Hockey teams at the Rio Olympics are squaring off on artificial pitches made by a German firm. And SportGroup’s products don’t stop there – the market for synthetic sport and activity surfaces is booming.
Long before the first athletes arrived in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Summer Olympics, a Bavarian company finished installing artificial turf for the field hockey competition.
SportGroup, based in Burgheim in Bavaria, actually completed the four field hockey fields last year, when many other Olympic venues were still being constructed.
It’s a source of pride for SportGroup’s chief Frank Dittrich and his staff, who have plenty of experience in outfitting Olympic arenas. Athletes have already competed on plastic grass from Germany at previous Olympic Games in London, Beijing and Sydney.
Despite that, the mid-sized company is almost unknown outside Bavaria. One reason is that SportGroup is a holding company: The actual business is farmed out to two dozen companies under it.
SportGroup markets synthetic sports turf under the brand name Polytan. In addition, the company offers granulates used to cushion modern surfaces, under the name Melos and APT, for other producers.
“Now SportGroup is making another big leap. Earlier this summer it announced the acquisition of U.S. rival AstroTurf.”ENDSTRONG SportGroup’s companies also make and install artificial tracks and playground surfaces.
“Except for us, no one produces everything themselves,” said Mr. Dittrich. Business is excellent. Last year, sales shot up by more than 10 percent to EURO 340 million, or about $375 million. Everyday, somewhere in the world, members of the 1,000-strong workforce complete new artificial turf fields or running tracks for customers.
Now SportGroup is making another big leap. Earlier this summer it announced the acquisition of U.S. rival AstroTurf. The Georgia-based company made its name 50 years ago with the artificial grass at Houston’s Astrodome, Major League Baseball’s first indoor stadium. “They’re synonymous with artificial turf in the United States,” said Mr. Dittrich. The acquisition will add EURO 120 million in sales and take SportGroup revenues for the first time to more than a half-billion euros.
Still, artificial turf remains controversial. Athletes and sports officials often complain about playing on synthetic surfaces rather than on real grass.
At the 2015 Women’s Soccer World Cup in Canada, for instance, German national coach Silvia Neid had nothing but contempt for some of the artificial playing surfaces. Players said fields were hellishly hot and that granules of recycled rubber, which are used to soften the surfaces, often flew up in the air and created clouds of tiny particles during matches.
“It was a nightmare,” groaned U.S. national team member Abby Wambach. She accused soccer officials of sexism because men played on natural grass while women were relegated to artificial surfaces.
The women athletes, however, were mostly complaining about pitches made from recycled automobile tires.
In contrast, there was even the occasional praise for higher-quality artificial turf, such as that supplied by Sport- Group for the stadium in Vancouver, where the final game was played.
And earlier this summer at the European Soccer Championships, natural grass wasn’t necessarily any better. Organizers in Lille, for example, had to quickly lay fresh turf for the knock-out match between Germany and Slovakia. Earlier in the tournament, Swiss coach Vladimir Petkovic had complained of many holes in the turf at the stadium in northern France. Officially, according to the organizers, the natural surface was replaced because “extremely difficult weather conditions had caused irreversible damage.”
For Mr. Dittrich, the grass disaster in France was just what he needed to make his case. He is convinced that synthetic surfaces are better for most sports clubs. Matches can be played much more often on artificial fields than on natural grass, and the cost of maintenance is lower. Plus, he said, “players have consistently optimal conditions.
” In the Arctic north, dry southern climes and even in the tropics, artificial turf is often the only option for a permanently playable pitch. Without artificial turf, Mr. Dittrich noted, the Icelandic national team would never have made it to the Euro 2016 quarterfinals in France. Mr. Dittrich, himself an amateur soccer player, isn’t the only one to believe in artificial turf. Last year, financial investor Equistone Partners took over the company from IK Investment Partners. The price is not known.
IK had bought a stake in the company in 2006. Back then, Firl +Schretter Sportstättenbau OHG was created to specialize in the installation of polyurethane surfaces.
A couple of years later, the company went into the production of surfaces for sport and recreation. Since then, the Bavarians have been taking over competitors and building their business worldwide.
SportGroup now has production facilities in the United States, England, Germany, Poland and Australia.
Having a global presence is important since the competition is also active the world over. The competitors Fieldturf and Desso are owned by the surface producer Tarkett. With sales close to EURO 3 billion, the French group is considerably larger, but somewhat smaller than SportGroup in its sports division.
Mr. Dittrich was involved in other international prestige projects before Rio. This summer’s European track and field championships were run on surfaces provided by the Bavarian group.
Artificial turf is still frowned on in the Bundesliga, the German soccer league, but not so much elsewhere. SportGroup turf, for instance, covers Stade de Suisse in Bern, Switzerland. Likewise in Austria at Red Bull Salzburg, the soccer team, or the tennis courts in Key Biscayne, Florida.
Polytan offers nine different types of artificial turf. Poligras Platinum Cool Plus is the name of the carpet Sport- Group laid out on hockey fields in Rio. It is an especially dense and evenly textured surface on which the ball rolls particularly well. At any rate, the ball is rolling well for the German teams in Rio, which are yet to lose a match.
Mr. Dittrich is in Rio to watch the action. Like the players, he wants his firm to “drive consolidation forward. Otherwise, others will.”