Joel Wiens has been hoping all football season that an NFL playoff game would be played in Minnesota. Not only did that wish come true, but the subzero temperatures expected for Sunday’s game between the Vikings and the Seattle Seahawks fits his business like a compression glove.
“We were prepared for this,” Wiens said. “We’ve developed a product just for playing football at minus-20 degree windchills.”
His company, WSI Sports in Eagan, will be making cold-weather, high-performance shirts, socks and gloves for the Vikings and, in the spirit of Minnesota Nice, the Seahawks too. The fabric used is a lighter and thinner polyester and other materials with stretch film and high wicking properties. “My job is to get the player to focus on the game, not whether his toes are cold,” Wiens said.
WSI, which Wiens founded in 1990, is the rare athletic apparel company with products made in the U.S. The products are all designed, cut and sewn locally, and even the high-tech fabric is made domestically. The company has 12 employees and contracts out much of the sewing to Hmong families.
Wiens, 47, started his selection with protective compression hockey shorts and has expanded to performance clothing, including a line the company calls Heatr. WSI has worked with the Vikings since the Cris Carter days in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the San Francisco 49ers were the first NFL team to test WSI’s cold weather line.
Cold-weather gear is now a WSI specialty, but it sells gear tailored for football, baseball, hockey, cycling, fishing and hunting. Nearly 20 local retailers also sell the product, including Dave’s Sports Shop, Play it Again Sports and Trail Mark.
In the last five years, WSI’s business has expanded its focus from general consumers to elite athletes. Many of WSI’s main suppliers, the small, independent sporting goods stores, have nearly vanished from the retail landscape.
“The big manufacturers like Nike and Under Armour have lined up with big retailers,” Wiens said. “We’re at a point where we want to be the best, not the biggest, so we still deal with the mom-and-pop retailers as well as professional sports.”
The company’s revenue was several million dollars last year, a fraction of Under Armour’s $3 billion in 2014. Matt Walsh, a clothing buyer for Dave’s Sports Shop in Fridley, Stillwater and Blaine, said that a lot of people don’t know the line unless they’re coming in for cold-weather events like hockey tournaments or ice fishing. “But if you can get them to try the product, they like it. I think it’s better than Under Armour,” he said.
Steve Johnson, the football coach at Bethel University, wishes he could afford to have his players wear WSI’s shirts for all weather conditions, not just cold weather. “I brag about Joel’s product but also his service. He knows what people need,” Johnson said.
In the 2012 Division III playoffs, Johnson called Wiens in an emergency when temperatures were near zero with snow. “He had some leftover fabric that the Packers were using that was terrific at keeping the core warm,” Johnson said. “And the hats underneath the helmets were warm but not bulky. He had people working day and night to get us what we wanted.”
Prices for WSI are a bit higher than for brand names (about $15 to $200 at www.wsisports.com), but retailers know it’s a different product. “It’s made in the USA and it functions well,” said Craig Johnson, vice president at General Sports in Edina. “People will pay more if they know they can go skating outside and not get cold.”
Many of the products made for professional athletes are made just for them. The 49ers raved about them, Wiens said. Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos quarterback, had a shirt custom-made with a higher collar for his long neck. “The Seahawks wore our product when they won the Super Bowl two years ago,” Wiens said.
Creating products with moisture wicking properties and warming elements that don’t overheat an athlete is what separates WSI from competitors, Wiens said. “These big companies are developing things for the masses but not developing stuff for the elite athlete,” he said.
Large apparel companies often give the football teams the gear in exchange for the brand exposure. Wiens said he charged about $20,000 for a team to get WSI’s socks, gloves and shirts. “Nike won’t be happy,” he said. “They’ll be wondering why the players aren’t wearing their gear.”
John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633