For Wilson factory, a tradition bound in leather
Welcome to the annual dinner with the most tenured employees at the Wilson Sporting Goods factory in the small town of Ada, where they have made each ball used in every NFL game, including Sunday’s Super Bowl, since 1955.
Meanwhile, a dozen “K Balls,” for kickoffs and extra points, will be shipped directly to the game’s officiating crew. Then there is the considerable matter of the roughly 10,000 additional Super Bowl
“We have competitors who claim they do all the same things, but they don’t have what we have here,” said Kevin Murphy, Wilson’s general manager of football, gesturing toward a factory floor full of equipment manufactured by Wilson for its own use and manned by manufacturers in America’s heartland with an average tenure of more than 20
“We all get to be part of the biggest sporting event of the year, every year,” said factory manager Dan Riegle, a Wilson employee for 31 years. “That doesn’t get old.”
|Wilson employees select materials and assemble footballs by hand.
“It’s all about consistency,” said Riegle, a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan. “If a guy kicks a record field goal, we want it to be with the same ball as the one that set the [original] record.”
Jane Helser lives three blocks from the factory in Ada and has been sewing here for 47 years. She came to Wilson for a job just after high school because her sister and brother-in-law worked here and she needed more money to support her car payments than her bakery job was providing. After nearly five decades of sewing Wilson footballs, her fingers are slightly twisted and some are bandaged, bringing to mind the gnarled and taped hands of an NFL lineman. When she’s doing her piecework, those hands respond with the precision of a concert pianist, especially when completing the last stitches that close the football. They aren’t all NFL game-quality, but this is a factory that produces more than 700,000 footballs annually and most of them pass through her hands.
The air is choking with the scent of leather as Riegle leans over around 20 square feet of
After the panels are sewn together, the embryonic footballs are placed in a “steam box” to soften them. Then, a “turner” performs the delicate and complex procedure of wrestling the football “carcass” right side out onto a metal pole. Now it looks like a football for the first time. A “bladder” — the inside part that is inflated with air — is added and the ball is stitched closed by Helser. Laces are energetically stitched on, and then the balls are put into molds and subjected to 100 pounds of air pressure to assure the proper contour.
The footballs are weighed and inspected for quality control. Employees have developed their instincts enough that they usually can tell
|At Wilson’s Ada, Ohio, factory, experienced workers such as Jane Helser (second from top) produce more than 700,000 footballs a year. A few of them are shipped out to become Super Bowl game balls.
Wilson’s football business is less than 10 percent of overall revenue for the broad-based sports equipment marketer, but in terms of branding and image, the NFL’s value is incalculable. “The NFL is the most visible and important [property] relationship we have,” Murphy said.
Again this year, Wilson will replicate the production line as part of its presence at the NFL Experience. Even in a digital age, sports fans are inevitably drawn to the authentic, so the sight of Ada’s transported football factory making the ultimate endemic football product usually attracts crowds larger than anything else at the NFL Experience.
|Wilson will re-create the factory production line as part of its presence at the NFL Experience again this year. It attracts some of the largest crowds at the fan festival.
At 11 p.m., less than 90 minutes after the Ravens’ victory, the first football with the names of the competing teams is completed. It’s held aloft with the joy of a newborn being shown off to its family. The Sunday crew cleared out around 12:30 a.m., and the 5 a.m. shift on Monday had the factory going full-bore. Boxes began to fill with footballs for the Ravens and 49ers, which were shipped overnight to the teams.
“Everybody knows the Super Bowl all over the world, and it’s all about the players,” said Helser, wearing a Wilson “More Super Bowl” T-shirt. “We know that, but we also know that if they didn’t have our footballs, they couldn’t play.”