Byline: Jacob Bogage
The nation's top-performing football helmet, according to joint NFL and NFL Players Association lab tests, is now available for purchase by high school football players. VICIS, a company spun off of research from the University of Washington and funded via venture capital in 2014, released its "Zero1" helmet for non-professional and-non-college athletes on the company's website this week.
But even if the Zero1 is truly the safest helmet on the market, it's price may be the most game-changing thing about it. The custom-fit helmet costs $1,500, a price more than six times higher than other top-rated helmet in terms of safety.
High school football coaches generally purchase pricey equipment - helmets, shoulder pads, thigh and knee pads, practice and game jerseys - for their teams and distribute the gear before the season. That method, practiced nationwide for generations, keeps costs down because teams can purchase the gear in bulk and pay wholesale prices. The price point of the Zero1 would likely make that prohibitive for many programs.
Occasionally a player or two will purchase his own helmet or shoulder pads, but those instances are rare, said Chris Haddock, the football coach at Centreville High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, a wealthy Washington, D.C., suburb where the median household income is $112,000.
"Knowing the kids and families in my community, a helmet that expensive would make football obsolete because it would not be affordable," said Haddock, a USA Football master trainer charged with instructing other area high school and youth coaches on football safety and best practices.
Haddock usually pays between $175 and $200 for a helmet, he said, and he usually buys around a dozen new helmets a year to replace ones too old for reconditioning, or those that failed offseason inspections. It would cost $138,000 to outfit Centreville's 92-man team in Zero1 helmets, which buck a half-century long trend of football helmet development, researchers and football equipment experts say.
Helmet design - featuring a hard shell to prevent skull fractures and face mask to stop broken noses and teeth - generally has not changed since the 1950s. The Zero1 instead has a malleable outer shell its designers say can better absorb blows to the head to protect a player's brain and hopefully lead to fewer concussions.
Football coaches and players cannot pick a Zero1 up off the shelf a sporting goods store. The equipment is only available for sale on the company's website, and VICIS sends buyers a fitting kit for each helmet sold so consumers can get exact personal measurements.
That customization, plus $20 million in research expenses, drives up the Zero1's price, VICIS cofounder Dave Marver said. The company expects the cost to drop as the product becomes more popular.
VICIS also offers financing options for the Zero1 and started the VICIS Foundation to award grants to teams and individuals to purchase the helmets and other football safety equipment.
"We recognize the current price may be challenging for high school programs," Marver said. "Until we can introduce less expensive helmets, our representatives are available to work directly with high schools to help them outfit as many athletes as possible."
The University of Notre Dame pledged Tuesday that the Zero1 would be the primary helmet it offers players in the 2018 season. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is a major investor in the company.
Despite the advances in design, it's not clear how much of an upgrade the Zero1 represents over the current top-of-the-line helmets, with most of those coming a significantly lower price.
The NFL/NFLPA tests found the Zero1's performance was not significantly better than any of the other 14 helmets in the study's top-performing group. In other words, the helmet's margin of improvement over the other 14 in the group was so slim, it is practically negligible.
Virginia Tech's Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science, which rates football helmets on a five-star scale, has yet to review the equipment.
At retail the Schutt Air XP Pro VTD II, the Virginia Tech lab's top-performing helmet, costs $234. The Riddell Speedflex, another top-performing helmet, costs $409.99.
The helmets Haddock buys are all certified by the National Operating Committee on Standards for Athletic Equipment, and he purposefully selects equipment from different brands in case a player feels more comfortable in one variety than another.
VICIS's designs are encouraging, said Stefan Duma, a professor of engineering at Virginia Tech who runs the university's helmet-testing lab, but not totally unfamiliar to the helmet market.
Riddell and Schutt, the two leaders in the industry, are also developing helmets with similar features.