Inside Nike’s eight-year journey to create the perfect football
Nike has embarked on an eight-year mission to create the perfect soccer ball, and players in some of the world’s top leagues will soon be playing with the latest model of a modern, futuristic ball. It’s no secret that football players – and athletes in general – are quite sensitive to any changes to their equipment, especially the ball. That’s why Nike consulted more than 800 professional athletes, including athletes not sponsored by Nike, and spent eight years researching before creating the Nike Flight ball, unveiled worldwide on Monday.
The sleek and innovative ball will make its debut next season in the NWSL – which became the first professional team sports league in the United States to mark its return during the coronavirus pandemic on Saturday – along with the Premier League, Serie A and the Russian Premier League, among others.
The name of the ball alludes to what resulted from nearly a decade of research. The engineering team covered 68 different iterations of the balloon and spent 1,700 hours in the lab before settling on a balloon that, thanks to its new AerowSculpt technology, can hug the air and produce 30% more flight true to previous Nike footballs. It specifically surpasses the Nike Merlin, which is used in the Premier League and other major leagues these days.
At first glance, the Nike Flight ball almost looks like a giant-sized golf ball, especially once you start paying more attention to details like the dimples or pentagon-like ridges of an ink layout. 3D. That’s why the sportswear giant opted for a simplistic all-white colorway. Kieran Ronan, who is Senior Director of Global Equipment at Nike, explained how they were able to take innovative lessons from other sports industries, including golf, and apply them to their study to help influence the flight of the ball and to prevent oscillations.
“There were so many different permutations, but the one thing that was true to the golf ball then and still is today is its ability to fly through the air. And in golf, you consider how far the bullet travels to travel downwind or upwind, whether the wind is coming from your left, your right and so on and so forth – rain, dry, wet,” Ronan told CBS Sports. “The principle of what this does is that when you think of a smooth surface, as it moves through the air, it is grabbed by the air. Applying dimples in this case from the ball golf course, or in our case with the AerowSculpt technology, it distorts the surface so air can grab it, which essentially allows for truer flight.”
Manchester City, Chelsea, Tottenham and the United States Women’s National Team were some of the notable teams that worked with Ronan over the years. Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan both provided commentary over the eight-year project. But it wasn’t just the star players who helped Ronan and his team design the ball. They took a ton of input from a robotic leg in their lab to help track boot-to-ball testing of ball aerodynamics, which was another cutting edge of tracking technology used in golf. and adopted in baseball. .
“The other thing that’s been taken from the golf industry is the speed of iterations. When we brought the robot into the lab three or four years ago, it allowed us to up the ante, the amount of testing that we could do,” Ronan said. “The 1,700 hours of testing comes from the players, from what they say, bringing that in, mapping it out and plotting it against an equation, feeding that information into the system for the bot, and then the bot starts his work.”
But why robots? Consistency.
“If you think about bringing in a player and you ask a player to hit a thousand shots, muscle fatigue, overall physical fatigue, the information you get from the first kick, or maybe five or six kicks kick after they’re warmed up, up to a thousand kicks will give you a very, very different set of parameters,” Ronan said. “Whereas with the robot, you work precisely in that range and you can start working with the depth of the grooves, the shape of the grooves, the general aesthetic aspect of the design to help us achieve the optimal number that we ‘ seek in this moment and time.”
Unlike traditional 12-panel soccer balls, the Nike Flight ball uses only four fused panels to help allow for a prominent sweet spot for superior touch and performance. USWNT and OL midfielder Reign Ally Long, who is currently taking part in the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup on CBS and CBS All Access, explained the importance of a constant trajectory and more faithful to the ball.
“As a central midfielder, I want to be on the ball all the time and be the quarterback who can help build the offense using all the different passing ranges,” Long said. “For me to be the best the ball has to be consistent and predictable. Not too light, not too hard, made with the perfect material so that every touch I take is perfect to set me up for the next pass. There nothing better when I hit a ball perfectly and it goes exactly where I want it to go.”