Around 100 million people will watch the Super Bowl this month, but lately football-related concussions have been dominating the headlines. More than 3,000 retired players and their families recently sued the National Football League, alleging that it hid information linking head injuries to brain disease. Now, one company aims to make the sport safer, using technology developed for the military.
Unequal Technologies, based in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, launched in 2008 as a supplier to military contractors. Founder Robert Vito had developed a patented composite of Kevlar and other materials that could be used to make lightweight bulletproof vests. The company, which has supplied material worn by 10,000 NATO troops, got into the sports market in 2010, after Vito received a call from John Hatfield, then the equipment manager for the Philadelphia Eagles. Michael Vick, the team's quarterback, had a sternum injury, and the team wanted a protective garment that would allow him to play.
Vito devised a modified version of the military vest. (Unlike the military version, it is not bulletproof.) In Vick's first game wearing Unequal's padded shirt, dubbed Exo Armor, he led the Eagles to a decisive win. Soon, other NFL players were wearing Exo Armor, including Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.
Another call led Unequal to its latest product line. In 2011, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who had fractured his eye socket, asked if the company's protective materials could be fitted to a helmet. In response, Unequal created what it calls Concussion Reduction Technology, or CRT, a peel-and-stick padding made to combine with the foam already in helmets. The Kevlar composite absorbs and disperses the force of impact before it can reach the skull. Tests by the Southern Impact Research Center found that adding CRT to a football helmet reduced the risk of head injury from impact 53 percent.
Unequal now works with 27 of 32 NFL teams. The company, which has 24 employees, has also branched out into other sports, such as baseball, hockey, and lacrosse. Its products, which go for about $40 to $150 each, will start selling in sporting goods stores nationwide this winter.
Ultimately, Vito hopes to break into a much larger market: amateur sports. In 2011, wholesale orders of protective equipment hit $561 million, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, or SFIA. "My customer is the mom in Missouri who's buying our products for her kid," says Vito.
But whether any piece of equipment can prevent head injuries is still in doubt. "There has been a lot of attention paid in the last year to the football industry, and many companies have made marketing claims that should be met with skepticism," says Mike May, director of communications for the SFIA. That said, if Unequal's products truly reduce the risk of concussions, says May, the company could attract a strong following, especially among parents of young athletes.
That's what Vito is banking on. He says Unequal's technology gives it a competitive edge that will help boost its total revenue from $1 million in 2012 to $20 million this year. "Nike and Adidas have what Under Armour has, for the most part," he says. "But they can't do what we do."
Protective Gear, by the Numbers
Number of amateur tackle football players in the U.S.: 6.4 million
Increase in concussions among youth athletes from 2001 to 2009: 62%
U.S. wholesale orders of protective sports equipment in 2011: $561 million
Number of patents Unequal owns on its technology: 39 (Another 28 are pending)