The Sports Floor Score

Before you mull over how to recruit a winning basketball team, encourage students to participate in extracurricular activities or even plan the best use of your recreational space, you face a decision.

Will you purchase a real or synthetic floor?

Both options, of course, tout benefits. NBA teams, the Summer Olympic games and university sports powerhouses like Duke, Kansas, Seton Hall and Indiana opt for a hardwood maple floor. Asian and European dynasties in the past 30 years have opted for a synthetic product. Here’s a one-on-one breakdown comparison in the areas most higher learning institutions value.

Lasting Looks

No doubt about it -- a maple floor wins the popularity vote in the United States thanks to visual appeal, says Daniel Heney, technical director for the Maple Flooring Manufacturers Association (MFMA) in Northbrook, Ill. Even synthetic representatives like Dorthi Partnoff, marketing coordinator for Crossfield Products Corp. and its Dex-O-Tex Gym-Flor product, concedes this point. “The maple floor is a very strong mindset to overcome,” she says. “We get used to something, and the other guy has to prove himself against that.”

Start your research with product composition. For instance, Crossfield’s floor -- like many synthetics -- consists of synthetic rubber latex combined with special cements and mineral fillers. Technicians trowel the mixture into place, then top with a resin coating. (Colleges control whether the flooring ends up at 1/2-in. or 1/4-in. thickness.) This recipe seals out moisture and deterioration from below while resisting abrasion, chemicals and moisture above. The final product supports basketball, cheerleading, running, dancing, roller skating and wheelchair sports (although the floor may dent under heavy, hard-wheel rolling loads) -- in other words, count on it for all indoor sports and training needs, Partnoff says.

The MFMA recommends colleges insist on maple trees raised above the 35th parallel where shorter growing seasons and longer winters produce a densely grained maple with rich, consistent color and fewer imperfections. The average thickness measures 25/32 in. Beyond that distinction, you’ll need to select from four grades: first grade, second and better, third and better and third. Only aesthetics separate the divisions.

“A third grade floor is just as serviceable as a first grade floor,” Heney assures. “The graders at the mill determine this rating based on factors like the number of knotholes, small burrows, torn grain and dark green or black spots and streaks.” Knotholes, by the way, are acceptable as long as they’re stable. So any sport the synthetic floors can handle, Heney lists on his side of the bracket as well.

Safety Stats

Scientists offer a plethora of statistics on both sides of the question -- bounce ratios, flame spread indexes, injury reports -- that would confuse the most studious buyer. In a nutshell, both types of flooring claim similar bounce ratios, so you don’t start the basketball team with a technical foul. The minute differences in a flammable situation matter more if you intend to rely on this space for dances, graduation ceremonies and other large public events.

Injury reports, however, blatantly contradict each other. According to Partnoff, coaches’ personal stories back up claims that synthetic floors reduce shin splint incidences, particularly in sports that require stop-and-go running. The credit, of course, goes to the fact that this flooring type does offer a resiliency most people haven’t been educated about yet, she adds.

Meanwhile, Heney points to studies from a few years ago that prove maple floors hold the edge in reducing injuries, particularly of the knee and ankle variety. “It’s as if a synthetic floor has too much grab. It’s not as forgiving,” he explains. “Think of it as the grass versus Astroturf analogy. A lot of football players get hurt on Astroturf because it doesn’t give the way a natural product does.”

Bottom line: Solicit input from the medical personnel and athletic trainers you trust.


Both flooring surfaces claim minimal maintenance; maple floors respond well to a daily sweeping, which eliminates the dust and build-up on the finish that renders the floor slippery. Because wood views water as a natural enemy, administrators need to contact the surface finish manufacturer for chemical cleaner recommendations to spray on the end of the dust mop. By this same token, you can ditch the power scrubber and any specialized personnel needed to run it.

Synthetic flooring accepts a light soap and water scrubbing, which counts as a plus should usage plans call for large convocation gatherings, bringing soft drinks and spiked heels. However, this often calls for an upfront budget to apply more than one coat of urethane to stand up to such punishment. You’ll also need to apply a new clear coat to the surface on a periodic basis, too.

Other fascinating facts: Because the grain varies from strip to strip, maple wood floors can’t accept stain. What you see is what you get -- except for the painted logos and game lines, of course. And many administrators don’t realize a maple floor is a living thing, Heney adds, so it will expand and contract regardless of grade or surface treatment. After a few cycles of seasons, the floor will settle, but until then your best hope at minimizing the change is to maintain an indoor relative humidity with a 15 percent change from high to low, he recommends.


Assume a budget between $4.50 and $9.50 per square foot for a synthetic floor, with a life cycle of 20 years, Partnoff rattles off. As a budget saver, colleges can customize heavier layers for a higher compression strength to handle rolling bleachers or other equipment, and allow the playing surface to remain standard.

Heney declines to estimate even average prices for a maple floor, since the rates vary according to grade and manufacturer. The financial bonus to choosing an MFMA member, however, weighs nicely: Because Action Floor Systems; Connor Sports Flooring; Horner Flooring Co.; Robbins, Inc.; Superior Floor Co.; and Sherman Lumber Co. mill to the same tolerances, the end products are interchangeable. So if your mill shuts down and the floor sustains water damage, you won’t need to buy an entirely new floor.

That decision, of course, lands you back at paragraph one.