Combining rugby and football at Ashton Gate Stadium

Dan Sparks - Head Groundsman at Ashton Gate Stadium - focused on the multifunctional use of the Ashton Gate Stadium and the challenges for the grounds team during ESSMA’s Pitch Management Workshop.


Grounds team

Dan Sparks’ team consists of 10 groundsman, which are working across four different sites:

  • At Ashton Gate Stadium: 2.5 groundsmen
  • At Bristol Bears Rugby: 1.5 groundsmen
  • At Bristol City FC: 4 full-time groundsmen
  • At Bristol City FC Academy: 1 groundsman
  • 1 head groundsman


The venue is used for both rugby, football and events like conferences and concerts. The 27,000-seat stadium, home to both Bristol City FC and the Bristol Bears Rugby, underwent an in-depth renovation between 2014 and 2016 to adjust its facilities to its multifunctional use. Ashton Gate Stadium was expanded and received a new pitch to ensure shared use between the football and rugby club. The club even has plans to further develop the area around Ashton Gate Stadium with the construction of a basketball arena and two hotels by 2022.


Challenges of stadium construction

However, even with a new pitch, there are still a few challenges that are inherent to the multifunctional use of the stadium which require special day-to-day treatment from the grounds team. Moreover, the stadium construction itself also presents some challenges to the grounds team:

  • Too much shade
  • Very low wind flow (blocked by a double tiered stand)
  • Low PH Levels
  • Low nutrient retention (because of the sand profile)
  • No soil biology, resulting in nematodes
  • No microbial activity


Challenges of switching between sports

The grounds team adapt their matchday preparation every week as both sports have specific requirements. The first thing they have to do after each match is to get the pitch clean and get all the debris of the surface. They also divot the pitch by hand after every match and change the posts.

After several trials, they decided to cut the grass at 23mm for both rugby and football. In the past they used to let it grow for rugby as long as they could (sometimes up to 30mm) and then cut it back down to 23mm for football but this shocked the grass too much.

Pitch testing and dealing with nematodes

The grounds team at Ashton Gate Stadium tests the pitch for hardness (clegg reading), grass coverage and moisture on a weekly or sometimes daily basis. They then adapt and manage the nutrients based on their results and aerate/spike the pitch. 

In addition, they have been measuring the population of nematodes on a regular basis. These microscopic worms thrive under pitches, especially those with sand profiles, and eat grass roots which can drastically damage the pitch. Ashton Gate Stadium had a problem with nematodes back in 2016 and was ultimately able to solve it after moving away from using the garlic extract and instead starting to pump in more beneficial bacteria. The root growth improved massively in 18 months and the nematodes count declined quickly.


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