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The Small Businesses Behind the Big Game

Entrepreneurial companies will be working in the background when the Superbowl kicks off at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in February. Here's a look at four of them.

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Athletic Decals
Keeping helmets spiffy

Among the things that get banged up in an NFL game are the players' helmets. To keep helmets looking their best, the Saints use easy-to-remove adhesive vinyl decals made by Athletic Decals of Houston, which supplies the team with 750 decals each year. While working at a friend's Alabama print shop in the 1980s, Chris Willis realized that adhesive vinyl, which doesn't leave behind sticky residue, was ideal for helmet decals. Within three years, the print shop was supplying half the teams in the NFL. Willis started his own decal company in 1999. Today, the $1 million business has 10 full-time employees who screen and die-cut decals in the company's 8,000-square-foot production facility in Houston. In addition to selling decals to most NFL teams, it also supplies them to 500 sporting goods dealers in the U.S.

Gilman Gear
Measuring first downs and more

To measure first downs during this game, which the Saints lost, 31 to 21, chain crews used 10-yard chains made by Gilman Gear of Gilman, Connecticut. The company, which also supplies the Saints with tackling dummies, down markers, and other field equipment, was founded in 1929 by Marty Gilman, who assembled his own blocking dummy while playing offensive guard at the University of Connecticut. After graduating, Gilman drove his Buick to colleges and high schools around the country to demonstrate his dummies, which he hauled in a trailer. "My father was a one-man sales and marketing operation," says Marty's son, Neil Gilman, who has been president of the company since 1985, six years after his father died. Today, the 42-person business generates more than $5 million in annual sales and manufactures equipment in two Connecticut factories for a variety of sports; one of the factories is in a town renamed for the Gilman family. Customers include 32 NFL teams, 600 colleges, and 9,000 high schools in the U.S.

Gubser & Schnakenberg
A better way to communicate

This season, quarterbacks can hear their head coaches more clearly, thanks to a new headset-to-helmet communication system designed by Gubser & Schnakenberg, or GSC, of Lincoln, Nebraska. Mark Gubser and Jamie Schnakenberg, former co-workers at Bosch Communication Technologies and consultants to the NFL, founded the company in 2010 after the league asked them to develop a communication system that would comply with FCC regulations requiring radio frequencies to use smaller bandwidths. The resulting headsets, which employ digital rather than analog technology, not only comply with those regulations but also sound much clearer. "The old system had a lot of buzzing, hissing, and crackling," Gubser says. "This sound is crystal clear." GSC employs three full-time workers and about 100 part-time audio technicians who maintain equipment on-site. The company plans to expand to college football and other markets.

Officials' Flags 'N Bags, USA
Throwing a flag on the play

To mark the location of penalties or infractions on the field, referees throw yellow flags made by Officials' Flags 'N Bags, USA of Sarasota, Florida. Seamstress Linda Kuiken and football referee Robert Williams started the company in 1986 after designing an alternative to penalty flags made of heavy knit fabric, which got soggy on rainy days. Their flags are made from quick-drying ripstop nylon fabric weighted with sand to ensure accurate throws. Today, the company is the NFL's exclusive supplier of penalty flags. It also supplies flags to high school and college referees around the country. Kuiken, who took over as CEO in 2003 after Williams retired, still does most of the sewing herself, with help from her husband and two sons. "It's quite exciting to see our flags on the field," she says. "Of course, we're always rooting for more penalties than the teams would prefer."

IMAGE: Antonio Bolfo
Last updated: Feb 1, 2013




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