By David Kligman
OAKLEY — Green Bay Packers fans famously wear foam hats shaped like cheese. And if you watch the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park or on TV you might see fans wearing foam hats that look like gold nuggets.
The hats — called Noggin Nuggets — are a huge hit with fans and it’s all due to PG&E employee Maurice Tuiasosopo Bell, who developed the idea.
Bell recently signed an NFL licensing agreement to sell the hats that 49ers fans wear with pride while cheering for their team. But this rags-to-riches story (OK, maybe not too many riches) parallels the fortunes of the Super Bowl-bound 49ers who were a 5-11 team and in the midst of eight straight seasons without a winning record when inspiration first struck Bell.
It was the Monday after the 49ers had lost another game in 2007. Bell had stopped at a 7-Eleven to grab lunch in San Francisco when he saw a disheveled man wearing a frayed 49ers T-shirt and baseball cap.
“I loved the fact that he was rockin’ the 49ers but what he was wearing was all beat up and tattered,” recalled Bell, a season ticketholder whose cousins are former 49ers Jesse Sapolu and Manu Tuiasosopo. “I thought, ‘What’s up with our fan base? We need some flair to shine and show our presence. We need something to spark us.’”
Inspired by Cheeseheads
And that’s when he first came up with the idea for a new kind of 49ers hat. He wanted the hat to be unisex so that it would appeal to men and women. At first he imagined a kind of beret or tam hat. Then he thought of the Cheeseheads, the Packers faithful who wear foam hats shaped like cheese. Finally he settled on the idea of a big gold nugget.
While Bell has long had ideas for inventions, he never acted on them. This would be different, he told himself.
“I’m definitely one of these guys who has crazy ideas but never does anything with it,” he said. “I thought, ‘I gotta do something. I can’t miss on this one.’”
Bell was resourceful. He called the makers of the Cheesehead hats in Wisconsin and got them to produce 150 of the hats at $13 each. Meanwhile, he spent several thousand dollars to get a patent and trademarked Noggin Nugget.
But he wasn’t happy with the first order.
“I got them right before the first game of the season and I was really disappointed,” he said. “All they did was spray paint foam. I took it out of the bag and gold paint was all over my fingers. The labels they used were peeling off.”
So Bell set out to make his own. He worked with an art supply warehouse in San Francisco to help him develop molds that he tinkered with for hours after work and on weekends in the garage of his home in Oakley in east Contra Costa County.
Meanwhile, he took the foam hats to the Candlestick Park parking lot before home games to see if tailgaters were interested. Fans loved the Noggin Nuggets but balked at his $20-a-hat price.
A call from the 49ers head of merchandising
His big break came after giving away some of the hats at a draft day party to die-hard 49ers fans. He got a call from the 49ers head of merchandising who put Bell in contact with an NFL-licensed company that makes foam hats. After legal negotiations, Bell reached a merchandising deal with the company, which produces and sells the Noggin Nugget for $34.95 online and at stores throughout the United States, including 49ers team stores.
Fans who wear the hat often get asked to pose for photos.
“Even opposing teams take pictures with me,” said Oakland’s Athedral Bonner, who bought a Noggin Nugget before San Francisco’s Monday Night Football game last year with Pittsburgh. “I’m sure I’ve shown up somewhere on someone’s Facebook page on the East Coast. I love it. Keeps your head warm, too.”
Due to the timing of the deal, the NFL-licensed Noggin Nugget has only been on the market since November, but the entire inventory of 1,000 hats already has sold out.
Bell gets a 10 percent royalty on all sales and says he’s only just now breaking even on his investment. And while he hopes to make some money in the coming years, he says he doubts the venture will make him rich and has no plans of leaving his job at PG&E as a human resources strategy manager.
The best part of the deal, he said, is no longer having to produce the hats himself, allowing him to spend more time with his wife and two young daughters.
The hats currently are sold out and it would take several months to produce more, so the plan is to add plenty of inventory next season.
Jim Bell (no relation), who produces the hats for the NFL, said he will produce “multiple thousands” of the Noggin Nuggets next season now that the 49ers have reached the Super Bowl.
“This could be the next Cheesehead,” he said.
Email David Kligman at David.Kligman@pge.com.