It's beginning to look like the future of football helmets will be all about customized fits.
In 2017, Riddell, the leading helmet manufacturer, unveiled its Precision-Fit system, which uses digital scans of a player's head to create a custom-fit version of the company's SpeedFlex helmet. Now Schutt, Riddell's chief competitor, has answered that by launching its own custom-fit helmet, the F7 UR1. ("You are one" with the helmet, get it?) The customized helmet was unveiled over the weekend at the annual American Football Coaches Association convention in San Antonio.
"We want to move players away from the idea of wearing a small, medium, or large helmet," said Glenn Beckmann, Schutt's director of marketing communications. "We want them to think of it like apparel or footwear, where they say, 'That feels right.'"
The Schutt system, which was devised in conjunction with the body-mapping company Falcon Pursuit, differs from Riddell's in several ways. While Riddell uses a hand-held scanner to create a digital avatar of the player's head, Schutt is using a "fitting helmet" equipped with 10 sensors that come into physical contact with the player's head. These sensors take thousands of measurements to create a pressure map of the player's head, which is then used to create the custom-fit interior padding. The process, which according to Schutt can create 8.9 trillion different fits, is explained in greater detail in this video:
Beckmann said Schutt's system, which will initially be targeted at the collegiate market, has several advantages over Riddell's. "For one thing, when you take a scan [as Riddell does], the hair plays a big role in what the device is reading or seeing, and you have to account for that in your algorithms," he said. "But our fitting helmet has full contact with the head, and those sensors pretty much eliminate that problem."
In addition, while Riddell's custom-fit helmets retail for $1,700 apiece, Beckmann said Schutt is planning on a price point of under $1,000, which should make the UR1 a more attractive option for small colleges and, eventually, high schools.
A Riddell spokesperson declined to comment on the new Schutt rollout, citing a company policy of not discussing competitors' products.
For now, Schutt's custom-fit system is only available for the F7 LTD helmet. That's the latest version of the F7, the model with the two flex plates, which was introduced in 2017.
Schutt plans to have its sales force equipped with fitting helmets by the beginning of May, at which point sales reps will begin visiting schools and mapping players' heads. The lag time from the head-mapping to the delivery of a custom-built helmet is about three weeks (similar to Riddell's Precision-Fit). The goal is to have the F7 UR1 on the field by the start of the 2019 season.
The underlying goal of a customized fit, of course, is player safety. No helmet can eliminate the risk of head injuries, but a better-fitting helmet is usually a safer one. Riddell's Precision-Fit SpeedFlex has performed well in that regard -- it is currently ranked third in the helmet performance ratings prepared each year by the NFL and the players' union. Schutt's F7 LTD, which is the model on which the custom-fit UR1 will be based, is currently the top-ranked helmet in Virginia Tech's respected helmet safety ratings, and Schutt is hoping the UR1 will receive a similarly impressive ranking when the new NFL test results are released this spring.
There's no word yet about the two other primary helmet manufacturers, Vicis and Xenith, coming out with their own custom-fit systems, but it seems inevitable. Scott Rotier, who previously worked as an assistant equipment manager for the San Francisco 49ers and Washington Redskins and is now the head equipment manager with the Arizona Hotshots of the new Alliance of American Football, said his players generally liked the Riddell Precision-Fit SpeedFlex and that he expects more and more players will go with custom-fit helmets in the future.
"It used to be players didn't want to change what they were used to wearing," said Rotier. "But in the last few years, with all the news about concussions, now players have their relatives asking them what they're wearing, their wives are asking, their kids are asking. So more of them are willing to change. And it's all about the fit, because if a helmet doesn't fit right, it's not doing its job."
Beckmann agreed: "We always say that the best helmet is the one that fits. We'd rather have a player in another manufacturer's helmet if it fits better than ours."
Paul Lukas loves it when something fits just right. If you like this column, you'll probably like his Uni Watch Blog, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook and sign up for his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, check out his Uni Watch merchandise, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.