It’s a product that ideally few athletes ever come in direct contact with, but one that has never been in greater demand. Designed to spare injury, it can also spruce up a place. Sports venue padding has come a long way in terms of both sophistication and widespread application.
“If there’s one thing that I think has changed over 20-some years, it’s the attention to what is safe, what isn’t safe,” says Benji Brye, a 23-year veteran of Beacon Athletics, a provider of venue padding solutions and other equipment largely for the baseball and softball markets, and the company’s current director of business development. “People are identifying more parts of their facility that are potentially dangerous — either in terms of collisions or ricochets — that need to be padded.”
Matt Duchek joined Bison Inc. as art director in 2007 after a four-year professional baseball career, and now helps design padding solutions, such as those for the end walls in basketball gyms. “When I first started, we had packages that were 16 feet wide by six feet high, and that was to cover what we thought was an adequate amount behind the backboard, where you have the 12 feet of lane width and you’d actually go a few feet more on either side. Well, now it’s, ‘We need to pad every inch of the wall, every pillar, every doorframe, every door.’ ”
What follows is a crash course in available products and specifications to help ensure athlete safety and enhance the game-day atmosphere — whether it be indoors or out.
Most padding has at its core open-cell polyurethane foam. In the interest of fire-retardancy and smoke and fume suppression, particularly indoors, polychloroprene foam (commonly referred to as neoprene) may also be used. Closed-cell foam — which is denser and stiffer and thus less able to compress completely, or “bottom out” — may be used in certain specific sports applications, such as basketball backstop padding and the preformed tubular collars that wrap baseball dugout railings.
Wall padding’s foam is encased in sewn vinyl of varying weights, and typically backed by wood. Vinyl considered suitable for indoor padding applications may fall in the 12- to 16-ounces-per-square-yard range and be treated for fire-retardancy, while the vinyl on outdoor pads is a heavier 18 to 20 ounces and treated for UV protection against fading and degradation.
Common backing material indoors is 7/16-inch oriented strand board, while outdoor pads are commonly backed by 3/4-inch plywood painted on both sides for water resistance.
“When we started getting more into the outdoor padding, it was like, ‘Well, what can we do to kind of help the longevity of the pads, because they’re out in the elements? What could we possibly add to ours?’ ” Duchek says, pointing to a venting feature available on Bison pads. “It offers that thicker wood, we offer the thicker foam, heavier vinyl, which is actually used in the awning industry, and then we do have added brass grommets along the bottom, just in case there was any moisture that would penetrate, it would have a way to escape.”
Duchek estimates that the robust nature of outdoor padding makes it up to three times as costly as indoor varieties. “For one, you have a heavier-grade plywood, and right now plywood is just through the roof — a big cost,” he says. “The foam is typically charged by what’s called a board foot, same as lumber — height, width and thickness. So, if you’re taking a two-inch piece of foam and now you want a three-inch piece, the cost per board foot is just greater. And then the vinyl is heavier and has different properties than our regular 14-ounce vinyl, so cost gets added.”
Padding may exhibit different properties, depending on where it’s used in a given venue. This is particularly true for ballparks, where the crash pad on an outfield wall will tend to be inches thicker than the padding on the backstop behind home plate.
“You’re always thinking about what’s appropriate for the application,” Brye says. “If you’ve got somebody who is running full speed after a fly ball in the outfield, they’re looking in a different direction. They’re looking up at the ball, maybe not identifying how close they are to that wall. You want to make sure that they’re well-protected. You don’t want that pad to bottom out. You’re trying to spread that deceleration over a few inches as opposed to a dead stop.”
While an outfield wall may be padded by foam measuring four inches thick or more, the backstop padding may require only two or three. “You probably don’t have somebody running full speed into that backstop wall,” says Brye. “Certainly, a catcher might turn around and try to make a play on a ball, but generally speaking, they have a sense of where they are on the field.”
The bigger issue behind the plate, according to Brye, is ricochets, and padding helps in this sense, too. “That’s where we’re trying to not necessarily pad for somebody running into it, but pad for just deadening the impact of the ball,” he says. “We don’t want to kill it. We don’t want it to stick to the wall. We want it to play off there so that catcher can get it, but we don’t want it coming back at them, you know, as fast as it went back to the wall. So, we’re trying to just have dead net impact a little bit. And that gets applied throughout the field, whether it’s on dugouts, railings, fences, other poles down the lines or wherever else.”
Right angles present a particular challenge. Rather than taking a flat pad and bending it 90 degrees, thus compressing the foam at the corner to the point it’s essentially bottomed out before anything even hits it, it’s instead recommended that sections of foam are custom-cut to build a box around the obstruction. And right angles can be vertical or horizontal. It may be desirous to pad the top of a wall with a separate pad, often called a top return, so players are protected from what could otherwise be an exposed edge.
“Some structures are more dangerous than others,” Brye says. “Maybe there’s a light pole that’s plate-mounted onto a concrete pedestal. It might be difficult or expensive to try to get a really custom-fit pad built around that. Some people might say, ‘Let’s just make a big, flat, rectangular pad. We’ll just wrap it around the base of this thing and call it good.’ In that sort of application, you still have a safe pad. You’re not taking the foam and bending it at a harsh angle. You’re taking it and bending it around a sizeable curve.”
There are nearly as many ways to fasten padding as there are padding applications.
For indoor and outdoor pads covering a wall, a common form of attachment is a Z-channel system in which hardware on the wall and on the pad’s backing join to secure the pad in place, like hanging a picture, according to Brye. “You just kind of slide it in and set it down.”
But even how that hardware is attached has advanced beyond a simple screws-into-wood approach. “We put a stainless-steel threaded insert in the plywood,” Duchek says. “That way, when you screw the tracks onto the pad, the T-bolt has something to go into. Some of the pads that we have replaced used wood screws back in the day, and then pretty soon they get stripped.”
This bolt-and-insert approach also serves well when applying a pad to chain link fence, with the T-bolt helping secure a four-inch circular metal disk tight against the chain link on the opposite side of the fence as the pad backing.
There are three ways to secure padding that’s wrapped around railings and other round facility components: two — zip ties and lace — engage grommets built into the vinyl, and another employs Velcro strips.
Grommets and ties can also be used when hanging flat padding on a fence, but that’s typically done only in situations when woodless padding is specified. Wood constitutes the bulk of a backed pad’s weight, and hanging such a pad by grommets and ties can stress the vinyl.
Woodless pads can still be hung from behind using an aluminum batten that slides through a vinyl sleeve and attaches the pad to a wall bracket. “We wanted a nice clean aesthetic,” Brye says. “We wanted these pads to look like they were clean, wood-back pads, but not actually have to have the wood on them, because that’s the one thing that tends to deteriorate faster than most other things over time. Wood makes the pads heavy and more difficult to carry and move around. And if you drop a pad on a corner, that is potentially damaging to the vinyl at that corner. When we can eliminate the wood in those pads, all of that gets much easier.”
Certainly, the most noticeable evolution in padding is the enhanced aesthetics it can bring to any sports venue.
“That’s kind of why I got hired,” says Bison’s Duchek. “I had an art background, and my first role was design for our brand-new product, which was our graphic padding.”
Graphics can include lettering or custom logos, gleaned from a school’s specific style guide and confined to small spaces such as scorer’s tables or spread out mural-style over a gym’s walls. “We used to have a 12-foot section or a 16-foot package that would go behind your shooting station,” Duchek says. “Now we can give 55 feet of graphics that all match up, all the way around your gym.”
Color matching has been made easier in recent years with advanced printing capabilities, Duchek adds. “We used to print with a solvent-ink printer on white vinyl. Let’s say your colors are royal blue and red, and you wanted royal blue for your background color. We actually had to print the royal blue, and those colors never really matched up perfectly,” he says, as four large-format printers hum simultaneously 20 feet from his office. “Now we’ve switched to a UV-curable ink, which lays down white, and now we can actually run the colored substrate through the printer, which really has helped out customers because a solid-colored pad is about half the cost per square foot as what a graphic pad is.”
The result of all this attention to detail — from hidden mounting mechanisms to in-your-face graphics — are sports venues that are safer for participants and more spectacular for fans in attendance. “Along with safety is the explosion in branding and printing capabilities,” Beacon’s Brye says. “Not only are people wanting to make their facilities safer, but they’re also wanting to bring in that branding, that customization, and give it a real stadium feel. Padding provides the opportunity to do that.”