Keeping it safe
02 September 2010
Since coming to prominence in Ireland in 2004, Cooper Leisure has become one of the leading manufactures of GAA equipment. Managing Director Ronan Lally spoke to Hogan Stand about the company he helped set-up, the hopes to bring it further forward and their sponsorship of the Galway senior hurling championship.
It's never easy breaking into a new market, particularly in the competitive arena that is sport. So many have sprung, laboured hard and failed, but in the space of six years Cooper Leisure have managed it and are now hoping to leave their mark on Gaelic games across the globe.
Ronan Lally's background in sporting equipment stretches back to his days as a hurler with Ballinasloe in the early 1990s, before he got into business with Brendan Kelly to acquire the rights from an American brand called Mike/Bauer to start their own company which would sell GAA accessories.
"I played hurling myself and I knew that players wanted the Cooper brand and once Mike/Bauer were willing to sell the rights to us we started it up," said Ronan
"At the time, we were first heard of through word of mouth and were surprised. After that we started to advertise in papers and on the radio and the real demand came then.
"With the helmet, everyone finds its non-restrictions and that you are able to adjust it a lot easier. Everybody's head is a different size and that's why Cooper helmets are the preferred choice of many hurlers."
In the past the Cooper name was synonymous with Ice Hockey equipment, with the most popular product being the Cooper Ice Hockey Helmet. Many versions of Cooper Ice Hockey helmets have been produced but one helmet stands out in the game of hurling for 45 years.
The Cooper SK 100 Helmet stumbled upon the hurling world in the 1960s and to this day is seen as the market leader by hurlers all over Ireland. Many people have their views as to why the helmet is so popular but all would agree that the comfort of the helmet is one reason it has lasted the test of time.
Cooper Leisure refer to it as 'the perfect fit' - every head is a different shape and size, therefore to get a perfect fit you must have an adjustable helmet, the Cooper SK 100 has nine different adjusting positions and that's only the junior helmet, the adult helmet has a further six different adjusting positions.
While their light and easy to adjust helmets have been a trademark since their establishment in this country, Cooper Leisure have always offered their customers a range of good quality and cost-saving equipment for Gaelic games.
Hurleys, sliotars, footballs, hurling grips, leisure wear, snake-skins and training accessories are all on offer at appropriate outlets across the country and on the Cooper Leisure website (www.cooper.ie). At the very reasonable price of 90 euro, the helmet, sliotar and grip package still continues to lead the way as the company's number one on their best sellers' list.
However, plans are underway to construct something new that Ronan will be hoping can blow the competition out of the water.
"The SK109 is our new helmet and we hope to have it out now in two months' time," explained Ronan.
"The big hope is that we bring it out in two months and it is successful. We got good feedback from certain players that have tested it and we would like to think it will be very popular when we bring it out."
Today the game of hurling finds itself in a far safer state on the playing field than in years gone by, with 100 per cent of players wearing helmets with faceguards after the GAA's decision to make it compulsory for hurlers this year. Cooper Leisure ensures that a rigorous routine is gone through to test their helmets, as their MD explains:
"We have a designer here in Ballinasloe that designs the helmets for us and part of them are tested in England and the other part is tested in Roscommon, with a helmet put on the head of a model and dropped from a height to test durability and impact.
"On the face-guard, an air-cannon is used to shoot sliotars at a variety of different angles to make sure they don't touch the head form.
"You would find though that with many of the top hurlers in the country that they would be changing the face-guard themselves. That's a gray area for us.
"All the time on TV, I see face-guards taken off and we advice against players putting on their own ones, because they haven't been tested."
To date, Cooper Leisure has never received a complaint or a negative report over the safety of their helmets, but Ronan fears that if the trend among players to put on their own face-guard continues it will only be a matter of time before a preventable accident occurs.
Having played the small ball game for the best part of two decades before helmets were made compulsory by Croke Park, Ronan has seen some injuries down the years that could have been avoided and for those reasons he pushed himself into his current line of work. He also was also able to see the gap in the market before anyone else.
"Sport is evolving," he said
"We have ideas for helmets going around, trying to put the weight down on them all the time. We're watching other sports and we have ideas for future Cooper helmets.
Ronan is a firm believer that you always have to be forward-thinking in this line of business.
Along with being approved by Croke Park, Cooper's latest helmet will have new features which will be distinct and that will stand out from its other competitors.
Ronan explained: "We can confirm that the current Cooper SK100 junior helmet is covered under the GAA player injury scheme."
This year, Cooper Leisure strengthened its ties with Galway hurling by agreeing to sponsor the county's senior club championships and thus far this year they have surprisingly unfolded.
"The championship is serving up some surprising results this year," Ronan affirmed.
"Turloughmore and Athenry are two of the four teams that have gone into the relegation battle, which is a shock because they would be two of the strongest names in Galway hurling.
Ronan doesn't see a changing of the guard though as they defending champions out west look to retain their crown.
"At the moment, I suppose you can't look past Portumna," he said.
"Tynagh/Abbeyduniry could be the ones to watch apart from them though. They are only up from intermediate this year and they have qualified from their group so you would have to say well done to them."