Adidas unveils the Brazuca, a two-and-a-half-year-old World Cup soccer ball

Imagine the NFL changing football every few years. Or that the NBA kept messing with basketball. Or that MLB has been continually tweaking baseball. And imagine this new ball not only having a completely different design, but also being made with different materials and being made a little differently each time, forcing players to adapt to the new equipment.

Welcome to football, a sport with, surprisingly, an abundance of balls. In a very unusual but rewarding strategy, Adidas develops a new model for the sport’s biggest event every four years. Today in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, site of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the company introduced his latest creation, the Brazuca. The name is a local term for national pride. The month-long tournament, which kicks off next June, is the most-watched sporting event. In 2010, nearly half of the world’s population was listening. So, you know, no pressure on rolling out this product.

The Brazuca, the match ball for the 2014 FIFA World Cup

The Brazuca features a striking new design and new panel system. Six identical interlocking panels make up the synthetic surface of the ball, heat-sealed to prevent moisture from penetrating. The playful, swirling shapes resemble four-armed starfish, outlined in various shades of blue, orange and green, colors that evoke Brazilian wish bandsa popular bracelet.

“Official match balls are not an easy product,” says Antonio Zea, director of football innovation at Adidas. “You try to create novelty in a product and gain acceptance. You can change too much or not enough.

The Jabulani, the ball for the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa

The Jabulani, the ball for the 2010 South African Cup, has been the source of much controversy. Players claimed he felt too light, flew unpredictably, and traveled through the air too fast, at least from the perspective of restless goalkeepers. The Brazuca uses two fewer panels than the Jabulani, which Adidas says improves aerodynamics – straighter flight – not necessarily more speed.

When Zea became Football Innovation Manager, a friend asked, “How do you innovate in football?” After all, it seems to be the most bare bones of the big sports in terms of equipment. How much can you improve on a round ball? A lot, as it turns out. Any changes to the basic components – the inner bladder that holds air, the carcass that surrounds it, the foam layer over it, and the surface layer – can change the way the ball bounces off a foot, the head or grass, fly through the air, bend, turn or articulate.

“The Brazuca is the most tested ball we’ve created,” Zea told Fast Company from Adidas’ headquarters in Herzogenaurach, Germany. His team spent two and a half years developing it, not only to meet the specifications of FIFA, the sport’s governing body, but also to meet their own standards, such as no extra weight when wet. The bullet combines previously used elements – the bladder and carcass of two bullets released after the Jabulani – and the new six-panel cover. The Brazuca group has tested its aerodynamics in the wind tunnel. They tested the design’s visibility in the air, on grass and on TV. And the lab’s robotic leg kicked the ball endlessly, repeating various kicks as the team measured speed, distance and arc. The data indicated that the Brazuca flew more consistently than previous bullets.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Brazuca, Adidas’ 2014 FIFA World Cup Ball

Ultimately, the event that mattered most involved the players. Adidas had the ball tested more than 600 times, more than the company has ever used before, possibly to avoid another backlash. Stars like Lionel Messi played with Brazuca for an hour in training. Other current and former professionals have spent hours at headquarters giving detailed commentary. Adidas even slipped a disguised version of the ball into some games.

The problem with athletes, however, is their subjective criteria: the playability of the ball. They care about foot feel, dribbling, passing and shooting; on how it moves through the air – straight, spinning at the right speed; on their ability to put it exactly where they want it. Without divulging their specific criticisms, Zea says their feedback led Adidas to tweak the micro-texture – a small pebble-like grain – added to the surface of the ball to improve all-weather feel and aerodynamics.

“We absolutely wanted to make sure it was accepted by the players,” says Zea.

Acceptance – or respect, another word he mentions – is the minimum. He aims higher, knowing how connected players may feel towards the ball. “We’re thinking about how we can make players like it,” he says. “They have to like how it feels and how it sounds, what color it is.”

They are giving the new balls to the national associations overseeing the Cup teams in two weeks, so players can train with them and get used to them over the next six months.

Click to enlarge

Adidas has been making balls for the World Cup for 43 years. The best known dates from 1970, with its signature 32 black-and-white hexagon-shaped panels, a design intended to make the ball prominently visible on black-and-white televisions when the tournament first aired. The ball evolved as Adidas searched for the perfect football and, of course, sales. Despite Jabulani’s mixed reviews, 13 million copies sold. With this year’s Cup, Adidas expects to generate $2.7 billion in revenue from its global soccer business.

Therein lies the genius behind the ever-evolving soccer ball. Instead of the same old football with the Super Bowl logo, each World Cup ball is distinctive, which makes it all the more desirable. “The ball is very important for the fans,” says Zea. “In 1982, my father bought me the Adidas Tango ball for the World Cup, which was held in Spain. He was Spanish and I remember going to the park with him and playing with this ball and to have understood what the World Cup meant to him. That’s how we talk about the ball today, as a symbol of the event.

On the whiteboard in his office is the mantra “Create Cool Stuff”. Zea is about to find out whether he and Adidas have achieved this goal or not.