Zebra Athletics is turning 20 years old! We are looking back on where we started, how we became the successful company we are today and where we are going next.
Here’s the story as told by Our CEO, Chuck Blanski.
The Story of Zebra Athletics
Zebra has enjoyed many defining moments these past twenty years. Back in 1997 we started with just three mat colors: red, blue and green. These are what we now call our 1.5” Grappling Mat, which contains a 14pcf density rebounded foam core and a tatami textured vinyl cover. It’s known to the rest of the world as a Judo mat. This style of mat was originally produced in Europe for Judo, which was, and still is, a very popular sport across Europe and Asia.
Revamping The Mats for American MMA
Although we enjoyed moderate success selling these mats when we brought them to America we soon realized a major part of the martial arts market here was focused on the striking arts (Taekwondo and Karate), where more cost efficient Puzzle Mats were being used. Many people felt this premium quality Judo mat was overkill and too expensive. We listened to their concerns and developed a thinner 1” version, now known as the Zebra Combo Mat.
We soon came to realize that even at 1”, and a bit lower cost, much of the striking arts market was still quite content buying puzzle mats over the Zebra Combo Mat. Zebra had gained a reputation for its premium quality so selling a low cost, low quality puzzle mat didn’t quite fit our culture. We were determined to find a way to take care of these customers so we set out to work with a factory in China to develop a better quality puzzle mat at a more affordable price.
Puzzle mats are weaker because they are made up of single density, single layer of closed cell foam die cut in a puzzle shape. We developed a three-layer mat with a higher density on the top and bottom layer, making it more resistant to wear and tear and giving it a two-color reversible option. We finally had a solution for the budget conscious customer.
Fast Forward Through Time
By mid-2004 we had already pioneered the Combo Mat and improved the quality of the puzzle mats. It was this year when we starting getting the question, “what other colors are available besides red, green and blue?” Our research showed black and gray would be well accepted in the martial arts market. Although we experienced pushback from the factory because red, green and blue have always been the colors, we remained strong in our convictions to add these new colors. To this day they are still two of our best-selling colors.
In 2006, as Mixed Martial Arts began to explode in popularity, we started getting feedback that skin burns from the tatami texture were a problem because these athletes train in shorts rather than Gis. We worked with the factory to try and develop a vinyl cover without texture. It seemed like a simple solution but we kept coming up with a mat that was too slippery without the texture. Finally, we asked that the foam core be made a bit softer so people would sink in just enough to provide more grip. Bingo! In 2007, Zebra launched the 1.5” Zebra MMA Mat with no textured vinyl. Later that year we also added the 2” Zebra MMA Mat for professional training centers.
The Economy Dips as UFC Grows
In 2009 the economy was tanking but UFC was exploding. As we worked with customers we came to realize there was a need for a quality trusted brand for all facilities equipment. Gym owners were struggling trying to find cages, cage walls, bag racks, heavy bags and boxing rings. This was outside of our comfort zone, and it had the potential to alienate our core traditional martial arts customers. After interviewing many factories and much internal deliberation we decided to go all in and become a complete MMA facility designer and outfitter. We now assist in the design of facilities, supply MMA equipment and in many cases, installation.
Zebra Athletics Today
In 2013, while the trend of MMA growth had us very busy at the turn, we started to hear more and more that the Yoga market was growing rapidly. In researching this market we learned that studio owners who offered hot yoga classes were having many issues with their flooring due. Typical yoga flooring is made from a foamed vinyl which expands in high heat, causing the flooring to bubble or buckle. Zebra’s mats are made with a temperature stable material so we set out to develop a flooring solution for the Yoga market, which brings us to the present day where we are still growing with the Yoga market.
Zebra would not be a market leader today had we not listened to the needs of our customers along the way. We look forward to many more years of partnering with MMA/MA facility and Yoga studio owners to make their businesses safe and prosperous.