Helmet maker Riddell gets creative to solve pandemic-related riddles
Football helmets haven't just gotten safer over the last 20 years, they've gotten more elaborate.
The company has gained market share coming out of the pandemic, and its North Ridgeville plant is a big reason for its success.
Earlier this summer, Ashtabula Edgewood athletic director Steve Kray discovered what it felt like to go without football helmets.
It made his head hurt.
Kray had ordered helmets for his middle school football program in February, but due to COVID-19-related supply chain problems, he found himself short 15 helmets at the start of training camp.
"The kids were sharing helmets," Kray said. "I'd go to Dick's (Sporting Goods) once a week to see if anything was in stock. Even if it was a green helmet, I'd grab it. I was doing everything I could to find helmets."
So was his Riddell representative, Brad Keck. While Keck didn't have any extra stock — Riddell spends the football offseason operating like a pizza place on Friday night — he knew a team that did: Walsh University. So, on a Tuesday morning in August, Keck and Kray drove down to North Canton to purchase 15 small and medium helmets from the Division II program.
He then gave the helmets to one of his assistant coaches who owns a body shop. The coach painted the helmets to match the others.
The season was saved.
"It worked out perfect," Kray said. "I couldn't have gotten that lucky again in my life. Brad definitely went above and beyond."
A few weeks later, Cleveland Collinwood High School had to forfeit its Week 1 game because its helmets didn't arrive in time, the first time in recent memory that an Ohio high school had to cancel a football game due to an equipment shortage.
Naturally, media outlets wondered how this could happen, but a better question might be, why doesn't this happen more often?
Often, it's because reps are working with schools to find creative solutions, as when Chardon sourced loaner helmets while theirs were being completed, or when Summit County-based Green's youth program borrowed 56 helmets from Saint Rita CYO in Solon to tide them over until their helmets were completed. In both cases, the schools had Riddell rep Doug Harper to thank.
"They're (helmet companies) taking a beating over this whole thing, but the supply chains are that bad," Kray said. "Afterward, Brad and I spent some time together and we were laughing because there are major collegiate programs that didn't have helmets. They're (reps) getting blown up by high school guys (coaches) who don't have theirs, or some peewee league downtown somewhere doesn't have helmets. Meanwhile, the University of Michigan is missing half their helmets."
Kray laughed, then added, "It puts things in perspective."
Although based in Chicago since its founding in 1929, Riddell — pronounced Rih-DEL — has had a presence in Cleveland since 1991, when it purchased Elyria-based All-American Sports Co.
In 2017, Riddell moved from Elyria to a $27 million, 350,000 square-foot building in nearby North Ridgeville. There, a group of 380 employees — sometimes more, since they're always hiring — makes new football helmets for all levels of the game, as well as a variety of consumer collectible helmets, ranging from a miniature size that retails for under $50, a replica version that goes for about $185 and a real-deal authentic version that can cost as much as $800.
Although there are no official numbers, Riddell estimates it has about 76% of the market share for NFL helmets, 85% for Division I colleges and is in the mid-70% for high schools nationwide, said Allison Boersma, Riddell's CFO and COO. (Riddell is not the equipment supplier for Collinwood, and hasn't been for years.) Those numbers have only grown coming out of the pandemic, Boersma said.
"We continue to grow market share and innovate," said Boersma, who added that the company also does business in Canada, Europe and Asia. "That's something we're very proud of."
Riddell also handles about 60% of the youth helmet market and about 70% of the market for helmet reconditioning, which is a big part of the business at North Ridgeville. Football helmets have a 10-year life span and must be recertified every two years, and that work is split evenly between the North Ridgeville plant and two others in the United States. Of the helmets Riddell receives for recertification, 92% are still usable.
"They arrive in big, brown bags and they come in dirty, used, scuffed up," said Boersma, who spent nearly 18 years working at Kraft Foods before moving to Riddell in February of 2009. "We open the bags, we deconstruct them, we take out all the components and test them to make sure they're still viable and working as advertised. We buff and sand off the paint, we repaint them and then we reassemble them. When they come off the reconditioning line, they look for the most part almost like new."
While Riddell does make helmets for retail outlets such as Dick's or Academy Sports, that's a very, very small percentage of its business. (The only helmets currently available online at Dick's are made by Schutt and Xenith, two of Riddell's three major competitors along with Vicis.)
Helmet technology improves
North Ridgeville is the only Riddell plant that makes new and consumer helmets, a process that gets more complicated every year as the helmets get safer and the helmet designs get more elaborate. That trend is fun for the players but less so for the painters. (Chrome and matte finishes are particularly tricky, Boersma said.) Helmets are expensive to ship, they scuff easily and are often customized to individual players, which is why Riddell continues to make helmets here. Most of its other football equipment, such as shoulder pads or chin straps, is sourced from Asia.
"We're actually fairly unusual in that we have such a high percentage of domestic business," she said.
While the technology has come a long since Red Grange was wearing leather helmets, much of the innovation has happened in the 21st century. In the last decades of the 20th century, for instance, most of the innovations were along the lines of, "Let's add air to the inside padding" or "Let's improve the facemasks so we don't look like Lou Groza."
As concussion research improved and media pressure intensified, helmets got more sophisticated. In 2002, Riddell launched the Revolution, which it calls "the first modern football helmet." One of Riddell's most popular current models is the Axiom, which offers a custom fit based off players scanning their heads with their mobile phone. The data goes through an algorithm, which selects 11 different components for each player, including highly engineered polyurethane foam liners that are more comfortable — and more protective — than air.
"The comfort level for the kids is unbelievable," said Massillon Perry head coach Zach Slates, whose program uses Riddell's Axiom and SpeedFlex helmets. "When I was playing, (shoot), we had Schutts with those blue webs on the top with the air right on top of the head. That air didn't do anything. Now you've got memory foam custom fit to the kid's head. It's totally different."
The flip side is, manufacturing helmets has gotten much more complicated. While Riddell's basic models are assembled on a line, helmets like the Axiom or the SpeedFlex are individually assembled by their best builders. That makes for better helmets, but it also slows things down. Consequently, Slates normally places his helmet orders at the end of November or the beginning of December.
"You can't wait until May to order the freaking helmets," Slates said.
Earlier this summer, Slates had to cancel one of his freshman scrimmages because Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary didn't have enough helmets. (SV-SM was not a Riddell customer.)
"Plenty of those schools have those issues," Slates said. "We order our helmets early because, especially after COVID-19, you know there are going to be supply chain issues. You have to be prepared."
Riddell stopped taking orders in July, and many of its competitors stop even sooner because their helmets are sourced from Asia, Boersma said.
"Demand was so great coming out of the pandemic that once we hit what we knew we could deliver by the end of September, we had to stop taking orders," Boersma said. "We're already at capacity."
That doesn't mean the plant goes silent in the fall. Riddell continues to build new helmets and recondition old ones in-season. It also does things like repair shoulder pads and wash uniforms.
The North Ridgeville plant was built with expansion in mind, with enough space to put in a mezzanine if it wants to double the capacity of the plant, although there are no current plans to do that. In the short run, Riddell is beefing up its second shift.
"We have such a great history here and such a great workforce here," said Boersma, who noted the company still has some employees who worked for All-American Sports. "And it's such a great location. When we grew out of our facility in Elyria, we contemplated some different places but we wanted to keep our team, so we just moved two miles down the road."
While North Ridgeville's plant workers often schedule their vacations during the fall, Riddell's reps don't have that luxury. They work long hours during the season, handling everything from replacement helmets to broken chin straps. You can find them on the sidelines every Friday and Saturday night.
"They're literally servicing customers 24-7," Boersma said. "They have a relationship with every single team they're selling to, and they bend over backward. Our reps are very customer-focused."
That doesn't mean they'll fix every problem.
But as Kray will tell you, they'll certainly try.
"It's getting to be more and more like that," Kray said of the Walsh helmet purchase. "They find creative ways to come up with different solutions. It's definitely a different world."