And how to hit sustainability goals with LED-technology.
Despite challenging weather conditions and a calendar stuffed with football matches and concerts hosted during the football season, the Friends Arena grounds team this year managed to maintain a high-quality pitch. With the help of ten LED440 grow lights and a whole lot of grass growth knowhow within the grounds team, they turned critical notes from players and staff into compliments about the state of ‘their’ pitch. How they managed to turn around sentiment? CEO Fredrik Cornell, head groundsman Simeon Liljenberg and groundsman Mario Spangolatti elaborate on the challenges they face, how they deal with those challenges and the strive for sustainability.
With an enclosed stadium structure, a retractable roof and Swedish weather conditions, the presence of natural sunlight is not a given fact. Simeon: “Our stadium has a very narrow roof. Where other stadiums might be more open for natural sunlight to reach the pitch, the narrow opening of our roof casts a lot more shadow over the pitch. About 1/3 of the pitch never gets any natural sunlight. Not even in mid-summertime. That is a challenge.”
Fredrik: “We have a retractable roof. If we open the roof, the opening is exactly the same size as the pitch. But the problem is, it’s 55 meters up. So, there are indeed parts of the pitch that do not get any sunlight. In fact, we approximately get between 5 and 10% of the sunlight we need.”
On top of the lack of natural sunlight and tough weather conditions, Friends Arena faces another challenge: a busy, very busy, schedule with the football season running from March till November during concert season. If it’s not AIK or the Swedish National team (men or women) practicing or playing, a concert performed by for instance Lady Gaga or the Rolling Stones takes place. This unique situation, where concerts are hosted during the league season, makes that Simeon and his team have to deal with tight deadlines and a demanding schedule. The football matches and concerts, combined with the weather conditions, take their toll on the pitch. A challenge indeed, but something the grounds team is up for.
Mario Spangolatti, who has been in the turfgrass business for about 40 years, saw the challenges his home team’s stadium faced and came to aid when called upon: “About eight seasons ago I got a call from the people at the Friends Arena. At the time I worked at the Stockholm Globe Arena (now the Avicii Arena) as a groundsman. They asked if I was interested in working for them. My home team AIK plays their matches at the Friends Arena, so when they called me and asked me to join their team, I took on that challenge.”
A way to tackle at least one of these challenges is the use of grow lights. LED grow lights to be more specific. With ten LED440 grow lighting units present, Friends Arena are one of the frontrunners when it comes to fully adopting LED-technology.
Fredrik: “We needed to do something to get the grass to grow. As mentioned, we have too little natural sunlight, so we need to compensate. When LED technology came up, we knew that was the solution for our unique situation. The Swedish Allsvenskan league runs from April till November and during the football season we also host concerts and international matches. That’s a lot to deal with.
Prior to this season players, media and coaches were often complaining about the pitch quality. But now it’s the other way around. They are very happy and my groundsmen actually get invited for lunch with the teams. The groundsmen became part of the team.”
Simeon: “When LED lighting came to the market, not only from SGL but also from other brands, we said: okay, we think this is the future. We see a future if we can use the right LED spectrum for grass, so we started testing and it has been quite a journey. We started with seven different brands of LED grow lights, which we then narrowed down two brands. At the moment we are testing with SGL rigs all over the pitch and the results have been fantastic. We’re now also going to see how the grass reacts through summer, fall and winter. So far, during springtime, we have been very happy and we feel it’s going to be a success further on.
And that’s something we get back from the players also. They actually say it’s the best pitch ever, here at Friends Arena. Which is fun to hear. It means that the hard work has paid off! In the end, they are here to play football and I’m here to take care of the turf. Where the fans are the 12th player, I feel like the 13th player.”
Luckily, Simeon does not have to do everything by himself. With the help of his grounds team and the collaboration with the SGL agronomy department, Friends Arena is able to maintain a high quality pitch year round.
Mario: “First of all, it’s been excellent working at the Friends Arena with Simeon. He’s probably one of the most highly educated groundsmen in Sweden and I learn a lot from him.
Also, SGL is here almost every other week for a visit, doing tests and discussing with me and the grounds team what we should do.” (Ed. – SGL agronomist Remco van Adrichem).
Fredrik: “One of the most important parts was that SGL not only provided the technology, but also provided staff to come and join us. Together with us they ensure that the products and technology work like we think it should work. The advice part is a key service.”
Simeon: “We sit together and talk about maintenance in general. Then we go into more detail, e.g., how much cutting we need to do, which fertilizer we should apply; they help us with everything that’s typical groundsman work. For me it’s good to have another opinion. So far, I have only positive things to say. I know I can call in the middle of the night and get an answer. I think that’s one of the things that make this collaboration a success so far. We see the challenges together and we can anticipate rapidly on changing conditions.”
Anticipating on changing conditions starts with knowing how the grass reacts. An indispensable tool for pitch monitoring is the SGL Portal. It shows all available data and enables to improve efficiency and quality of use of resources.
Simeon: “The Portal has also been very useful. I have 24/7 access to the pitch values and can see moisture levels for instance. Also when I’m not around.
Data collection is something we take seriously. We have our TurfPods, which is our main day to day data collection tool. Of course, you have your groundsman gut feeling and you get feedback from the players, but the data helps me to make the best decision. It’s easier to have a discussion with Remco, or the Friends Arena board when we have numbers to talk about and not only feelings.”
Where pitch quality and player satisfaction are most important in the eyes of Fredrik, Simeon and Mario, another focus point for Friends Arena is improving on sustainability. But with football matches and concerts alternating in a high tempo, returfing the pitch seems almost inevitable, right?
Fredrik: “Basically we have 3 strategical sub-goals, so to say. It’s Safety & Security, Connectivity and Sustainability. Transitioning to LED technology is part of our sustainability objectives. In the summertime we have so called ‘pleasant issues’, with large concerts hosted at the Friends Arena. In the past that meant that we had to returf quite often. Now with the LED grow lights, we hope we can returf less. That means we need less trucks driving around for instance. The energy costs of using the rigs are less than when we returf.
In the end, the quality of the grass is what this is about. Generally, I can say that the issues that we’ve had, trying to maintain a dying pitch, have changed to maintaining a pitch that’s very much alive. My groundsmen actually presented me with a luxury problem last week. They told me the grass is growing too much! That’s the problem we have today. I think it’s quite a pleasant problem.”
When it comes to big picture, it’s CEO Fredrik who makes the decisions at Friends Arena. But if push comes to shove and Simeon and his grounds team can use a bit of help, groundsman Fredrik does not hesitate to get his hands dirty.
Mario: “He puts on his working trousers and a t-shirt and he goes out on the pitch. When we install a new pitch, he can be out there working with us for two or three days. He’s not afraid of getting dirty hands, so that’s very good.”
Fredrik: “Yes, I’ve driven the rigs on the pitch myself. I’ve connected the electricity, the water. Everything! It’s fun and I need to know how it works. After all, the pitch is the most important asset we have.”
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