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This is Part Four of PFW’s look inside the helmet industry as it pertains to the NFL. In the fourth and final part, associate editor Kevin Fishbain examines the tricky financial relationship between the NFL and Riddell and what to expect from the helmet landscape when the league's contract with Riddell expires.
Talk to enough people in the helmet industry and you start to think that Riddell and the New York Yankees have a lot in common.
For more than 20 years, only one helmet manufacturer has been allowed to have its brand shown on the field: Riddell, the NFL’s official helmet since 1989. More than 70 percent of NFL players wear Riddell helmets, and Riddell will tell you it’s because they have the best product. Competitors, though, might say Riddell has an unfair advantage.
Like the Yankees’ large payroll, which gives them an apparent advantage, Riddell’s financial relationship has made it appear to be an uneven playing field in the viewpoint of competitors. And one of the league’s own committees has been less than thrilled with the arrangement.
In December 2010, members of the league’s Head, Neck and Spine committee spoke out against the idea of an official helmet, but over a year and a half later nothing has changed. The NFL and Riddell declined to confirm when their existing contract ends, but reports indicate that the deal runs through the 2013 season.
When asked why the league did not get rid of the “official helmet" designation following the statements from the committee, an NFL spokesman responded, “Because of a pre-existing contractual agreement.”
Other helmet companies have always wanted their brand on the field — that has not changed — but with the intense focus on head injuries of late, the NFL’s relationship with Riddell has garnered more scrutiny.
Look closely at a photo or video of NFL action. On the “bumper,” which is located at the top center of a helmet, you will either see the word Riddell or a team logo. You would not be able to tell which players are wearing Schutt, Xenith, Rawlings or any other helmet brand.
With the NFL being the country’s No. 1 sport, visible to millions every Sunday, Riddell gets quite the exposure, something other helmets cannot enjoy.
“Obviously we’d love to have it better in the sense that we’d love to have our brand show up on the field for the players that choose to have our helmets. We’re locked out of it at this point,” said Glenn Beckman, director of marketing communications for Schutt Sports, the second-most popular helmet in the NFL. “We believe at some point, the NFL will see the wisdom of removing the barrier.”
Xenith helmets are increasing in popularity after entering the market a couple years ago, but fans wouldn’t know that Ravens RB Ray Rice will be wearing a Xenith this season. Founder Vin Ferrara explains how Riddell’s relationship has affected the helmet market, from a marketing standpoint.
“Athletes are looking at what helmets people are wearing. The amount of exposure Riddell gets is phenomenal, and other companies don’t have that benefit,” he said. “It’s a marketing hindrance at the lower level.”
Ferrara also explained how Riddell’s place as the league’s official helmet can keep smaller helmet companies from making headway.
“That also hinders investment in new companies and technologies. I’ve had a number of people mention that NFL arrangement as a reason to not invest,” he said. “Your helmet might be better, but you can’t market it. That’s a hindrance to innovation.”
Rawlings, which recently reentered the football helmet industry, has an interesting viewpoint on this issue. Rawlings is the official helmet of baseball, and Major League Baseball is more restrictive than the NFL, as no baseball player can wear a helmet other than Rawlings. In the NFL helmet marketplace, Rawlings is the little guy.
“Yes, we would love to have the Rawlings (logo) on the front bumper when Steven Jackson or Arian Foster are on TV, but it’s not really a make or break thing for us,” said Rawlings brand marketing director Kirk Hunzeker.
Hunzeker said Rawlings puts an emphasis on the education side of things, making sure consumers know what they are getting in the helmet. He explained the cost-benefit scenario of trying to get the Rawlings name on the field.
“The close-ups on TV, some teams would rather have their name there. It makes it clean, not appearing Nascar-ish,” he said. “Obviously I would love for the back bumper to have Rawlings on the back, but it comes down to the business side of it. How much does that Monopoly space cost? Does it make more sense to aggressively market yourself in the marketplace, talking to consumers directly? Is that a better spend versus high visibility? You would get high impressions, but you really can’t tell your story.”
Kevin Guskiewicz is the Professor and Director of The University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of Retired Athletes, and he also chairs the NFL’s Subcommittee on Safety Equipment and Playing Rules. Guskiewicz has been outspoken about some of the league’s policies.
“It’s a bit absurd that if you’re wearing a different helmet, you can’t wear that helmet’s logo on your helmet,” he said. “I hope that is changed soon. This is different from the jersey. Nike is the official jersey, but that’s different, it has nothing to do with safety.
“To me, the league would be better off allowing players to advertise whatever helmets they’re wearing. We’re likely to see many of them, if not the majority of them, still end up wearing Riddell since they have in high school and college, but it all comes back down to fit.”
Giants head equipment manager Joe Skiba is also on the equipment subcommittee. He was asked about Guskiewicz’s belief that the idea of an “official helmet” should be based on research, not financial arrangements.
“I agree with Dr. Guskiewicz,” Skiba said via email. “An ‘open competition’ already exists, and again, the top priority is and always should be player safety.”
NFLPA medical director Thom Mayer sits on the safety equipment subcommittee as well and had this to say about the NFL’s financial relationship with safety equipment manufacturers:
“Safety should not be for sale.”
Hall of Fame QB Warren Moon is a spokesman for Xenith helmets, and on a conference call he gave his take on the financial relationship the NFL has.
“Money will always be important to the NFL in sponsorship deals, but because this issue is so important and so fresh in everybody’s minds about what has happened, this is one particular area the NFL should not take lightly and not look at it as a money deal,” he said. “The league makes billions of dollars, it should be about player safety, not money.”
Riddell representatives are well aware of some of the vitriol that has come their way because of their financial relationship. The following is Riddell’s official statement on the issue:
“Riddell’s relationship as the official helmet sponsor of the NFL includes a collectibles licensing business and on-field helmet branding for players who voluntarily select a Riddell football helmet, but the use of Riddell helmets is not mandated, i.e., all players can choose and wear any helmet brand they select.”
Speaking to PFW at their offices in Rosemont, Ill., Riddell senior vice president of research and product development Thad Ide confirmed the company’s belief that most players wear Riddell helmets because it’s the best helmet.
“We react (to added competition) by putting our best foot forward and putting the very best head protection on the field we can. It’s plain and simple,” he said. “A majority of players wear Riddell helmets and we think there’s a reason for that. Riddell helmets are quite simply the best helmets.”
The branding situation is here for another two seasons, but the question now is, what should we expect from the helmet market in the NFL after Riddell’s contract is up? Would the NFL consider re-upping with Riddell, or maybe allow any manufacturer that wants its brand on the field the option, if it pays a licensing fee?
Commissioner Roger Goodell hinted at the latter back in 2010. In an article by Darren Rovell on CNBC, Goodell said, “When (the license expires), we will welcome all helmets from a commercial standpoint on the field.”
When asked if Goodell maintains that stance, a league spokesman replied, “We currently welcome all helmets on the field. NFL players may wear any helmet of their choosing, as long as it has been certified by NOCSAE. We have not yet made a decision as to the future structure of any commercial agreements with helmet manufacturers.”
It is true, any approved helmet can be worn by an NFL player, regardless of the brand — something that the league and Riddell are quick to remind critics — and we’re seeing that more and more with Xenith and Rawlings, but that doesn’t mean it is that simple for a player to go against the grain, away from the Riddell brand.
Ravens Pro Bowl C Matt Birk has worn a Xenith helmet for three seasons now. He discussed what can be improved by teams when it comes time for players to choose a helmet.
“I think (Xenith) deserves a little more attention when guys are coming in as rookies. It would behoove the league and players to lay out their choices for them in helmets and give (players) a one- or two-minute seminar on the technology and how these helmets work, or at least let them try it on and decide for themselves,” he said.
Even though he can’t get the Xenith brand name on the helmets, Ferrara said his helmet’s relationship with the NFL is good and that the league has been “very welcoming” to all manufacturers. As far as what to expect when Riddell’s contract expires, Ferrara said it will continue making helmets better.
“When there’s a level playing field and it leads to greater competition it’s going to lead to greater innovation,” he said. “Ultimately players will benefit from that.”
Ferrara said that he would be surprised if there was an official helmet of the NFL ever again.
David Hill, the senior product director for Rawlings, agreed that players are branching out from what they are used to more and more when it comes to helmets.
“It’s pure speculation on what the NFL will choose to do,” he said. “What we do know is that, as that paradigm continues to change, you’re going to have more and more players specifically asking for a product they’re comfortable with.”
Beckman provided an option the NFL could pursue when Riddell’s contract is up.
“The NFL would grant anyone who wants to pay a licensing fee to have their brand and be able to see it on the field, much the same way they do with footwear,” he said. “It would be an open marketplace.”
That situation may “not be entirely ideal for a startup company,” Ferrara said. “At least it’s a level playing field. I wish it were sooner,” he added.
As Guskiewicz pointed out, many players would likely still choose Riddell, even if it weren’t the league’s official helmet. Riddell would certainly lose the monopoly of being the one brand visible on helmets in the NFL if the league decides to do away with an official helmet. Ide was not concerned with what more of an open marketplace would do to Riddell’s brand.
“I don’t have a crystal ball. I can’t really speculate on what might happen two, three, four years from now. We’re so confident in our products,” he said. “Players have choice of what helmets they want to wear. We are very confident as we continue to innovate, players will continue to choose Riddell helmets.”
As Guskiewicz explains, Riddell could have an even stronger standing as the industry leaders.
“If we’re sitting here in a year or two and that contract has been resolved, (the Riddell) label will mean a lot more because these players chose this helmet because it’s the best helmet in their mind,” he said.
Those that did speculate, and looked into a crystal ball, seemed in agreement that the NFL will no longer have an “official” helmet after the relationship with Riddell ends, including Guskiewicz, who is one of the leading researchers of concussions and helmets.
“I don’t think there should be an official helmet,” he said. “I’d be surprised if we’re sitting here five years from now and there’s an official helmet manufacturer.”
Riddell’s place as the league’s “official” helmet has created a chicken or the egg type situation. Players can choose whichever helmet they’d like, and Riddell’s latest helmets have performed well in tests, and they consider their products to be the best. Competitors believe players are geared toward Riddell because of the arrangement, and don’t realize the other options now available.
A common theme in lawsuits filed against the NFL is the underlying belief that the NFL failed its players and was late to the party in addressing head injuries. Critics could make similar points about the league’s decision to have an “official” helmet. In 1989, the NFL likely didn’t realize that having a sponsor for helmets would cause such controversy.
A common word used by those in the helmet industry is "evolve." Helmet technology continues to evolve to combat a concussion issue that we still need to know more about. The league rules have evolved to help improve player safety, and another step in the evolution of helmets and head safety may come when the league is forced to decide the future of the "official helmet."