Wednesday, October 11, 2006

The New NBA Basketball - A Marketing Double Dribble for Spalding

Last June, amid great hoopla (groan if you must), Spalding unveiled the new NBA basketball. Well, the ball's still round, but it's definitely got a different look, and new material - out with leather, in with microfiber composite. According to the announcement of the new ball, Spalding's marketing and product developers did a lot of the right things to ensure that they were producing the "optimal ball":

The NBA and Spalding subjected the ball to a rigorous evaluation process that included laboratory and on-court testing. Every NBA team received the new ball and had the opportunity to use it in practice. The ball also was tested in the NBA development Leagues and was used in activities during NBA All-Star 2006 in Houston. NBA retired players Steve Kerr and Mark Jackson participated in testing the new ball as well.

Then comes the grouse-fest (which has made it off of the sports pages and into The Boston Herald's business section).

With Shaquille O’Neal and others grumbling about its new basketball, Spalding yesterday denied it threw up a synthetic air ball.

National Basketball Association players are bemoaning Spalding’s new ball as slippery and inferior to the old leather ball they’ve dribbled and shot with for decades.

To much fanfare, Springfield-based Spalding and the NBA announced earlier this year that the league would switch this season to a new microfiber-composite basketball - with fewer grooves - from the classic leather-covered ball of yore.

But some NBA players, now gearing up for the upcoming 2006-2007 season, are harshly criticizing the official new NBA game ball as hard to handle when wet from sweat - and weird to shoot without as many grooves.

Shaq has already said the league should fire whoever came up with the idea to replace the leather-bound basketball.

“Terrible,” Detroit’s Rasheed Wallace was quoted as saying.

The Celtic’s Paul Pierce, though, has defended the ball, saying he used it this summer and has adjusted to its small differences. Then again, Pierce has endorsement ties to

Well, most people don't like change to begin with. And athletes are notoriously wedded to routines/habits/articles of clothing/crossing themselves that they know "work". So some pushback is no surprise. (I'm sure when the NFL replaced the Bronco Nagurski leather helmets in the late 1940's, there was plenty of resistance.) But given that NBA and Spalding appeared to be so careful about getting buy-in, what's with the complaining? They did their homework - or did they?

I guess the key is in the wording above that says that "every NBA team received the new ball and had the opportunity to use it in practice." Oops. There's a big difference betwen "had the opportunity" and "had to use it in practice," and right now it must seem like the difference between a 3-pointer and an airball. The upshot -or rimshot: the most visible, household word NBA player - Shaquille O'Neal - is badmouthing the new ball. This has got to be a marketing nightmare, and it's easy to see how this could spin up into a return to the leather ball of Bob Cousy and Dolph Schayes -with attendant loss of revenue and face for Spalding.

Yes, things like this are to some degree uncontrollable and inevitable, but a note to Spalding marketing. This is not the corner playground we're talking about, it's the pros. Next time you bring out a new ball, you might want to require that every team try out the new ball - and get their feedback and sign-off. Of course, nothing ever satisfies everyone, so this approach would invite the prospect of teams' holding-back and niggling over features. But it would be better than having Shaq shoot his mouth of out there. You'd have greater recourse to go out there and tell him to dunk it.

(An alternative approach: getting the key opinion leaders - like Shaq - to OK the new design probably wouldn't work, as it would get all tied up in endorsements, etc.)

We're still in the pre-season, but with the first official jump-ball in a couple of weeks, it will be interesting to see which ball's in the court.

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