Original fake grass in real turf fight

Published May 12, 2007

RALEIGH, N.C. - For Jon Pritchett, reviving AstroTurf has been like raising the dead.

The brand name synonymous with artificial grass fell on hard times in 2004, when the company that made a surface that added "turf toe" and "rug burn" to the sports lexicon went bankrupt. It was even declared DOA on a headstone in an advertisement run by industry leader FieldTurf.

Pritchett is trying to bring AstroTurf back to life.

His company, GeneralSports Venue LLC, acquired the North American rights to the AstroTurf name late last year. His challenge is to level the playing field in the sports-surfacing game, turning "AstroTurf, " which was given that name because it was originally installed at Houston's Astrodome in 1966, from a reviled brand to one that represents the new technology of artificial playing surfaces that look, play and feel like real grass.

"There's a legacy there. There's a legacy of being the original innovator, creating the category, " Pritchett said. "There's also a negative association in that because it's such a strong name and the technology didn't change for so long."

When the Tampa Bay Devil Rays began play in St. Petersburg in 1998, it was on an AstroTurf field. Tropicana Field has since switched to FieldTurf, including a new surface installed before this season. The last old-school AstroTurf surfaces in pro baseball and football were ripped up in 2005.

The new style of fake turf is based on a sea of polyethylene fibers that simulate blades of grass, surrounded by infills largely composed of rubber granules, creating a soft cushion that behaves like a grass field.

FieldTurf chief executive John Gilman said his company's revenues should exceed $200-million this year, a fourfold increase from 2000.

The new AstroTurf is similar to FieldTurf, with subtle differences that range from the length and composition of the fake blades to the amount of infill, and whether the infill is composed of rubber, sand or a mix of both.

One of the options offered by AstroTurf is a factory-installed antibacterial coating designed to help prevent staph infections.

One of AstroTurf's products, called Gameday Grass, is made by Textile Management Associates, a Dalton, Ga., company that partnered with GeneralSports to market and sell the product. GeneralSports signed Archie Manning as a spokesman for AstroTurf and relaunched the brand in December.

"It's kind of what we call 'Operation: Takeback, ' " Pritchett said.

"It's a ground war of hand-to-hand combat, face-to-face sales people, and we expect it will take a period of time to gain back that ground."