RICK WESTHEAD, TSN SENIOR CORRESPONDENT
9/12/2014 9:45:19 AM
For the past year, FIFA and Canada’s soccer association has battled withering criticism that the world’s best women’s soccer players are being discriminated against because next year’s Women’s World Cup will be played on artificial turf instead of grass, which is used for the men’s premier tournament.
Now, the company that makes the turf for the Women’s World Cup has landed a crucial ally: one of Canada’s top soccer players, who’s being accused of putting her own self interest ahead of the safety of other players.
FieldTurf has signed Canadian star player Kaylyn Kyle to a three-year, $15,000 endorsement contract, TSN has learned.
Kyle, 25, will help market FieldTurf’s artificial turf product, which is a synthetic lawn with “dirt” that’s made of recycled tires and running shoes. Officials plan to use FieldTurf fields at four of the six stadiums that are schedule to host Women’s World Cup games. Stadiums in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Moncton use FieldTurf. Montreal and Vancouver use other artificial turf systems.
The midfielder, who plays for the Houston Dash in the National Women’s Soccer League, will be featured in coming weeks in a commercial promoting FieldTurf. A company executive said FieldTurf is negotiating with several National Football League players. The commercial may show Kyle playing football on the turf, with a football player playing soccer, highlighting FieldTurf’s versatility.
“Kaylyn is one of the up-and-comers on Team Canada,” Darren Gill, vice president of marketing with FieldTurf told TSN. “With the exposure she’s gotten, and her popularity in world soccer, she’s a good fit for us.
And she’s passionate for our brand and what we do. This is not a big dollar category for her or for us, so for her to want to put her name on this, obviously there could be some exposure because of the issue.
“She wanted to believe in the product she backs,” Gill added. “A lot of the discussions were about whether she likes it. It’s not a cash grab for her.”
When reached by TSN, Kyle said she wouldn’t comment publicly on her endorsement agreement until it was formally announced by FieldTurf.
Kyle’s endorsement deal comes as a group of more than 40 national-team players from at least 12 countries – none of the players are Canadian – are demanding that FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association drop plans to use artificial turf at next year’s World Cup, which runs from June 6 to July 5. Instead, the players want to have grass installed, arguing that playing on artificial turf during the world cup is tantamount to gender discrimination since no men’s world cup final tournament has ever been staged on artificial turf.
Canadian soccer officials say they have no plans to introduce grass.
They argue their initial proposal to FIFA included plans for play on artificial turf. Richard Scott, a Canadian Soccer Association spokesman, said some men’s teams in the MLS, as well as teams in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Europe, play on artificial turf.
“This is not Montreal Expos’ turf from the 1970s,” Scott said. “This is the highest quality turf that is FIFA approved.”
Scott said other prestigious tournaments have been played on artificial turf with no problems, including the Under-20 Women’s World Cup that was played in Canada last year.
Brant Feldman, Kyle’s agent, said the New York Giants play on FieldTurf and, “if an NFL player can do it why can’t a female soccer player do it?”
“I don’t know if it’s gender discrimination,” said Feldman. “Maybe is it sport discrimination? It seems like a lame argument to me.”
Though it’s been a lifesaver for groundskeepers in stadiums in northern climates where grass is hard to maintain, artificial turf has long been a controversial issue for players. In 2010, the NFL’s Injury and Safety Panel found that the rate of anterior cruciate ligament injuries was 88 per cent higher in games played on artificial turf than on grass, The New York Times reported.
FieldTurf countered with the release of its own sponsored study showing that college football players had a lower injury rate when playing on its artificial surface.
Today, every Canadian Football League team plays on turf, roughly half of the NFL’s teams play their home games on turf, including five who play on FieldTurf, and four Major League Soccer teams play on artificial turf.
“FIFA has tried to educate players but I think this issue is less about turf and more about gender equality,” Gill said. “The women have several other issues and we just happen to be the stick that women are currently carrying. The fields that are playable meet FIFA’s highest level of certification. But obviously they are not for everyone and not everyone likes playing on artificial turf. That is the struggle here, but playing on natural grass next year in Canada is not an option.”
Hampton Dellinger, a U.S. lawyer working with players opposed to playing on FieldTurf at the Women’s World Cup, dismissed Kyle’s endorsement.
“The fact that FieldTurf is paying a player to say something positive about artificial turf doesn’t undermine the condemnation from players around the world,” Dellinger told TSN. “It’s important for players and the public to understand that some Canadian players have a price. They are willing to put competitors at risk and have their sport take a step back in exchange for payment. That’s a decision that they’ll have to live with.”
Dellinger forwarded TSN a photo Kyle posted on Twitter on June 9, 2013, that showed both of Kyle’s legs raw. “I love turf!!!” she wrote.
Kyle’s Houston team played in Seattle on the day the photo was posted, Dellinger wrote in an email. “It appears that the stadium has a FieldTurf surface,” he wrote.
Seattle’s National Women’s Soccer League team played its first season in Seattle at Starfire Stadium, which has a FieldTurf field, according to the website of the Seattle Sounders, an MLS team.
Dellinger said other Canadian players including Christine Sinclair and Sophie Schmidt have been quoted saying they prefer to play on grass.
Dellinger wants FIFA to either install permanent grass fields at the six stadiums to be used for the Women’s World Cup, or take other measures, such as using a temporary grass field. Such fields, where interlocking trays of grass are placed on top of artificial turf, are being used more often in recent years.
“What you say on Twitter a year and a half ago, you don’t realize it could come back and haunt you,” Feldman said.
Feldman, Kyle’s agent, said Kyle likely didn’t realize the posted photo would surface more than a year later, and that it’s unclear whether she injured herself during a game on the FieldTurf field or on another practice field.