The Brazil World Cup Final at the Maracanã cracked open with a stark reminder of the risks that soccer players take every time they step foot on the field, with no more than a pair of shinguards as protection. In the 17th minute of the final, a collision with Lavezzi left Christoph Kramer dazed and confused, reportedly at one point asking the referee “is this the final?”. Kramer was finally substituted off in the 31st minute with a suspected concussion, and according to some sources, he may never remember anything from that night. This was the last of several head injuries that this year’s tournament had seen; topping off the list with Alvaro Pereira’s KO and Mascherano’s in the semifinal against Holland. The months that followed were filled with speculation as to whether the standards in place, or lack thereof, were sufficient to appropriately assess and treat head injuries when they occur.
In early August, the Barclays Premier League (BPL) announced new medical guidelines for head injuries including rules establishing that the assessment of the team doctor is final, inclusion of an impartial tunnel doctor at every premier league match to assist in recognizing concussions, mandating that all team medical staff carry the concussion recognition tool, and requiring that annual baseline testing be performed on each player. As the 2014 seasons around the world got under way, the cases of head injuries piled up across all leagues prompting FIFA’s medical committee to announce a proposal for rules empowering referees to suspend matches for three minutes, in order to allow sufficient time for the physio to assess the player’s condition. These were implemented in FIFA and UEFA governed matches. However, after additional head injuries were sustained early on in the BPL season since then, the discussions continue as to whether enough is being done to address the issue.
Recently, the high profile London derby gave us a chance to see the new guidelines in action after Chelsea’s keeper Thibaut Courtois was unintentionally kneed in the head by Arsenal’s Alexis Sanchez. Chelsea doctor Eva Carneiro rushed to the unconscious keeper and, after a medical assessment, deemed him fit to carry on with play. However, Courtois was taken off the pitch bleeding from the ears, which confirmed the initials fears of a suspected concussion. FIFA’s medical chief deemed Carneiro’s assessment to be in line with FIFA guidelines which reignited the debate, sparking organizations like Taylor Twellman’s, Thinktaylor, and the UK based Headway, to question whether the guidelines implemented by FIFA are enough to effectively protect players from potentially life changing head injuries.
The spotlight of the debate has been focused on detecting head trauma and what steps need to be taken in the immediate aftermath. This makes sense, since the moments following impact are critical and playing on after an undiagnosed head injury can result in increasingly dangerous effects such as “second impact syndrome”. While the importance of recognizing a head trauma should not be undermined, the prevention of the injury is often dismissed. During the London derby Courtois was replaced by none other than Petr Čech, adorning his ever-present helmet, which has accompanied him in every match since sustaining a severe head injury during a match in 2006. The irony of the situation was palpable and perhaps stitched into that awkward helmet that we have grown to expect on the Czech keeper is a fertile ground of opportunity for helmet manufacturers. The escalating debates and increasing visibility of these injuries, evermore evident during top matches due to improving post-injury treatment, has increased awareness on a global level. This exposure could provide the momentum needed to launch protective headgear into the mainstream once and for all.
The Trio Ahead
There are three recognizable brands that are marketed as providing headgear products that are both functional and effective. Canterbury is a New Zealand based rugby apparel and equipment company. Out of their many rugby related products, they offer an extensive line of headgear protecting the entire surface area of the skull. The design is reminiscent of the early days of football helmets and auto-racing helmets, but breathable and more ergonomic. Besides being fully customizable (various color combinations and prints are available), embedded in their product line is a tailored helmet for soccer goalkeepers. This brand and particular model has gained notoriety as it was the brand Petr Čech used upon his return between the posts after his injury. A customized Rugby helmet was also used by Christian Chivu throughout the remainder of his playing career, after suffering a severe head fracture that sidelined the Romanian a majority of the season. The basic rugby helmet models run $68 – $90 US, while the tailored keeper helmet goes for $56 US MSRP.
Full90 is probably the most recognizable brand of protective headgear this side of the pond and has become particularly known for its heavy use amongst youth players in the U.S. It has gained notoriety through its use in MLS by players such as Chivas USA forward Kris Tyrpak. Full90 offers a range of soccer specific headgear that includes both headband style as well as a design protecting the full surface area of the head. Full 90 helmets retail from approximately $40 -$75 US on Amazon.
Lastly, if only for alphabetical chronology, Storelli is a Brooklyn based company focused on protective gear for soccer players that is not only functional, but is also not cumbersome and bulky. Their ‘promise’ is to have products that are designed to maximize protection, flexibility and comfort for serious soccer players, using groundbreaking materials and new proprietary designs and technologies. Storelli offer one product in their headgear line which is designed in a headband style to protect along the sides of the head. The ExoShield Headguard offers a sleek, stealth looking design that gives a cool factor when worn. Wayne Rooney brought this model into the BPL in 2013, which was used to protect a gash that split his forehead down the middle. Sports Illustrated reported that the headgear significantly allowed the English bulldog to return to playing almost immediately, after initial reports had suggested he would be out for 3 weeks. The lone Storelli model retails at $59.99 US.
Deus Ex FIFA
In 1990 FIFA modified law 4 to mandate that shinguards be included as part of the ‘basic compulsory equipment’ of a player. Overnight a new market expanded the horizons of the marketability of the shinguard market. As awareness grows, FIFA will have to do more than just change the rules to allow for medical checks of a suspected injury. Were FIFA to yet again modify law 4 and mandate that headgear be a required piece of player equipment, such a change would open the floodgates and magnify this market. Without a doubt companies like Canterbury, Full90 and Storelli would have a head start over the competition, but this gap would almost certainly be soon filled by company’s like Nike, Adidas, Puma and the like, strong-arming their way into a piece of the pie, perhaps even attempting acquisitions of one of the two soccer-specific headgear producers, Full90 and Storelli.
Such speculation is a fantasy, less likely than GLT was 10 years ago, and history has shown that similar changes often meet strong resistance. Mirroring the debate of how to treat an in-play collision has been the debate of whether wearing protective headgear effectively prevents concussions. In fact, the companies above do not claim to prevent concussions and include a disclaimer to that extent. Their stance rather is that the devices reduce and dampen the force of impact. I’ll leave that for the experts to decide.
In mid-2000 the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) released a statement that it would take no action to amend the laws of the game after the FIFA sports medicine committee reported that headgear provides no measurable benefit in head-to-ball impacts, but does provide “measurable benefit” in subconcussive head-to-head impacts. The statement concluded that USSF would continue its efforts to stay educated in this area and update USSF members when appropriate. This resistance to requiring headgear for players would not be limited to only the governing bodies, but would be echoed by teams, players and coaches alike. Speculation would certainly circle the claims made by the manufacturers that the materials used in the products allow for an almost natural touch on the ball.
Need Driven Demand
Fueled by the actions taken after a head–trauma-plagued world cup, as head injuries become more prominent and as the outreach by organizations like Thinktaylor and Headway broadens, the potential for a successful market expansion campaign by these companies grows. Above and beyond any hypothetical FIFA mandate, as this perception of need grows, it becomes a fertile ground to structure and distribute a direct market strategy that tackles the issue by offering not a solution, but a risk mitigating tool that has the potential to protect against life-changing injuries.
There are less than a handful of companies recognizable for their products offered, and in their recognition has primarily come as a byproduct of a player’s high head trauma. While such uses of the headgear increase consumer awareness, there has been little to no proven correlation between market exposure via player utilization and increased sales. However, nothing can quite match the marketing effectiveness of a well-structured endorsement deal to reach consumers, particularly in the sports industry. It is at this time that the companies would be able to catapult themselves into this debate and into the mainstream via endorsement deals with top players across Europe’s top leagues; Imagine a diving header by Cristiano Ronaldo directed into the net with a Full90 Premier, or Sergio ‘Kun’ Aguero slaloming through defenders stealthily with a Storelli ExoShield, or Francesco Totti directing an army of forwards under the protection of a Canterbury Ventilator.
The stars would have to align just right to allow for a shift in market demand of these products and allow manufacturers to significantly expand their revenues. However, necessity is the mother of invention and far too often tragedy is the root of change in sport. The atmosphere created around concussion awareness is reaching fans and thus the potential consumer base is broadening. The ball is in possession of the manufacturers to make the investment to inject their product into the mainstream.