When Dan Touhey, 29, became manager of basketball products for Spalding’s sporting-goods division in 1997, his group was doubtful about the prospects of creating a truly breakthrough product. Spalding was a respected brand name, but buyer indifference had been driving basketballs—which Spalding sold in greater numbers than any other company—toward the dreaded status of a commodity.
As soon as he arrived, however, Touhey began looking for new ways to inject excitement into his products. “Consumers are rarely able to verbalize what their real needs and problems are,” says Touhey, who had previously worked at Bayer as a product manager for Alka-Seltzer Plus Cold Medicine. “When a moderator in a focus group asked about problems people had with basketballs, the number one answer was probably grip. But once the conversation was steered toward inflation, every hand would shoot up. Everyone had a story.” Spalding managers had been aware of inflation frustration for years, but little had been done to address the problem.
The idea that changed how Spalding approached inflation hassles occurred on Thanksgiving Day, in 1998. As Touhey watched his father get ready to carve the family turkey, the bird’s plastic pop-up ther-mometer gave him the idea for a minia-turized pump that would reside inside the ball when not in use.
Touhey knew that getting the company to invest in his micropump idea was a long shot. “There was a cultural fear of taking a big leap—of becoming involved in a blue-sky project that didn’t have a well-defined endgame,” says Touhey. Creating a tiny mechanical device appeared to be well beyond the capabilities and resources of Spalding’s R&D staff, who had been focused on more routine adaptations such as changing the ball’s texture with dif-ferent “pebbling” patterns. Additionally, Touhey feared that middle management in the company would hesitate to get on board with a risky investment.
But Touhey got lucky. Eddie Binder, an aggressive new executive vice president of marketing who was in his first week on the job when Touhey pitched him the idea, gave it the okay. Binder suggested that Touhey find a contract design firm to develop a quick-and-dirty mockup that would make the consumer benefits of the new design—now called “Infusion”—more tangible for the executives, marketers, and engineers who would have to rally around it.
Then came the real work. The plan was to build a drinking straw–sized pump into the ball itself: insert a fingernail into a small slot in a rubberized disc on the ball’s surface, turn 90 degrees, and the pump would pop out. Users would be able to add air at about one pound per square inch of pressure per minute. Compared with creating a new pebbling pattern, the Infusion project was like rocket science. Literally: one resource Touhey’s team relied upon was a former NASA engineer in Spalding’s golf product division, which controlled brands such as Top-Flite golf balls and Ben Hogan clubs. While basketballs had remained technologically static for decades, the golf engineers were used to employing the latest in materials and computer-aided design and testing technologies to improve their products on a yearly basis. The NASA engineer used software common in aerospace design to solve the Infusion project’s most in-tractable problem: guaranteeing uniform bounces, even around the micropump.
Product quality was of paramount importance. Infusion couldn’t be viewed as a gimmick; if it didn’t stack up against the best offerings in the market, it couldn’t display the valuable “official ball of the NBA” tagline. Spalding also had to ensure that the new product’s weight, balance, bounce, and durability were identical to those of traditional balls. But after almost two years spent building the world’s first basketball with moving parts, Spalding hit all of its performance targets.