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Volume 21 No. 1
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NFL evaluating deal with Riddell

Helmet manufacturer’s 25-year partnership agreement is nearing an end

The NFL has begun evaluating the future of its controversial relationship with Riddell, as its nearly 25-year on-field partnership with the helmet manufacturer expires after the coming season.

Riddell owns valuable space for its logo.
The league is looking at whether to terminate, renew or modify its pact with the company, which is a named defendant, along with the NFL, in a class-action lawsuit brought by thousands of retired players who contend they were misled about the dangers of the sport. The helmet maker itself is the subject of separate lawsuits from amateur players for allegedly selling unsafe products, making this sponsorship evaluation far different than the league’s typical commercial analysis.

“I can confirm the agreement ends after the 2013 season, and we are evaluating it,” said Brian McCarthy, a league spokesman. He declined further comment.

Riddell, in a statement, said in response to a query about its NFL deal: “It is Riddell’s practice not to share information pertaining to our business contracts.”

As one of the few brands allowed on-field, the league’s decision on Riddell will be closely watched. Players can wear helmets other than Riddell, and about one-third do so, but only Riddell’s logo can appear on the helmet. Players who wear, for example, a Xenith or Rawlings helmet, can’t feature that brand’s logo and must instead put a team brand in its place.

“That front of the helmet above the facemask is among the most valuable areas of real estate on the whole NFL field,” said Frank Vuono, co-founder of sports marketing agency 16W Marketing and who negotiated the original NFL-Riddell deal in 1989, when he worked for the league.

Riddell is the official helmet of the NFL, for which it gets to use the NFL shield logo in its marketing. The agreement’s financial terms could not be determined, but it’s believed the company pays a significant rights fee in addition to providing equipment.

Riddell also sells NFL team mini-helmets. One possible avenue for a renewal could be to keep this consumer product relationship but end the sponsorship side of the deal. And it’s always possible that the league opens the category for bidding to other companies.

While the NFL is quick to point out that each player is free to choose his own helmet, critics have long questioned whether the league, by having an official helmet, is implying that one particular brand is better at preventing concussions and head injuries than other brands.

The NFL signed the initial deal with Riddell because, at the time, most helmet makers were going out of business and the NFL wanted to ensure that one survived, Vuono said. That first deal was signed in perpetuity, he added, though Riddell had performance measures to hit. The league at some point since then renegotiated the contract such that it now needs renewing to last beyond the 2013 season.

“Everyone looks at it now and has a furrowed brow and questions,” Vuono said. “But they weren’t living in 1989, when we had to ensure we had helmets to play the game.”