- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 12, 2006

Not since the introduction of the 3-point line has a change created such a stir in the National Basketball Association.

Spalding, the official supplier of basketballs to the league, is playing defense because of its introduction of a microfiber composite ball in place of the traditional leather, the first significant change to the ball in 35 years. Players, however, say the ball is too sticky when dry and too slick when wet. Miami Heat center Shaquille O’Neal said the new ball is just plain “terrible.”

The uproar underscores the sensitive relationship between sports leagues and the makers of equipment. Players and teams, like everybody else, often resist change.

“For the athletes, it’s all about consistency,” said Mike May, a spokesman for the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, which represents Spalding and other top manufacturers. “You want to know the ball is the same every time.”

That consistency is exactly what Spalding was seeking when it went to the new ball. The synthetic surface is more durable and less prone to warping than leather is, company officials said. The Women’s National Basketball Association, the National Collegiate Athletic Association and high schools all abandoned leather for synthetic basketballs years ago.

The move away from leather also pleased animal rights groups. Spalding, which has five years remaining on a $125 million contract with the NBA, said the switch was motivated only by a desire to produce the best-quality ball.

“This was a major, major decision,” said Dan Touhey, Spalding’s vice president of marketing. “This was the most important decision Spalding and the league has ever made together. It’s the icon of the game, and when you change something for the players who play the sport, change takes time.”

Other professional sports leagues likewise resisted changes to their official balls. Wilson has manufactured the same leather football for the National Football League since 1941. Rawlings has produced the same baseball since 1974 — the company switched to cowhide from horsehide that year — and the interior construction has remained essentially unchanged since 1931. Quebec-based In Glas Co. has produced the same vulcanized rubber hockey pucks for the National Hockey League since 1991.

“This vote of confidence in our quality and consistency is of great importance, and we take this responsibility very seriously,” said Scott Siebers, Rawlings’ product manager for bats and balls. “The baseball is a terrific symbol of what the Rawlings brand represents.”

Conspiracy theorists suggest that a “juiced” baseball contributed to the offensive explosion of the 1990s, but Rawlings says that its balls remain unchanged since 1974 and that the only change prior to that was the introduction of a cushioned cork center in 1931. About 720,000 balls are produced for Major League Baseball each year by 400 workers at a factory in Turrialba, Costa Rica.

Meanwhile, about 150 unionized workers at a Wilson Sporting Goods factory in Ada, Ohio, still produce the same football that appeared in NFL games beginning in 1941. Leather is cut, and the footballs laced together by hand; virtually nothing is done by machine. More than 700,000 balls, including those for the NCAA and retail outlets, are produced at the Ada plant each year.

Only a few superficial changes have been made to the ball over the years. This year, for example, the company was forced to quickly manufacture new balls with the imprinted signature of incoming NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Time was so tight — the company had mere weeks — that Wilson took Mr. Goodell’s signature from an old contract rather than ask for a new one.

For Wilson, producing balls for the NFL may be the company’s most important job.

“We want to be at the top of the performance level,” said Dennis Grapenthin, director of Wilson Football. “Once you establish you’re at the top, it helps you authenticate the brands below that.”

Mr. Grapenthin said there has been discussion about switching to a synthetic ball, but the league and company both agree that leather balls still perform best in adverse weather conditions.

There may be no better example of the interdependency of manufacturers and sports leagues than the relationship between the NHL and In Glas Co. On the day the NHL announced a season-ending lockout in 2004, the Quebec-based company laid off 25 workers. It went on to lose a reported $3.5 million. Upon the NHL’s return last year, In Glas Co. rehired nearly every worker and added 15 more.

And those workers are busy: In Glas Co. now produces more than 4 million pucks each year. Thousands of those go to the NHL, where a puck is replaced on the ice every seven minutes during games.

At this point, the NBA does not appear to be leading a parade of changes in the design and production of key sports equipment. And as the league’s experience shows, such a change should not be made lightly.

“Having the affiliation with a major sports league gives you an unprecedented level of credibility,” Mr. May said. “It’s such a valuable exposure opportunity, you don’t want to take the chance of walking away from it.”

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