PitchRater App: improving football pitches through direct player feedback.

An innovative project was launched in Scotland in 2016 seeking professional player feedback concerning the surfaces they played on week in week out.

The Scottish FA and the Professional Footballer’s Association (PFA) Scotland together with the R&D department at Sports Labs embarked on a journey using mobile technology to have the player feedback directly feed into pitch preparation and the awarding of the best performing playing surfaces.

One of the fundamental issues for the artificial turf industry – and increasingly natural and hybrid turf manufacturers too – is the issue of how the playing surface is perceived at the professional level of the game. In Scotland, 13 out of the  42 Professional Clubs’ stadiums are surfaced with artificial turf (30%). Whilst some countries have an even higher ratio of artificial turf surfaces, it is clear that elite players across all four divisions are regularly playing the game of football on artificial turf.

Broadcasters and media generally do not promote artificial turf as the surface of choice for elite sports often referring to it as ‘plastic pitches’ and ignoring the development the industry has seen since the 80s. However, in addition to stadiums pitches, many top clubs nowadays have an artificial turf in their training academy and young players are spending many of their playing hours on artificial turf. There is therefore a disconnect between what players experience as they train and play and develop their game and how the surface is perceived in the media. Ask any player and their surface of choice would be a manicured natural turf pitch, when in reality other than in the top clubs in Europe, players will not regularly be training on this type of surface as clubs struggle to keep their natural turf in good condition throughout the season. Artificial turf has offered a welcome alternative and there is growing evidence that players prefer good artificial turf to bad natural turf.

In order to be able to make such statements with confidence, FIFA accredited test institute Sports Labs, the Scottish FA and PFA Scotland agreed in 2016 to carry out a large-scale player perception survey with all 42 teams across the top four divisions in the country. To reach as many players as possible, an mobile phone app called ‘PitchRater’ was developed allowing each and every player to give structured feedback on quality, consistency, performance, stability and any injuries they sustained on the surface after each away game (to avoid home ground bias). The feedback on a scale from 1-5 also takes account of the date and result of the match in order to be able to correlate to time of year and account for any potential bias related to match outcome.

In total, 43,116 questions were answered in 3,593 separate responses meaning there were more than 86 player responses for each surface used in the season making the data significant and meaningful. Valuable insights from this data include being able to quantify the feedback for individual playing characteristics of the pitches but also getting an overall score for each of the 42 venues. The results show which of the stadium fields consistently rate as being hard, soft, unstable, inconsistent or fatiguing. Pitches that rated poorly generally did so in more than one parameter supporting the link between the different characteristics. The same was true for the fields ranked positively. The best and worst pitches in each league identified in the study have been communicated to the Scottish FA, the PFA and the venues.

Testing Technology for Sport: 42 stadiums tested and rated on a scale of 5 very good to 1 very poor.

The data analysis will go beyond scoring and ranking player responses and venues: correlation of data, looking for trends or patterns should help over a longer period. A deeper analysis of the data will be done at the end of the football season once all the data has been collected. To date, the most important output shows which of the pitches the players rate highly with the best pitch  scoring 4.5 and the best artificial pitch ranked at 3.8. Three of the artificial turf fields are amongst the top 15 across all leagues and the worst ranked pitches include natural and artificial turf fields. For the first time, genuine player feedback provides direct quantitative input to the maintenance staff at each venue with the aim of improving in the future. This is a core part of the study leading to awards for the ground staff of the best pitch in each league but is also used as a basis for educational seminars for owners and maintenance staff to understand the particular issues raised by the players in their venue.

The study is a first of its kind and is planned to run into the 2018/2019 season as well as potentially being broadened to further leagues across Europe and maybe other sports.

“Too often players’ view is overlooked within football. In this case, alterations are made to pitches and different surfaces laid without any thought of, or consultation with, our members. It is often forgotten that the pitch is our members’ place of work and for that reason we are delighted to partner in this ground-breaking research with Sports Labs and the Scottish FA. Players are the ones with the intimate knowledge of how a pitch plays, how it feels underfoot and what type of football has to be played therefore it makes perfect sense to ask them for their views. Our feedback also shows players care about the product on show for fans paying at the gate and the image poor surfaces portray for Scottish football in the wider media. The results of our survey must be considered carefully by decision-makers and used to improve the surfaces in Scotland.”

Fraser Wishart Chief Executive of PFA Scotland

“We’ve been delighted to extend the research partnership with PFA Scotland and Sports Labs when we jointly conducted the initial Professional Player Perception Study in 2013/14. Pitch quality in the professional game in Scotland is an important issue, whether from the perspectives of player safety or the attractiveness of the game as presented via televised matches. The 42 pitches involved in the study are, after all, both the work place and the stage that the top players in Scotland perform upon on a weekly basis. However, until this study, pro players had not been directly engaged on the subject, despite the fact they are the ones who interact most closely with the pitch and the ball. The level of engagement, number of responses and overall commitment to the study over its duration are clear evidence of how importantly players view these areas. Such a response has in turn provided a level of data and subsequent results, which are as insightful as they are significant. In that regard, it is unsurprising that many further football stakeholders have shown great interest in the work being done and it is great for Scotland to be seen as a pioneer in this area. Both we and Sport Labs are extremely grateful to PFA Scotland, without whom we simply wouldn’t have reached the number of players and in turn responses that gives the study its validity.”

Cameron Watt Scottish FA Facilities Manager

“It is very rewarding and encouraging to see that in its first season the PitchRater© app has been such a great success. We are confident it will add to our understanding of what makes a good field for the players, which in turn will help advance pitch improvements. The contributions of PFA Scotland and the Scottish FA in making this study possible have been invaluable and the data will drive improvements on fields throughout Scotland with safety as one of our core values. We would like to thank the players who enthusiastically contributed to the success of our project. It was a superb decision to place player perceptions at the forefront of pitch analysis. Fundamentally, we recognise a game is only as good as the surface it is played on.”

Eric O'Donnell Managing Director of Sports Labs