The Game Plan
Riddell was founded in 1929 by high school football coach John Riddell, who, frustrated by how his players kept slipping in the rain, took matters into his own hands and came up with the removable cleat. The company branched out in 1939 when it unveiled the first plastic helmet (they’d been made with leather until then), launching eight decades of innovation.
The privately held company is headquartered in Chicago, but began manufacturing in Elyria not long after buying All-American Sports in 1991. As the company grew, so did its Lorain County facility. It expanded in 2005, bringing its size to 200,000 square feet.
And, still, things were tight. There weren’t enough docks to handle truck loading and unloading. Some employees had to park on the street. One of the facility’s three buildings was located a mile and a half away from the other two. The break room could only seat a fraction of its employees at a time. And the site was landlocked, making further expansion impossible.
It was clear that it was time to move. But where? And how quickly could it be done?
Riddell makes 70 percent of all high school, college and pro football helmets in the United States — and is making ground in the rest of the world. “American football is actually growing in many other countries,” says Allison Boersma, Riddell’s COO and CFO. “It certainly is on the rise.”
What that means is that, come May each year, the company sees a huge spike in business as football teams across the world prepare for the season. So once the company decided to move, executives knew the transition would have to be done by spring — before the rush.
Boersma says there were several boxes that had to be checked before a site was chosen. First of all, the building had already been designed. So whatever land they selected had to fit the dimensions of the new structure. Riddell also wanted the ability to expand at the new site, so that it wouldn’t have to move again anytime soon. The new site had to work financially, of course. Lastly, it was a priority to stay close to the Elyria site. “It was always our intent to retain our current workforce,” Boersma says.
North Ridgeville Mayor David Gillock doesn’t get too excited when he receives a phone call from a company looking to move to town. “We’ve had a lot of those inquiries,” he says. “They usually don’t come to fruition.”
But ask him when he first heard from Riddell and he knows the date off the top of his head — Nov. 9, 2015. He quickly found himself meeting with two consultants representing a business they referred to with the code name “TDQ.”
They were interested in a 30-acre site at the intersection of Center Ridge Road and Case Road that old-timers refer to as “the shopping center site” because of the large L-shaped strip mall with an enormous parking lot that had been there decades ago.
Gillock went to work and came back with a proposal —
either a 100 percent tax abatement for 15 years (which is supported by a city ordinance for companies with more than 100 employees) or tax incremental financing, which uses newly generated property taxes to finance necessary public improvements for the site, like roads, traffic lights and sewer lines.
Not too long later, Gillock learned that North Ridgeville was chosen. He also learned the identity of the company. “Being a sports fan, I certainly knew who Riddell was,” says Gillock, who played baseball and basketball in high school, but not football, because his school wasn’t large enough to field a team. “I thought it was very cool to get such a prestigious company in North Ridgeville.”
Gillock discovered the irony of the situation when his staff tried to create a file for Riddell. Turns out, one already existed. “Riddell looked at this site 20 years ago when they moved to Elyria,” Gillock says. “There were discussions 20 years ago on this exact site.”
Another bit of irony is that the North Ridgeville High School football team had just won a Cleveland Browns contest last year and received $25,000 worth of new Riddell helmets and gear.
Gillock doesn’t know the exact numbers yet, but anticipates that Riddell’s 400 to 500 employees will generate “well over $100,000” in city income tax. The revenue will be split with city school’s — a standard procedure in many communities when tax abatements are given.
Gillock credits his staff and the city building department with making North Ridgeville an attractive place for companies to locate. “We try to make it as simple as possible,” he says. “A lot of our approval processes are one-step. We’re not trying to put roadblocks in the way.”
Even more good news came when Riddell announced it would be moving a piece of its business from Illinois to North Ridgeville — the manufacturing of collectible helmets, both mini and full-size. That means that a production line is in the process of being hired, as well as supervisors and management for the line. As Gillock says, “It’s all fantastic for the community.”
A new building means new energy.
Months before the move, Riddell plant manager Ben Marker could feel it growing. Employees were driving by the site to watch its progress. Employees who were used to scrambling for a parking spot in Elyria relished the thought of parking easily in the new 400-space lot. The new facility would have enough room for everything. Systems that were built around space restrictions could be streamlined and improved.
What’s more, everything would be new and pretty. The plan has been to move nothing from Elyria — not a desk, chair or piece of equipment — and start fresh. Office walls are being painted a crisp gray, with splashes of “Riddell red.” Furniture will be clean-lined and modern, with light wood and platinum accents.
The break room — with its bank of south-facing windows that will let in sunshine all day — will be able to seat 200 and will house a small food market, as well as a bank of a dozen microwaves, an ice machine and coolers. The room will feature polished concrete floors, square gray dining tables with platinum legs and a six-station computer kiosk area. Best of all, it will open onto a patio with outdoor seating.
Marker fields the most questions, however, about the new fitness center. “There is a lot of excitement,” he says. “I was talking to some folks in the warehouse and that’s the first thing they mentioned. Their eyes lit up and they wanted to talk more about the fitness room.”
While the cost of the new building is not public information, Marker can confirm that it is on budget and on time. When asked the biggest challenge faced during construction, in fact, he has nothing to offer.
“It was very smooth sailing, especially with our aggressive timeline,” Marker says. “We were targeting Feb. 22 to have our temporary occupancy permit. And on Feb. 22 we received it.”
Concussions have always been a concern for football players. But then it was discovered that athletes who have repeated concussions are more likely to suffer long-term brain damage, including a condition known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a brain disease that mimics dementia.
One of Riddell’s missions has always been to try and use the most current technology available to minimize the risks of the game. In 1939, that meant introducing the first plastic football helmet. In 1940, the first chinstrap was added to help keep the helmet in place. That same decade, Riddell fine-tuned its suspension helmet. It became the most popular helmet ever and the technology was even used to create helmets for soldiers battling in World War II.
The next innovation was actually made by Paul Brown, but implemented in Riddell helmets. It was 1951 and nobody wore masks. The Paul Brown-coached Cleveland Browns were playing the 49ers at home when future Hall of Fame quarterback Otto Graham took an elbow to the face, ripping open the side of his mouth, but he insisted on staying in the game. Brown had a Lucite prototype of a facemask put on Graham’s helmet. Brown filed a patent for the facemask — and later used part of the profits to help purchase the new Cincinnati Bengals franchise.
Over the next 50 years, helmets continued to become better-fitting and more protective. But the biggest change came in 2002 when Riddell introduced its Revolution helmet, specifically designed to reduce concussions.
Confirmation of the helmets’ success came in 2006 when the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center released a study showing that high school football players who wore the Revolution were 31 percent less likely to suffer a concussion than those athletes who wore a traditional helmet.
In 2007, the Revolution IQ improved upon its predecessor with the addition of onboard electronics that record every impact and allow players and coaches to monitor the number of impacts — and their severity.
Since then, sensors and data collection have continued to improve.
Riddell’s latest model — The SpeedFlex — not only tracks impact, but also alerts the sideline when significant head impacts are sustained during a football game or practice. While standard at the NFL level, helmets with sensors (priced at about $1,000 each) are slowly making their way to high school fields across the country. “It’s a big focus of ours to put sensors in every helmet we sell,” Boersma says. “We have definitely seen an increase.”
The next step, which is still in development, is to take 3-D scans of players’ heads and develop a precision fit. “We’re going toward personalization and customization,” Boersma says. “Given the complexity of that, it will take some time.”
The company does not just manufacture new helmets. A big part of Riddell’s business is reconditioning equipment from many sports, including football, baseball and lacrosse helmets, and shoulder pads. In fact, Riddell helped develop the recertification and reconditioning standards as a founding member of National Athletic Equipment Reconditioner Association, which was established in Elyria in 1975 and is the governing body for equipment reconditioning.
This is all part of the reason Riddell has been so successful, according to Tom Cove, the president and CEO of the Maryland-based Sports and Fitness Industry Association. “They invest in research, technology, materials and people,” he explains. “Not only in the design and production of helmets, but also in the development of standards and testing protocols.”
Of course the company cares about profit, but it has always had one driving mission — to keep players safe.
Riddell Open House
If you’ve ever wondered how football helmets are made, mark your calendar for Sunday, May 21, from noon to 4 p.m., when Riddell is opening its doors to the public and offering tours of its facility located at 38889 Center Ridge Road in North Ridgeville. There will be door prizes, food, beverages and games for the kids. The North Ridgeville High School marching band and football team will also be on hand to help celebrate Riddell’s move to the city. Bring a non-perishable food item, and you will be entered into a drawing for a full-size NFL or NCAA collectible football helmet of your choice.