Xenith, Rogers Athletic, Detroit Surf Co. and other sports manufacturers see Michigan as a place to score success.
By Erin Marie Miller
Featured photo courtesy Xenith
Home to four major league teams, it’s no secret that sports are popular in Detroit. Behind the scenes, though, a small but mighty industry of athletic equipment manufacturers is changing the game — and generating economic activity for the state. Last year, the Bureau of Labor Market Information and Strategic Initiatives reported that Michigan’s athletic equipment manufacturing industry employed around 1,200 workers. As they continue to grow, companies like Xenith, Rogers Athletic, Detroit Surf Co. and others are determined to make sure everyone wins in Detroit — on the field and off.
During the 1950s, as football rapidly gained popularity in the United States, Orley “Bud” Rogers saw a business opportunity and began reconditioning used athletic equipment. When a national competitor ultimately dominated the industry, though, Rogers knew he had to change direction. By the late 1960s, Rogers Athletic Company was manufacturing football practice equipment. Since then, the company has grown to include Pendulum weight equipment and Impact Athletic training tables. Today, Rogers employs around 165 workers at its massive Clare County production facility, about two and a half hours from Detroit, and has become a go-to brand for professional and academic football programs.
National Sales Manager John Green says Rogers has observed significant changes in the industry over the decades. “The biggest thing is technology,” he says. Workers once drilled and cut parts by hand, but today Rogers uses robotic welders and laser cutters to do those jobs.
Safety has also taken a front-row seat. Because parents often express concern about football’s safety, Green says “participation rates in the last couple of years have slowed down a bit.” In response, he says Rogers is constantly looking to develop products that make the game safer. That commitment to quality and safety has paid off with partnerships with some of the biggest names in football. “Almost all of the NFL companies look at us as the go-to company when they’re looking for products,” he says. The company also has a presence in many collegiate football programs, including the University of Michigan and Michigan State University, as well as internationally in Australia, London and beyond.
Tackling the Motor City
Founded in 2006 by former Harvard quarterback Vin Ferrara, Xenith built a strong reputation over the years as an innovator in football helmet technology. The company’s helmets have received top safety ratings in tests by the NFL and NFLPA. Following Ferrara’s departure in 2013, though, CEO Ryan Sullivan says the company fell on hard times.
“Dan (Gilbert) had the vision to relocate the company (from the East Coast) to Detroit in 2015,” Sullivan recalls, adding that the Detroit businessman, who is a shareholder in the company, believed the city’s talent pool would be instrumental in revitalizing Xenith. Today the company, which Sullivan says has a presence in every NFL locker room, employs roughly 125 workers across three locations that includes a corporate office on Woodward and a 66,000-square-foot production facility in Southwest Detroit. “Since we came to Detroit, our company has been growing rapidly,” Sullivan says, adding that Xenith is on pace for its biggest year yet in terms of employee growth, revenue and production.
The benefits have been mutual. Sullivan calls Detroit a “hotbed for football talent,” noting that Xenith is the helmet provider for the Detroit Public Schools League and has helmets on the field at colleges across the state. The company also seeks interns from the College for Creative Studies, from which it has hired five employees, and recently established a scientific advisory board featuring researchers from the University of Michigan and other institutions.
While football is irrefutably popular in Detroit, less traditional sports have also made a splash in recent years. On an annual surfing trip in the winter of 2005, Detroit entrepreneur Dave Tuzinowski realized he might be onto something big as he wandered around Maui wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the words “Detroit Surf Co.” Designed as a one-off, cheeky response to the nickname “Detroit” affectionately assigned to him by fellow surfers, the shirt was an instant hit on the island.
“Everywhere I went, people would stop me and ask where I got the shirt,” Tuzinowski says. He decided to trademark the brand and began hawking T-shirts from a backpack while exploring Hawaii with his wife, Lisa, sometimes selling up to 20 per day. By the late 2000s, he was shipping shirts to online customers around the world. Eventually, Detroit Surf Co. expanded its portfolio to include a line of surfboards, snowboards, skateboards and longboards sourced and manufactured almost entirely in Michigan.
After operating full time for nearly a decade, Detroit Surf Co. opened its flagship retail store in Midtown Detroit in 2017. Tuzinowski says he loves being part of the supportive community of local businesses in the city, adding that “people from Detroit — and Michigan — will buy local before anywhere else in the country.”
Tuzinowski says he learned a lot about owning a business from Net Express, a telecom consulting company he sold in 2008 to focus exclusively on his surf-related venture. This time, he plans to keep his company small for a reason — “to enjoy it.”
When it comes to supporting athletes and local communities, it’s clear that businesses in Michigan working to make sports safer — and more interesting — are true winners.