Tue. Jun 18th, 2024

Meet the local developer behind the transformation of AT&T Stadium for the 2026 World Cup

By meerna Jun12,2024

In two years, on June 11, 2026, the next FIFA Men’s World Cup will start,

The spotlight will be on Mexico, the United States and Canada – the joint hosts. But even if most fans don’t realize it, it will also be the story of Tom Jones, the local genius responsible for the literal playing field.

Jones, no relation to the British showman, is part of an interdisciplinary team of professionals responsible for transforming the AT&T Stadium cement slab into a smooth and beautiful natural grass pitch for the World Cup.

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Cowboys Stadium will host nine World Cup matches, more than any other tournament venue. Before the stadium was awarded matches, FIFA representatives expressed reservations about the condition of the pitch. FIFA now requires that all World Cup matches be played on natural grass.

Jones is certainly qualified to fulfill this mission with over 30 years of experience and a great passion for lawn care, and he is excited about this opportunity.

“It’s a big challenge,” said Jones, 57.

Jones oversaw Rangers’ on-field staff. He is currently the vice president of the Toyota Stadium complex, overseeing 18 pitches, including the main pitch of the stadium where FC Dallas plays its matches.

Jones recently attended a FIFA grounds/pitch workshop to learn about the process of producing the best grass mixtures that will be installed at the 16 venues selected to host the 104 World Cup matches.

Toyota Stadium Complex Vice President Tom Jones shares details on maintaining...
Toyota Stadium Complex Vice President Tom Jones shares details on maintaining natural grass on the football field on Tuesday, May 7, 2024, at Toyota Stadium in Frisco. Jones will be an important adviser on the sowing of natural grass at AT&T Stadium during the 2026 FIFA World Cup, and this will be the biggest challenge for the local organizing committee.(Shafkat Anowar / Photographer)

The 2026 World Cup will be a breakthrough before and after when it comes to the technology of creating natural grass surfaces.

Soccer’s international governing body has committed $5 million to research, development and production of playing surfaces for the World Cup in the United States, Mexico and Canada.

When bidding to host the FIFA World Cup, one of the main questions asked by FIFA was whether the United States could develop new technologies for growing natural grass in indoor stadiums or turf-based venues, as is the case at AT&T Stadium.

Maintaining natural grass for more than a month at AT&T Stadium will be one of the biggest challenges.

FIFA has named John Sorochan, professor of turfgrass science and management at the University of Tennessee, and John Trey Rogers, professor of turfgrass research at Michigan State University, as principal investigators for the project.

“Something like this has never been done before. So I always tell my employees that it’s similar to NASA when they did missions to the moon and all the technology that evolved through that process,” Jones said.

The exhibition shows an example of a field that shows where the FIFA pitch would need to be expanded and...
An example of the field shows where the FIFA pitch would need to be enlarged and raised to meet World Cup regulations, during a press conference to discuss FIFA’s recent visit to Dallas-Fort Worth on Sunday, October 24, 2022, at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. To comply with field regulations, some seating would have to be blocked off. The visit precedes Dallas’ bid to be one of the 11 American host cities for the 2026 World Cup.(Ben Torres / Special Contributor)

“Talk to the Grass”

Jones has always had a unique passion for lawn care, but when he was a young college student, a career in grounds management was not an option.

While studying psychology, Jones pursued his passion and in 1988, he found a part-time job paying $25 a game, tending the turf at the Rangers’ first stadium in Arlington.

Jones moved with the Rangers to what is now known as Choctaw Stadium, where he experienced how a barren and cobbled area was transformed into a beautiful baseball field. His hard work and acquired knowledge led him to become a crew chief.

Since July 2004, Jones has managed the Toyota Stadium complex.

“I have a four-year degree in counseling psychology. That’s why I say I can talk to grass,” Jones laughed.

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Dan Hunt, owner of FC Dallas and chairman of the local organizing committee for the 2026 World Cup, said in an interview “Dallas Morning News.” that reconfiguring the AT&T Stadium field will be the most important expense the local committee will have to make to host the tournament.

Raising the playing surface is the only way to expand the field at Cowboys Stadium.

“We are looking at the reconstruction of the pitch and how it will be carried out to create a natural grass surface that will last the entire tournament, which is a huge challenge,” said Heimo Schirgi, FIFA’s chief operating officer, in a visit he made to AT&T Stadium in October.

Installing natural grass for the World Cup would go far beyond what is currently done at AT&T Stadium, which hosts soccer games.

When football games are played at AT&T Stadium, protocol calls for thick pads of sod to be laid down and sewn together to cover the cement slab that serves as the field for Dallas Cowboys games.

Players and coaches have criticized the condition of the playing surface during football games at AT&T Stadium.

The alternate pitch has caused some player injuries as the seams of the grass are often exposed and players’ shoes get caught on them.

“Haircuts are not good in football,” Jones said. You want a solid shot, you want to put your foot down to kick the ball. The grass has to stay where it is.”

For the needs of the World Cup, columns will be installed to support and raise the surface of the AT&T Stadium, and a system of various layers will be placed on them. To grow grass, soil, sand and the root system will be planted.

Jones explained that research is being conducted to determine what grass mixture will be used at AT&T Stadium during the World Cup.

Jones said the results of an investigation into the surfaces used at AT&T Stadium and indoor stadiums where World Cup games are played will likely be announced next year.

Cutting-edge technology

When the 1994 World Cup was held in the United States, the Pontiac Silverdome field in Detroit had to be converted from turf to natural grass.

This was the first time something like this had been done, and it was then that Professors Sorochan and Rogers developed the technology that made it possible.

Thirty years later, the same two professors are leading the 2026 project to create indoor greenhouses with a controlled environment that simulate the cultivation of various varieties of grasses.

The research process involves test plots, each with its own set of grow lights that control the environment, temperature and lighting, to learn how plants respond to different conditions.

“They can simulate the environment at AT&T Stadium, and all they do is develop standards that all ballparks must meet,” Jones said.

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Under FIFA regulations, all pitches must now be hybrid, with artificial fibers woven into the grass to create a more solid surface.

Jones said the plan is for all 16 2026 World Cup fields to look and feel almost identical, whether they are rooftop or outdoor stadiums.

One of the four corners of Toyota Stadium on Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Frisco.  Vice...
One of the four corners of Toyota Stadium on Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Frisco. Toyota Stadium Complex Vice President Tom Jones will be an important advisor on planting natural grass at AT&T Stadium during the 2026 FIFA World Cup, and this will be the biggest challenge for the local organizing committee.(Shafkat Anowar / Photographer)

Achieving this will be a monumental task because, for the first time in World Cup history, the tournament will be hosted by three countries with completely unrelated soil and weather conditions.

The researchers’ goal is to ensure almost the same conditions on the field, regardless of whether the team plays in one country one day and trains in another the next.

“All the performances would be nice and smooth,” said Jones, who hopes to give the best performance of his life in two years.

For more FC Dallas coverage from The Dallas Morning News, click here.

By meerna

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