In the minds of the noncognoscenti, the job of head groundskeeper for a soccer club likely mirrors how they feel about the sport itself – it’s like watching grass grow, only literally.
But given the uniqueness of his role, Robert Heggie barely has time to have lunch, let alone while away the hours waiting for quitting time.
As director of grounds for Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Mr. Heggie oversees a staff of 14, split between the more-visible playing surface at Toronto’s BMO Field and the less-visible training facility at Downsview Park, where there are four full-size grass soccer pitches, as well as an artificial one for winter practices.
Equally important is his deployment of more than $10-million worth of technology – what he calls his “toys” – designed to keep the pitches in decent enough nick to satisfy both the international superstars who take to the field for Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC, as well as those other football players, the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL.
Throw in the always-interesting – if unpredictable – weather patterns of Southern Ontario, and the nature of the job very much makes Mr. Heggie a man for all seasons.
“What we do at BMO Field is very unique on a world level when it comes to our climate and the demands of our teams,” he says.
“It’s basically a seven-day operation, because we’re growing grass, but it’s probably a two or three events per week operation [over both sites].”
Having started out working on golf courses as a 16-year-old, Mr. Heggie’s path took him first to the University of Guelph, where he studied both horticultural science and turfgrass management, and then to the Caribbean, where he worked in the construction of Apes Hill golf club in Barbados.
The timing of that apprenticeship served him well. Just a couple of years after he graduated, Toronto FC decided to switch BMO Field from the artificial-grass surface it had used for the team’s first three seasons to natural grass. And so Mr. Heggie became the first head groundskeeper in club history. When the Argos moved from Rogers Centre to BMO Field in 2016, he took over mowing and sodding duties – as well as painting lines, aerating and a whole host of other chores – for the CFL club, as well.
Carefully adhering to the needs of two very different teams in two distinct sports is key, Mr. Heggie says, although he relishes the added responsibility.
“It’s a good problem to have,” he says of the juggling act. “It makes me a very unique groundsman in what I can do because there’s not a lot of groundsmen in the world that need to have that delicate balance of American football and soccer.”
Since stepping into the role in 2010, Mr. Heggie has been on a constant learning curve. That curve has taken him all over the world, from the lush grass pitches of the English Premier League – arguably the globe’s best, if not most hyped, soccer competition – to the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field.
Interestingly, it’s that famous patch of grass in Green Bay, Wis., which has held fabled sporting events such as the NFL’s Ice Bowl, that Mr. Heggie draws much of his inspiration and education from.
“There’s no stadium in Major League Soccer that has our infrastructure,” he says. “The closest stadium in North America to have our infrastructure is the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field, which is a shrine of American football. And they need it as well, they need the heat, they need the lights. They have a worse climate than we do.”
That’s where the toys come in to play at BMO Field. Through the use of under-soil heating, which was installed at a cost of more than $5-million, to the grow lamps – which cost $400,000 each – Mr. Heggie is able to manipulate Mother Nature to confuse and coerce the grass seed to override its innate sensibilities, particularly over the winter months.
“It can see the sunlight and it knows that the days aren’t long enough and the nights are too cold, right?” he says. “So the plant knows exactly what it should be doing. And we’re trying to tell it to do something else, especially down at BMO Field. So it’s a gentle balance of science and art.”
While soccer is a winter sport in much of the rest of the world, in North America it is played across the summer. Add to that the fairly rapid expansion of MLS – its 28th franchise, St. Louis City, began play this year – and continental competitions such as the CONCACAF Champions League means that seasons are starting earlier. In its first season in 2007, TFC had its home opener on April 28; this year, it was March 11.
Even with one of the milder winters on record this past off-season, Mr. Heggie had his work cut out to get the field up to scratch by TFC’s opening day. That challenge was compounded by the fact that the Argos played host to the CFL divisional final on Nov. 13 on their way to winning the Grey Cup last year. It made for a short turnaround, but TFC head coach Bob Bradley had few complaints at the home opener, saying it “was way better than last year. So credit to the grounds crew.”
The BMO Field pitch for last year’s home opener was troubled by snow mould, a problem that develops when the grass is covered by tarpaulins made necessary by heavy snow. Piling on to the grounds crew had become something of a sport in itself in recent years, after former TFC forward Sebastian Giovinco famously called the BMO pitch an “amateur field,” while president Bill Manning once termed it “a little bit of a cow pasture.”
But Mr. Heggie, who was chosen Sports Turf Canada’s manager of the year in 2015, says that it was the arrival of star players such as Jermain Defoe, Michael Bradley and Mr. Giovinco, and their critical comments, that helped convince MLSE to spend money on the technology needed to rectify the situation. Following Mr. Giovinco’s comments, for instance, the team invested in hybrid technology, which involves stitching green polyethylene fibres into the ground to provide a more hard-wearing surface.
“An employee can ask for something until he’s blue in the face and you might get it,” Mr. Heggie says. “But when your superstars know that they could have better and they want better, they’re more likely to get some answers out of that.
“I think they’ve been a tremendous help to the grounds department to help us shine, to help us get what we need.”
The crossover between a sport of fairly lithe, agile soccer players and large, powerful, and often heavy, football players has been a point of consternation among TFC fans. But while Mr. Heggie says they make it work, the Argos equipment manager says that the concerns have been overblown.
“We only get on BMO Field nine times a year,” Danny Webb says. “So the argument as far as the Argos are chewing it up and degrading it in time for a soccer game, no, I don’t believe in that whatsoever.”
With the World Cup coming to Canada in 2026 – BMO Field will be one of the stadiums in this country – Mr. Heggie was in Qatar last November on a reconnaissance mission. He’s no stranger to putting on big events, of course, having already helped organize the field and the facility for Grey Cups, MLS Cups, the Pan Am Games and the 2015 NHL Winter Classic.
Three years out, he’s happy to say he and his team are ready to play host to the best soccer players on the planet. The stadium will need some restructuring to bring it up to FIFA’s fairly exacting World Cup regulations, but the pitch itself has everything it needs to shine on the world stage.
“This is what we do. We put on shows, we put on events, we grow grass,” Mr. Heggie says. “As far as I know, for the surface, not the stadium, BMO Field’s the only surface ready for the 2026 World Cup because I have the hybrid, I have everything. I am the standard for the 2026 World Cup.”