Spalding, the venerable sporting goods maker, pumped up basketball sales with the launch of its Infusion basketball in 2001. The new ball answered longstanding consumer complaints about balls that lose bounce and require frequent reinflation with the inconvenient pump and needle combo; the Infusion includes a micropump that players can use to add small amounts of air to slightly underinflated balls. When not deployed, the tiny contraption resided inside the ball – with no ill effects on the Infusion’s bounce, balance, or durability (see “Spalding: An Idea with Bounce,” April 2005).
The research and development behind the Infusion ball cost Spalding far more than it was used to paying, but the megabucks investment paid off: Spalding’s already industry-leading market share doubled, as it sold over 1 million units in the first year. And now, by working with two materials scientists who formed their own invention laboratory after leaving DuPont, Spalding is bringing out an advanced ball, called “Neverflat,” that doesn’t need blowing up at all – at least for the first year after purchase.
The story is a case study in how big companies can gain access to a world of creative ideas by linking up with smaller shops – and it shows how an idea can be turned into a product incredibly fast. Nine months ago, Neverflat was barely more than a Powerpoint presentation. Now it will be under Christmas trees just in a couple of weeks.
After Infusion’s dramatic success in 2001, Spalding executives became convinced that investments in innovation could pay off, even in once-staid product categories such as inflatable balls, not just high-tech lines such as sports footwear, golf clubs, and skis. The Springfield, MA-based company (which was acquired by Russell Corp. in 2003) beefed up its internal market research and R&D capabilities, but also continually scanned the innovation landscape for new technologies.
“We are much less of a ‘not invented here’-type of company than we ever have been,” says Dan Touhey, Spalding’s vice president of marketing and the originator of the Infusion concept. “We’re just scouring anything, whether it’s in our own backyard or printed materials. We listen to the chatter of what’s going on in sporting goods and other industries.”
In early 2005, a bit of that chatter reached Spalding president Scott Creelman. Primo Innovations, a nascent two-man outfit of former DuPont engineers, had stoked its tiny PR engine and announced a vision it was pursuing: Neverflat, a ball concept that would represent a tenfold increase in air retention over the best in the industry.
“When we pulled the trigger on PR, we had a technology and a brand name – but no prototype,” says Don Sandusky, who now runs Primo along with fellow materials scientist Michael O’Neill. What the startup company did have was a successful product in a related arena. Primo had developed an inner tube for cycling-gear maker Bell Sports that dramatically increased a bicycle tires’ ability to hold air. “Your kid will probably outgrow the bike before you have to pump the tires,” boasts Sandusky.
In January 2005, Sandusky and O’Neill began making the rounds at large sporting goods companies. Their first face-to-face with Spalding was in March. According to Sandusky, the Spalding team, led by Creelman and Touhey, took a different approach to outside innovations than other sports equipment makers. “The other guys tried to trick us into telling them what we were doing, or they read the patent literature and they told me what we were doing with our technology,” Sandusky says. “Spalding had a mature approach and emphasized the potential business fit.”
Professor Henry Chesbrough, of UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and author of the widely-read Open Innovation, lauds Spalding for seeing how a small entrepreneurial organization like Primo would complement its own larger R&D capabilities. “There aren’t necessarily large economies of scale in early-stage R&D,” says Chesbrough. “To build potential prototypes of solutions, you don’t need an army of people.”
Indeed, several blockbuster products have traced their origins to small outfits with a primitive prototype, who then finagled meetings with an industry giant, Chesbrough says. He cites Procter & Gamble’s $5 battery-powered SpinBrush, which was created by a four-person team. Chesbrough calls it a “natural division of innovation labor,” explaining that “the big players bring skills most small companies don’t have: the ability to bring the product through the R&D process into the market at scale.”
The Spalding-Primo partnership fit that model. Once the two companies began working together in earnest in spring 2005, they set an ambitious goal: a full rollout by the Christmas holiday shopping season. Neverflat became Spalding’s top development priority. Whenever the project hit a bump, it immediately received extra resources from R&D, sourcing, marketing, and other departments.
The new ball actually represents a common sense re-engineering of the old-fashioned basketball, which, before the Infusion ball, hadn’t received much attention since someone got the bright idea to remove its external laces decades ago. Primo’s design team attacked air loss in two main ways. First, they fought air leakage from the ball’s rubber valve by including a removable plug. “The hole in the valve is tiny, but it looks huge to air molecules,” says Sandusky. The plug also prevents grit from getting into the valve and aggravating the loss of air. Next, they tackled the tendency for air to escape through solid membranes, by reducing the porosity of the ball’s internal bladder using new materials.
And Primo even changed the air inside the ball itself. One of Neverflat’s “secrets” is a gaseous concoction called NitroFlate. Air seeping out of a basketball’s membrane is like sand running through the tiny hole connecting the chambers of an hourglass. The sand particles run fairly quickly through the hole because they’re relatively uniform; introducing different-sized particles slows down the process. Spalding and Primo blended a mix of large and small gas molecules into NitroFlate, jamming up the exits around the inner membrane’s pores. “It’s a real ‘dog’s breakfast’ in there,” says Sandusky.
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.