For the past 60 years, official NFL footballs have been designed and manufactured in exactly the same way, so the football of the future has been a long time coming. The Wilson Football Factory has been pumping the NFL’s official “The Duke” football out of its Ohio factory for decades, using the same machinery and many of the same factory employees — but for the past couple years, it’s been experimenting with a newer, more high-tech recipe.
As tracking technologies become more advanced, footballs equipped with Bluetooth devices or RFID transmitting chips become increasingly plausible options. Chipped footballs, like the ones that Wilson is working on, would make real-time technical data available to referees and officials making game-changing calls. Since the ball itself is often obscured from the view of cameras and refs during play, a tech-enabled digital system would increase accuracy and agreement when optical tracking isn’t an option.
Wilson has a clear stake in the game, and would do well to stay on top as a football manufacturer as sports equipment goes digital. But after building 60 years of authority as the official football provider to the NFL, there are still some challenges involved with the project. Until the technology is as close to foolproof as possible, Wilson and the NFL both have good reason to keep chipped balls off the field. New technologies face enormous pressures even when they’re not being scrutinized by passionate NFL fans in real time on national television, If referees were to rely on a tech tracking system that malfunctioned for any reason during play, every company involved would wind up in America’s doghouse (and probably worse).
On top of the risks of basic functionality, chipped balls pose a design challenge for Wilson and their in-house R&D department. The touch and feel of the ball in a player’s hands must be indistinguishable from a classic, official NFL football. Wilson designers are still working on determining where to put the transmitter within the bladder of the ball so that it is protected, undetectable, and does not interfere with the ball in play.
In order to guarantee the chipped football’s reliability and natural handling, Wilson employs rigorous systems testing that range from human touch to tech analysis. Since the balls they’re testing are already chipped with trackers, Wilson is able to use a proprietary iPad app to visualize the trajectory of the ball and make tweaks to its design so that it flies the way an NFL football should. In summer 2015, Wilson recruited Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to do a blind test to see if he could tell the difference between “The Duke” standard footballs and the new chipped footballs. He was able to identify some but not all of the balls, which demonstrated that Wilson had achieved progress, but not perfection.
Wilson has already released a high-tech connected basketball to the public, so it looks like the football of the future is well within the company’s reach. If all goes according to plan, the new chipped footballs will be ready for a limited release at Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, where fans at the NFL Experience before the game will be able to test them out and even take a few home. Wilson hopes to bring the product to market later in 2016, which would allow the comapny to officially install the connected football as an NFL standard by 2021.