Not many people can safely say they’ll know what it is they’ll be doing two or three or even six months from now, but Gavin Darby, head of arena management at Melbourne’s Marvel Stadium, already knows what he’ll be doing in August 2020.
Heading up a small team of ground staff at Australia’s only retractable roof stadium with a natural grass playing surface, Darby is charged with ensuring all events — up to 75 every year on the ground itself — run smoothly on the best possible surface.
But his job is a lot more complicated and interesting than just watching grass grow.
Coordinating and maintaining a “suitable surface” as Darby modestly puts it, is a round-the-clock job with challenges ranging from tight turnarounds (think four Ed Sheeran concerts in consecutive nights to an AFL match in just 11 days), to logistical planning, to something as simple as ensuring the grass receives enough sunlight throughout the day.
He says delivering a pristine playing surface is a 364-day-per-year challenge.
“We pretty much have someone rostered on every day of the year apart from Christmas Day,” Darby tells ESPN from under the closed roof of the stadium on an overcast Melbourne afternoon.
“We’re a team of six or so who work here and at other venues (such as Ikon Park in Carlton and the Whitten Oval in Footscray), but there’s someone here every day. On a weekend, someone might be here until 2am.”
And while his team does manage a number of other playing surfaces across Victoria, it’s Marvel Stadium in Melbourne’s Docklands that requires the most attention, care and planning.
“The key difference between [Marvel Stadium] and other venues is the amount of shade the grass gets,” Darby says.
“Sunlight is the basis of all living things on earth; everything we eat and drink, whether you’re a meat eater or a vegan, it comes from the sun, so the lack of sunlight increases our challenges.”
For a stadium which, in its early days, was criticised for being unable to maintain a suitable playing surface for football, Marvel Stadium has evolved to become the world’s busiest indoor and natural grass multi-purpose stadium, hosting more than 70 on-field events annually, ranging from AFL games, to concerts, to cricket matches played on drop-in pitches.
Darby says due to the unusually small opening of the roof when retracted — which was, bizarrely, built foremost to keep 95 percent of spectators dry in the event of unforeseen rain — the amount of sunlight that each blade of grass receives is significantly less than that at the MCG just down the road. This means it’s more difficult for the grass to receive enough sunlight to begin the process of photosynthesis, or when plants convert carbon dioxide and water into glucose, or food.
“Grass needs three-to-four hours [of sunlight] to actually start producing glucose. The first three hours is a start-up phase, so it actually burns existing food stores to get started. If the roof is shut for any more than an hour or two during the middle of the day, the plant is basically going into decline as its food stores are reduced for the day,” Darby tells ESPN.
“The roof is shut for most AFL games now, so we lose anywhere between one and three days a week of sunlight. Without that, the grass is unable to feed itself, so it starts to deplete its glucose stores and food stores, and as we go deeper into winter, its food resource declines, and you get grass loss.”
Darby says while some footy fans prefer the roof to be closed during sunny days, it is literally killing the grass inside the stadium.
“Grass doesn’t have a conscience … people kill it through lack of care or too much wear,” he says.
Having been a curator at the ground for more than 15 years, Darby has seen a lot of transformation in the Docklands venue and says in the early years of the stadium’s existence, the grass suffered as there was no way to ensure the surface received enough sunlight other than that which was naturally produced.
The problem was exacerbated in winter when the sun would stay low and to the north instead of sweeping directly over the opening as it would do in summer.
A turning point came in 2007 when “artificial lighting infrastructure” technology was created which mimicked sunlight and assisted with photosynthesis.
“We went to Europe and saw what was going on and in 2008 we purchased artificial lighting rigs, and that has been a key driver in enabling us to deliver a suitable surface,” he says.
“It was developed first in Europe by Nico van Vuuren who was a rose grower and a football fanatic. He saw the challenges that [Johann Cruyff Arena] in Amsterdam was having which are really similar to here.
“So [van Vuuren] used his lighting knowledge to build something that could grow the grass in the depths of winter. We first saw the results at Sunderland, aptly named the Stadium of Light, and we got some studies done for us, and from there the numbers stacked up in our favour.
“We were the first stadium in the southern hemisphere to employ the lights.”
For an operation the size of a Taylor Swift concert, trucks haul thousands of square meters of plastic matting to lay over the turf to preserve the surface as well as possible. Tonnes of equipment is dumped on the turf and sets are built before trucks are brought back in to remove everything just 24 hours later.
Naturally, with vehicles, machinery and thousands of footsteps using the ground throughout that period, parts of the surface simply die, meaning the stadium needs to have a surplus of turf ready to roll out when replacement is required.
“[The grass is] all contract grown, so we own a stock of turf and we’re constantly reviewing that balance and our events schedule, making sure there is enough on the farm at all times to repair any damage,” Darby says.
“We plan ahead as far as we can; after the next football season finishes in late August in 2019, we’ve already booked in some events for later in the year, and we’re planning for those events already.
“It’s the norm these days. There is a lot of planning that goes into it from many facets of the organisation.”
Following Taylor Swift, the ground was quickly repaired and brought up to standard for A-League action. Planning ensured the playing surface was largely left unaffected by the trucks, machinery and sets, with only non-playing areas left relatively bare and in need of replacement.
And then there is the Big Bash. Only made possible through meticulous planning, Darby says placing the pitches is one of the most stressful jobs he has to do; it takes a crew of more than 20 people around one hour to place the two sections of the first of two pitches down to the right millimetre.
“It’s a challenge but we enjoy it. [We are] the busiest natural grass stadium in the world, and it’s challenge to deliver a suitable surface for every event, but that’s our goal”.
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