Gabe Cooper was surrounded by potential business contacts, appointments and deadlines on a wall behind his desk in late May when he received unbelievable news. His Noggin Boss operation, known for its mega oversized hats, landed a licensing deal with the National Football League that will take the company to a new zenith.
“It still hasn't hit us,” the Grand Canyon University graduate said at his expanding business in Canyon Ventures, located in GCU’s Innovation Center on 27th Avenue and Camelback Road. “This is a dream. For us, seeing it (Noggin Boss merchandise) on the fans, and seeing it with the teams in September, is going to (remind us of) all of the hard work. We'll get to celebrate it, pause for a minute and really take that in.”
The NFL does not distribute licenses like Halloween candy. Nor are they cheap — licensees must cover at least $100,000 to meet the royalty guarantee required by the NFL. Nor do unheralded, young businesses flood NFL merchandise websites and catalogs.
But Cooper and co-owner Sean Starner built a product that gained popularity through an appearance on TV's "Shark Tank" in 2022. The company continued to make a name for itself when Washington Commanders running back Brian Robinson Jr. donned one of the enlarged hats. So did the spirited Havocs rooting section at GCU sporting events, as did partiers at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
It also helped that Cooper and Starner went through proper channels to apply for a license and stay true to their ethics. They turned down thousands of requests for NFL hats after Robinson wore his because of the lack of an NFL license.
“We knew we needed it,” Cooper said. We knew the fans wanted (the hats), and all the feedback from the fans were getting to the teams. The teams were then talking to the NFL, and the NFL is saying, ‘Who are these guys? What's going on here?’"
Noggin Boss already struck deals with defending College Football Playoff national champion Georgia and perennial power Ohio State among several top college football programs, so demand already had accelerated. A two-year contract with the NFL creates a greater demand but a large sense of excitement for fans and Cooper.
“It is kind of a pinch-me moment like, ‘OK, God, you're doing some crazy here,’" Cooper said. “Because all the feedback we get within the industry was (saying) this is not normal to get.”
Stacks of Kansas City Chiefs helmet logos were stacked on a table located at Noggin Boss’ production area in anticipation of the first shipment to be sent to the defending Super Bowl champions. More hats were sent to Green Bay, Pittsburgh and Seattle (which recently unveiled a throwback logo).
The increased volume translates to more opportunities for GCU alums and students. Cooper said he hired three recent graduates, and he is projected to hire 15 more students to assist a staff of 10.
“I'm literally fielding interviews and setting up calls in the next three weeks, so it'll be moving around here again,” Cooper said.
Robert Vera, Director of Canyon Ventures, marvels at Cooper’s ascent as a GCU alum who has maximized his use of Canyon Ventures, which helps startups flourish. Cooper has used the business accelerator's resources, from the facilities, to student employment, to financing, adding that from the University’s standpoint, “I don't think we could have a better representative than Gabe Cooper.”
“(Cooper) helps to put our Colangelo College of Business and GCU squarely at the forefront of the entrepreneur marketplace and positions GCU as one of the leaders in business,” said Vera, who called Noggin Boss one of the top five businesses produced by Canyon Ventures. He envisions it could operate in the Valley once it moves off campus, where it could continue to hire GCU alums and students.
The demand for student workers could increase, too. NCAA team hats produced by Noggin Boss that were on the shelves at a Dick’s Sporting Goods store in Tennessee sold out on the first day, and the college hats will be distributed to 26 more stores.
Noggin Boss also struck a deal with Fanatics, which owns Lids, a hat retailer located in several shopping malls throughout the country, as well as Rally House and Scheels, an outdoor sporting goods and entertainment store.
Cooper assigned one of his staffers to work primarily with college bookstores across the country, but the NFL contract provides an abundance of potential and popularity.
“The whole kind of typical licensing journey usually starts on the lowest level, and then you kind of creep your way up and cut your teeth,” Cooper said. “The NFL is usually the capstone. That is the white whale of it all.”
Cooper said the initial plan was to start with the NCAA and hopefully work into the National Hockey League, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and perhaps some NFL recognition.
The "Shark Tank" appearance garnered nationwide attention, and experts outside of the company assisted with the NFL licensing process, which requires a business plan showing a baseline of sales, proof of insurance (with a liability policy covering up to $6 million per occurrence), two years of tax returns and a credit reference. The licensee also is required to remain a manufacturer and not a middleman or distributor.
Vera envisions a substantial return for Noggin Boss after taking all the steps it has, from the appearance on "Shark Tank" to the NFL licensing.
And when athletes and celebrities wear the hats, "you got $20 million of free advertising for it,” Vera said. It amazes him how the company has made a name for itself without having to rely on traditional in-stadium advertising.
“Think about what went viral. You see (Robinson) wearing his hat, and that went everywhere. You see other people wearing their Noggin Boss, and it has just been everywhere. I think they nailed that category.
“The NFL (contract) really now puts them on a global stage as the NFL expands into Europe, into Mexico, into Asia. Now you start to see Noggin Boss go along for the ride. It’s a great byproduct of what we created, not just for GCU, but also for Canyon Ventures.”
Behind a wall in Cooper’s office is an enlarged photograph of William Byron celebrating one of his four NASCAR Cups this summer while sporting a Noggin Boss hat. Country singer Morgan Wallen gave Noggin Boss free publicity by wearing one of its hats at a sold-out concert at Chase Field in July.
Cooper does not lament that Noggin Boss received its NFL license several months after Glendale hosted the Super Bowl.
"To even get on that list is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for any brand, especially of our maturity stage,” Cooper said. “The infancy is very, very rare for a company that has not been around like us to be able to get that license.”
Vera forecasts a larger stage for Cooper. He thinks the company will eventually have a World Cup deal, and soccer fans from across the globe will be wearing Noggin Boss.
"And this will be a global phenomenon," he said.