Imagine that the NFL changed the football every few years. Or that the NBA kept fiddling with the basketball. Or that MLB continually tweaked the baseball. And imagine that this new ball not only had a completely different design, but also was made with different materials and was manufactured a little differently each time, requiring the players to adjust to the new equipment.
Welcome to soccer, a sport with, counterintuitively, an abundance of balls. In a highly unusual yet rewarding strategy, Adidas develops a new model for the sport's biggest event every four years. Today, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the site of 2014 FIFA World Cup, the company introduced its latest creation, the Brazuca. The name is a local term for national pride. The month-long tournament, which begins next June, is the most watched event in sports. In 2010, nearly half the world's population tuned in. So, you know, no pressure on this product roll-out.
The Brazuca features a striking new design and new panel system. Six identical interlocking panels make up the ball's synthetic surface, thermally bonded to keep out moisture. The playful, swirling shapes look like four-armed starfish, outlined in various shades of blue, orange and green, colors that evoke Brazilian wish bands, a popular bracelet.
"The official match balls are not an easy product," says Antonio Zea, Adidas' director of soccer innovation. "You're trying to create newness in a product and have it be well accepted. You can change too much or not enough."
The Jabulani, the ball from the 2010 Cup in South Africa, was the source of considerable controversy. Players griped that it felt too light, flew unpredictably, and traveled too fast through the air--at least from the perspective of flailing goalkeepers. The Brazuca uses two fewer panels than the Jabulani did, which Adidas says makes for better aerodynamics--straighter flight--not necessarily more speed.
When Zea became director of soccer innovation, a friend asked, "How do you do that—innovate in soccer?" After all, it appears to be the most bare bones of the major sports in terms of equipment. How much can you improve on a round ball? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Any change to the basic components—the inner bladder that holds air, the carcass that surrounds it, the foam layer on top of that, and the surface layer--can alter how the ball rebounds off a foot, head or the grass, flies through the air, curving, spinning, or knuckling.
"The Brazuca is the most tested ball we've created," Zea tells Fast Company from Adidas headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany. His team spent two and a half years developing it, not just to meet the specs of FIFA, the sport's governing body but its own standards, such as no added weight when wet. The ball combines previously used elements—the bladder and carcass from two balls released after the Jabulani—and the new six-panel cover. The Brazuca group tested its aerodynamics in a wind tunnel. They tested the design's visibility in the air, on the grass, and on TV. And the lab's robotic leg booted the ball endlessly, repeating various kicks while the team measured speed, distance and arc. The data indicated that the Brazuca flew more consistently than previous balls.
Ultimately, the test that mattered most involved players. Adidas had more than 600 test out the ball, more than the company has ever used before--perhaps to avoid another backlash. Stars like Lionel Messi played around with the Brazuca for an hour at practice. Other current and former pros spent hours at headquarters giving detailed feedback. Adidas even snuck a disguised version of the ball into some games.
The problem with athletes, though, is their subjective criteria: the ball's playability. They care about how it feels on the foot, while dribbling, passing and shooting; about how it travels in the air—straight, knuckling at the right speed; about their ability to put it exactly where they want it. Without disclosing their specific criticism, Zea says their feedback led to Adidas tweaking the micro-texture—a tiny pebble-like grain--added to the ball's surface to improve the feel, no matter the weather, and its aerodynamics.
"We absolutely wanted to make sure it had player acceptance," Zea says.
Acceptance—or respect, another word he mentions--is the minimum. He's aiming higher, knowing how connected players can feel toward the ball. "We think about how can we make the players to love it," he says. "They have to love how it feels and how it sounds, what color it is."
They're giving the new balls to the national associations overseeing the Cup teams in two weeks, so the players can train with it and get used to it over the next six months.
Adidas has been making balls for the World Cup for 43 years. The best known is from 1970, with its signature 32 black and white hexagon-shaped panels, a design intended to make the ball clearly visible on black and white televisions during the tournament's first broadcast. The ball has evolved as Adidas has pursued the perfect soccer ball and, of course, sales. Despite the Jabulani's mixed reviews, 13 million sold. With this year's Cup, Adidas expects to generate $2.7 billion in revenue from its global soccer business.
Therein lies the genius behind soccer's ever-changing ball. Instead of the same old football bearing a Super Bowl logo, each World Cup ball is distinctive, which makes it that much more desirable. "The ball is a big deal to fans," says Zea. "In 1982, my dad bought me the Adidas Tango ball from the World Cup, held in Spain. He was Spanish, and I remember going to the park with him and playing with that ball and understanding what the World Cup meant to him. That's how we talk about the ball today, as a symbol of the event."
On the whiteboard of his office is the mantra, "Make cool stuff." Zea is about to find out if he and Adidas have met that goal or not.