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Airless Basketballs and the NBA's Future of Innovation

Wilson’s airless prototype is equal parts weird and fascinating, an innovation that could be the future of basketball design

The game of basketball was invented by Dr. James Naismith in 1891 as a way of distracting restless young men confined indoors during harsh New England winters. The original version of the game was played using peach baskets and a soccer ball, a far cry from what the game has become today. Over the years, the game has evolved with more notoriety, physicality, and skill into one of the most popular sports on the planet. In that time, the ball that the sport uses has evolved as well from Naismith’s soccer ball to a leather ball with laces to multiple iterations of the synthetic rubber mix that we see in today’s ball. 

Wilson, the company that makes the NBA’s official ball, is starting to challenge the notion of what we think a basketball should look like with its new Airless Gen 1 ball that recently hit the market for an eye-watering $2,500. What makes this ball so unique is that it is 3D printed and does not require any air, but still bounces like a regular inflated ball. It is made of a polymer lattice structure that Wilson claims simulates the experience of a traditional basketball. While still in the very early stages of product development and mass production (only 200 balls were made initially since the process is so extensive), we may be looking at the future of ball designs that could be hitting NBA courts within the next decade. 

The Benefits of Going Airless

Wilson’s new ball is an optical illusion. Upon first glance it looks hollow, as it is filled with holes that give a peek into the interior where nothing is present. It looks more like an art piece than a functional ball. The teams at Wilson and Eos (who helped produce the prototype) did countless tests to essentially create a magical experience of bouncing a ball that doesn’t feel like it should bounce. The holes allow air flow which creates a bouncing that is reminiscent of a traditional basketball. Players and basketball aficionados alike have been both impressed and apprehensive of the new ball, but it does present some use case advantages that could be a positive for the NBA product in the future. 

Years ago in the NFL, the New England Patriots were caught deflating footballs to get an edge over the competition in a scandal that was affectionately named “Deflategate”. By deflating footballs, the Patriots on offense had an easier time gripping, throwing, and catching the football than their opponents, thus giving them an advantage in high leverage games. The Patriots were investigated and fined, but it opened up the thought that ball pressure could be manipulated to create an advantage for one team or player over another. A 3D printed basketball that goes through rigorous testing and a consistent manufacturing process that leaves less probability of error creates a consistency that we do not have in the current state of basketball and other sports for that matter. 

A uniform experience with the ball that players are using creates a level playing field across the board. This means that a random off shooting night cannot be explained away to the inconsistency of the ball. This uniformity would allow the NBA and other leagues down the line to become more transparent with their equipment standards, to refine the process to 99.9% consistency, allowing for an environment when the variables to success are not as wide-ranging which gives the fans of the game peace of mind. 

Beyond the consistency, a 3D printed ball allows for the league to dictate the behaviors of a ball to correspond with the style of play that it wants its game to reflect. It is no secret that the NBA and other professional leagues are looking for more offensive output to attract casual fans. A ball that is constantly tweaked and then created to allow for an offensive edge in terms of materials and aerodynamics could be something that is incredibly appealing to a league looking to score more points. And while that could be a future that the NBA would sign up for, they must first be able to silence the critics of this technology. 

Appealing to the Players

In 2006, the NBA tried to change its ball and it backfired tremendously. The synthetic ball was maligned by players, with many complaining that the synthetic material cut their hands and had a different bounce when compared to the previous leather versions. The league scrapped the ball in the middle of the season because of widespread player complaints despite all the research indicating that this material was the future of ball design and the fact that it had already been implemented at the high school and college level with success. It also helped the NBA’s push for it because it was cheaper to make compared to a standard leather ball. 

Where the NBA miscalculated was not getting full player buy-in to the new ball before rolling it out for games. In a league that is so focused on the well-being and happiness of its players it feels like a mistake not to have some of the higher profile names test the ball before fully introducing it. That is something that would need to change if Wilson’s 3D printed ball is to become the future standard in the league. To their credit, Wilson has already started this feedback process last year when Kenyon Martin Jr used the ball in the dunk contest. 

Martin and other players mentioned that the ball was slippery and did not have the grip of that ball that they are used to. As a result, the teams at Wilson and Eos adjusted the formula for the finish of the ball to make it appeal to these requests. The reality is that if players are bought into the idea of a radical new ball design then its adoption into the mainstream becomes that much easier. When a fans favorite player proclaims a new technology as the future, those fans will generally agree and want to try the new ball for themselves. But getting that initial buy-in is crucial above all else. 

The NBA can also soft launch a change to show that it has learned its lessons from its past mistakes. Using the ball in preseason games and in the G League as a testing ground would allow players to dip their toes into the water of a new style of ball that could be beneficial to the way that game is played in the future. Forcing it on its players without much input for feedback and refinement would be foolish and not reflective of today’s NBA. Once the players are convinced, the league can continue to tinker and innovate to make the game better. It is a crossroads between the latest in tech innovations and a sport that we love that can create progress for future generations. 

Basketball & Technology

The NBA is no stranger to using technology to make its product better and wider reaching. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, the NBA implemented the bubble and brought fans in via live streaming video. It was one of the first leagues to recognize a shift to digital and cord cutting and adjusted its League Pass service accordingly. Just this year at the All-Star game, it dabbled in an LED court that changed visuals based on what was happening during the festivities of All-Star weekend. Even when the innovations are short-lived the NBA has embraced them, such as its brief dalliance with NFTs for highlight plays. In short, the league has always been tech-forward, more so that its counterparts. 

As the league is always looking to make its product more appealing to viewers, it is only natural that it should want to incorporate tech into the game to move with the times. A LED court that could show statistics and celebration animations in real time could provide stimulation to make the moments of a game more exciting and impactful. A 3D printed ball could allow the league to fine tune what works best in a ball for its players and constantly tweak the formula to perfect it by generation. These sorts of innovations could eventually lead to a better officiated and better flowing game that fans will love to consume over the course of a long season. 

The leagues of the future will need to continue to utilize tech in new ways to continue to grow the product. We have seen this on a small scale with the use of multiple camera angles and lenses for replays and the superimposing of lines and stats on broadcasts (such as when ESPN lets you know how many feet away a jump shot was taken from). Science is always advancing, and our favorite games will advance with it. So a 3D printed basketball may look strange and seem like a bad idea today, but its applications in consistency, malleability, and refinement cannot be ignored. It is still early days for airless basketballs, but as we inch closer towards a process of better mass production its applications for the NBA cannot be ignored. Technology is a part of sports today more than it has ever been, and it will continue to be integral in the advancement and growth of the games that we love.

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