — they are getting a free field."

FieldTurf says AstroTurf's three-year licensing deal with MLB Properties includes a provision that gives a free AstroTurf carpet to the Rogers Centre, the Toronto Blue Jays stadium in Toronto, plus a new field for the Rays at the Trop.

The Rays agree they're getting a freebie.

If I were the cost-conscious Rays, I'd grab that deal, too.

FieldTurf president Eric Daliere says his company was approached by Major League Baseball with a like licensing offer, but declined it.

"We were not willing to have them subsidize free fields or large royalty fees. When Tampa Bay and Toronto paid for turf, they chose FieldTurf," Daliere said. "We would encourage any clients looking to obtain a baseball field from AstroTurf to ask for the same deal that Toronto and Tampa Bay got."

The original nylon AstroTurf (invented by Monsanto in the 1960s) was outgunned by the softer polyethylene FieldTurf in the 1990s. AstroTurf was revived after a 2004 bankruptcy, and the name is now owned by Georgia-based Textile Management Associates. FieldTurf is owned by the French company Tarkett.

AstroTurf's move back to the Trop pokes a further stick in the eye of FieldTurf, which recently signed Tampa Bay Rays star Evan Longoria as spokesman for its baseball division. FieldTurf may not be big in Major League stadiums, but it's popular on college fields.

Part of this turf war is AstroTurf's interest in regaining a higher profile in pro baseball. Why? Because FieldTurf's brand is stronger in the National Football League.

The stiffest competition isn't always on the field.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

For Tampa Bay Rays, synthetic grass is greener when it's free 02/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 16, 2011 1:10pm]
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