Technology

High-Tech Hoops Brouhaha


The NBA's new synthetic ball is rubbing players the wrong way. Who decides what advances prevail in sports—players, fans, or Big Business?

The game of basketball has come a long way since that first outing in the 1890s, when players tossed soccer balls through peach baskets. To name but a few innovations, there has been the addition of nets, the midcourt line, the 24-second shot clock, and the three-point shot.

Get ready for another: The National Basketball Assn. is replacing the leather ball of old with a synthetic ball for the 2006-07 season, which tips off Oct. 31.

Players aren't happy. Having tried out the synthetic Spalding ball in the preseason, many complained that the ball loses its grip when it gets wet and doesn't get as much rolling action over the rim. Shaquille O'Neal of the Miami Heat reportedly compared the new model to "one of those cheap balls that you buy at the toy store."

GETTING A GRIP

The NBA says it adopted the new ball in hopes of enhancing performance. "Any technological advances that we identify that can help the fan experience, the viewing experience, or to help performance on the floor, certainly we're going to take a hard look at it and implement it if we think it's to our advantage," says Stu Jackson, executive vice-president of basketball operations for the NBA.

Spalding, which began developing the ball eight years ago, says the new model actually enhances grip and that the company put a premium on ball-to-ball consistency. And while the new ball costs about 5% less to produce, the company says brand integrity—not cost savings—is what's at stake. "We want this to be right because it signifies that we are the experts," says Dan Touhey, Spalding's vice-president of marketing.

Whatever the new ball signifies, it underscores the controversial role that technology has often played in sports, and once again raises the question of which parties—the fans, the athletes, sports federations, or business—decide what tech innovations will carry the day on the playing field.

TENNIS TRIAL BALL

The issue reared its head in tennis earlier this decade. Spectators were losing interest in the sport. The power-serve game play brought on by high-tech rackets with oversized heads and enlarged sweet spots had diminished the sport's entertainment value; serving was simply too big an advantage, and few volleys ensued. TV ratings plummeted.

So the International Tennis Federation tried to counter racket tech with ball tech. It worked with manufacturers Wilson and Penn Racquet Sports (HED) to develop a ball that was the same weight as the ball then in use, but 6% larger. This effectively slowed serves and made matches more heatedly contested. However, the ball was introduced to professional play only on an optional basis, and players had no reason to lose their powerful serve advantage by opting for the larger ball.

By 2003, production on the oversized balls was halted. Score one for racket makers and the players in their court. Spectators: love.

DRIVING FOR CHANGE

Also around 2001, golf club manufacturers made a good case for high-COR (coefficient of restitution) technology that creates a springlike "trampolining" effect when the driver makes contact with the ball, sending drives sailing significantly further and reducing the importance of hitting the ball square on. Although the U.S. Golf Assn. anticipated this technology and set a limit on COR in 1998, major club makers like Taylor Made and Callaway (ELY) backed high-COR clubs, generating big sales early on.

But in 2002, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club adopted a more conservative stance as well, banning the professional use of drivers with a COR greater than a certain threshold, and warning that players of all skill levels would have to stop using the clubs by 2008.

A bogey for sports gear makers.

PUSHING THE ENVELOPE

Dr. Kim Blair is founding director of the Center for Sports Innovation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He tries to take sports tech as far as it can go, leaving it up to sporting federations to decide what's acceptable. "I push the technology as far as it will go and see what happens," Blair says. "It's interesting to see if governing bodies are taking a proactive or reactive stand on [technology]. Sometimes they're running to catch up, and other times they stay ahead of the game."

In a 2004 project, Blair's students designed a shoe to address the needs of the triathlete—one that lets a runner rapidly enter the shoe, and keeps heat and moisture away from feet, all without socks. They succeeded, creating a prototype that was put into production and marketed by New Balance.

The give-and-take between tech advancements and a more traditionalist view of sports will only become more complex as the pace of innovation accelerates.

Inventor, author, and futurist Raymond Kurzweil conceives of a future where existing sports rules, such as those that ban the use of steroids, won't come near to addressing advances. Consider robotic red blood cells, called respirocytes, designed by nanotechnology theorist Rob Freitas. In the next decade and a half, Kurzweil reckons, an athlete could replace 10% of his or her own red blood cells with these robotic counterparts. That, he says, "would enable you to do an Olympic sprint for 15 minutes without taking a breath, or to sit at the bottom of your pool for four hours."

Let's see how that sits with athletes, fans, and federations.

Douglas MacMillan is a staff writer for BusinessWeek.com in New York.

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