It’s the barrier between the point of contact and skull — the athlete’s form of protection.
In football, helmets have been standard for more than 70 years.
However because of the attention head injuries have received in the past decade, the fit, material and regulations of hard hats are changing rapidly, and that’s not always a benefit to schools, as Northwest Conference football coaches have found.
“One thing I learned through many different people that know a lot about helmets is (media attention) is almost free advertising for the helmet companies,” Blaine football coach Jay Dodd said. “They put out many different products and rack up the price.”
Helmets can cost anywhere from $250 to $1,000 and only last a maximum of 10 years and have to be repurposed every two to three years. The repurpose and re-certifying cost runs schools $30 to $40 per helmet.
For teams that can be 50 to 100 kids strong, the price tag quickly becomes hefty for school districts.
Public records from the Northwest Conference school districts show that schools spend an average of $3,215 each year on new helmets. Throw in the cost of reconditioning old helmets, which can be up to $40 per helmet, and football becomes the most expensive high school sport by a long shot.
New regulations regarding helmet safety along with the added media attention is only increasing the cost, Dodd said.
“People that I go to and learn about helmet education from tell me that a lot of manufacturers just jack up the price and make it look all shiny and colorful, and that gives people a sense of getting a safer product,” Dodd said. “That’s not necessarily the case every time.”
Invoices from school districts show schools are paying $250 to $300 per helmet.
The $250 helmet is on the low-end of the models put out by helmet companies such as Riddell and Schutt, who both have models that can rise to $1,000.
These companies have had to increase the prices because of new regulations in the past decade and “new lighter” models. The rising price tag puts schools in a tough position.
“Is it better? Yeah I hope it is,” Mount Baker football coach Ron Lepper said. “They’re charging us an arm and a leg for it so I hope it’s better.”
The law regarding helmets is that each hard hat has a 10-year expiration date printed on the back. Once those 10 years have past, whether or not anybody has used the helmet, it can’t be used. Helmets also have to be re-certified every two years.
With the 10-year rule in place, athletic supply companies such as Prostock and Eastbay can no longer keep helmets in stock. If a helmet is on the shelf for a year or two, they have to drop the price and it diminishes revenue.
For schools this means if a football coach needs more helmets, he has to put in an order, and it can take two weeks or more to receive the helmets.
Coaches also can’t continue to keep a surplus of helmets, Lepper said.
Lepper used to have 15 to 20 extra helmets for his team. He kept a few extra in each size just in case a helmet was damaged or extra kids came out for the team. With the new regulation, it’s not cost-effective to keep extras around.
“Up until a couple years ago we had helmets that were used in the 1980s but they were reconditioned and passed the test,” Lepper said. “Now it puts us in a tougher position. We had a couple kids that came out last year that we didn’t expect, so we had to order helmets, and it took like two weeks for us to get them. ... If I buy extra helmets and they go unused, well I just lost a year of using them.”
For small schools like Lepper’s, this means he sometimes has to pay out of his own pocket to fund the cost of helmets, and he says that may put smaller schools at a disadvantage when it comes to keeping players safe.
“We have some challenges out here trying to fundraise in our little town,” Lepper said. “I can’t go to the school and say I need 14 more helmets at $250 a pop. That might not happen. We try to work it out. It’s definitely one of the challenges of being a head coach at a small school.”
Because of the cost, it’s not always within school budgets to purchase the most expensive equipment. Instead programs try to focus on fit.
The tighter the fit, the better, Dodd said, because the head doesn’t bounce around in helmet as much.
“When you watch football on Sundays and you see guys like Peyton Manning take their helmet off, they have a big red dot on their foreheads because it’s just so tight to their head,” Dodd said. “That’s what everybody strives to do — to get the best product for the kids.”
Equipment is trying to keep up with the research on concussions and NWC programs are trying to offer the best product at the best price, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle to preventing concussions.
Cost of Helmets
A look at the total amount schools spent on new football helmets for the 2014-15 season. Total amount includes just cost of new helmets, not recertification or refurbishing. All data came from public records request of school districts.
*Data from 2013-14 season
^Cost includes refurbishing