The Spalding team met its development timetable, and Neverflat basketballs will be echoing off gym walls and garage doors after the holiday season. To pull that off, though, Spalding had to revamp more than just its R&D techniques. Like many companies experimenting with new products, it found that it had to adjust support processes around the production and marketing of the ball to accommodate the new, premium product.
While commodity basketballs are usually shipped to the United States from overseas OEMs in a deflated state, Spalding is shipping inflated balls to prevent deformation of the cover and air-retaining bladder. Furthermore, the company has upgraded its shipping relationships and information systems to allow for just-in-time delivery of the balls. “We have a year guarantee on this ball [holding its full initial inflation] – called out right on the packaging,” says Touhey. “The last thing I want to happen is that we stockpile balls for a few months, then ship them to a retailer’s warehouse where they’re stuck for a couple of months, then they hit the shelf and get stuck behind a couple of other balls for two months – all of a sudden, you’re eight months into the life cycle.”
The initial holiday season shipment of 40,000 Neverflats has been earmarked for the top U.S. sporting goods specialty retailers. Tens of thousands more balls will follow, with Neverflat’s main launch scheduled to coincide with February’s NBA All-Star Game. The company forecasts that it will sell 250,000 of the balls in the first year. The initial forecasts for the Infusion ball were similar – and then consumers snapped up a million of them in 12 months.
Will Neverflat be a repeat performance? Touhey sees the ingredients for another blockbuster. Spalding has already carved out the position of a company that takes the hassles out of playing a sport, while preserving the core aspects of the game. And Neverflat builds on that reputation.
But Spalding may face challenges with this latest innovation. Infusion far surpassed its sales forecasts in part because it was a truly “viral” product: kids loved showing off the pump to their friends so much that Spalding had to redesign the apparatus to allow for easier deflation when the Infusion got a little too bouncy. But Neverflat lacks that hands-on quality. Its low-maintenance consistency may mean that it will go unnoticed on the hardcourt.
Still, Spalding has established itself as a savvy innovator, sniffing out opportunities to benefit consumers as well as overcoming the subtle internal impediments to progress, like the “not invented here” syndrome. According to UC Berkeley professor Chesbrough, “Technology leaders like Spalding can become performance leaders across a variety of categories – and that creates a virtuous circle. You become known as the guys to call first when other people have ideas to enhance sporting good performance.” And that means Spalding will likely keep its winning streak going.
Jeremy Dann is an innovation consultant based in San Francisco.