Just as health experts are urging universal mask-wearing in public places when social distancing is not possible, more athletes are making masks part of their uniform and workout gear as schools and other organizations struggle to return to play in the fall of 2020. And in all aspects of sports this season, technology is playing a vital role in the development of face masks to protect against the spread of COVID-19.
Starting last spring and picking up steam through the summer, many leading vendors to team sports put significant effort into developing and producing face masks for athletes as a way to safely get them back on the fields or courts. Whether it was adapting existing apparel technology or re-engineering production lines to make masks, these vendors responded heroically to first get protective masks to frontline workers and health care professionals and then to the athletes they usually supply.
While fashion and trend-right looks played a small role in the design of these masks – with school logos and cool designs lending to their acceptance among a sometimes-hesitant or unconvinced public – it has been technology that took the lead in the battle against COVID-19. These masks are the first line of protection for athletes, designed with their unique needs in mind — easier breathing, comfort over long periods and easy access to hydration and mouthguards among the design challenges.
Leading the Way: Under Armour
As could be expected, Under Armour has made the biggest splash with the early-summer introduction of an early version of its UA Sportsmask, which reportedly sold out less than an hour after first becoming available. According a company statement, the seeds for the Sportsmask were planted back in mid-March, when Under Armour began making facemasks designed by its innovation team and distributing millions of units of personal protective equipment (PPE) to health care and community organizations.
During this process, Under Armour founder Kevin Plank recognized a need for performance solutions that would support athletes navigating the pandemic climate. He called on the innovation team in Baltimore, equipped with their recent mask-making experience, to find a way forward.
“As soon as we finalized the design of our face mask for PPE, we dove straight into the innovation process of optimizing a mask for performance,” says Kyle Blakely, VP–materials innovation at Under Armour. “We knew our athletes would need us to come through quickly with a solution to aid their return to training, one that would put health and safety first and adhere to current CDC guidelines.
“Experience told us that fabric and performance had to be our first focus, so we set out to find a fabric combination that created structure to ensure the mask would stand off the face and offer maximum breathability,” adds Blakely. “We applied learnings in fit, feel and ease and speed of manufacturing from the face mask we created for PPE purposes. Throughout it all, the speed of the design process and a meticulous eye to quality and details were paramount.”
Other Brands Join the Game
Not far behind the UA product came equally high-tech Play Safe Face Masks and Gaiters from Shock Doctor, described as “sport-specific face coverings that help protect athletes against airborne droplets while supporting elite performance.”
Shock Doctor took what it calls “an athlete-centric approach” to designing the Play Safe Face Masks and Gaiters. The products include features such as the patent-pending Quick-Flip, a multi-layer split design that ensures easy access to mouthguard and hydration without having to touch your face or remove your mask.
“Taking an innovative approach to protection is in our DNA,” says Michael Magerman, president and CEO of United Sports Brands, the parent company of Shock Doctor. “We take pride in providing athletes with protective solutions that enable performance at the highest level while keeping the rest of the community safe too.”
To eliminate ear irritation and reduce pressure points during play, the Play Safe Face Mask includes dual head straps that wrap around the back of the head. Additionally, the Face Mask and Gaiter are made of lightweight, moisture-wicking elastic material that ensures a secure fit while maintaining breathability during performance.
A leading team sports brand, Augusta Sportswear, is targeting athletes with both its new FreeStyle Sublimated Mask and Endeavor Coolcore Gaiter. “We’ve worked hard to understand our customers PPE needs from customization to core protection while moving from classroom to field,” explains Brad Sullivan, who leads Sublimation at Augusta Sportswear Brands, pointing out that the company has unveiled numerous design options and price points for the team market.
While fashion and trend-right looks played a small role in the design of these masks – with school logos and cool designs lending to their acceptance among a sometimes-hesitant or unconvinced public – it has been technology that took the lead in the battle against COVID-19.
Meanwhile, Founder Sport Group was one of the first companies to switch to face mask production and back in March it moved to manufacture protective items. As part of that effort, Founder partnered with All Clear Foundation, a 501c(3) charity dedicated to the health and wellbeing of First Responders. Proceeds from the sales of its Performance Activity Mask were donated and to date more than $815,000 has been raised to support first responders.
The company is continuing the fight to get back to work, back to sports and back to school with a full line of personal protective gear. As further assistance to its dealers, top Founder Sport Group dealers in every state received 10 free face guards for their employees, and each dealer can choose a school or organization to receive 100 additional free face guards.
Following suit, Schutt Sports this summer unveiled its Python Face Mask, a five-layer mask that features a replaceable filtration system that can be purchased with a variety of filter level options, with up to 95 percent filtration. This provides a unique balance between enhanced breathability and filtration, specifically designed for athletic or workout use.
“There are many basic, non-performance face masks being sold in today’s marketplace,” says Jim Stutts, president of Schutt Sports. “When developing and designing this face mask, we united the three critical elements of technology, performance and comfort to create what we feel is the best performing, comfortable mask being sold.”
Coming from the activity side of the business, ASICS brought is face mask version called the Runners Face Cover, designed by the ASICS Institute of Sport Science (ISS) specifically for runners and other athletes with performance, comfort and protection in mind. According to the company, tests show that the ASICS Runners Face Cover “significantly improves breathability and comfort with runners feeling little to almost no difference from wearing no mask.” Importantly, it adds, this is maintained even when running at higher speeds where conventional masks may inhibit performance.