Monday, December 18, 2006

New NBA Ball Fouls Out

On October 11th, I blogged about the new composite-material basketball that was being rolled out in the NBA.  Two months to the day, the NBA announced that the new ball was getting bounced. According to the NBA's official announcement:

“Our players' response to this particular composite ball has been consistently negative and we are acting accordingly," said NBA Commissioner David Stern. “Although testing performed by Spalding and the NBA demonstrated that the new composite basketball was more consistent than leather, and statistically there has been an improvement in shooting, scoring, and ball-related turnovers, the most important statistic is the view of our players.”

"In the meantime, we will work with our players and our partners at Spalding to determine the best possible ball for the NBA."

Even though I'm an opinionated marketer, I do not have an opinion on way or another about the merits of the new ball. That's obviously up to the players. But as I noted in my October post, from a marketing point of view, Spalding and the NBA had a problem on their hands.  A very big problem.  A number of the players - including Shaquille O'Neal were badmouthing the new ball.

From a product introduction and marketing point of view, Spalding had dropped the ball and clearly hadn't gotten buy in from a key constituency.  They had done some homework:

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.

But clearly not enough with the incumbent players - including the one who is arguably the biggest, most widely recognized name on the court: Shaq.

Now, the ball is back in the NBA and Spalding court, and they're now saying that they will work with players more closely before introducing another new ball.

Those of us in high-tech marketing don't typically have to ever face situations like this. When we roll out B2B software, for example, we've generally enlisted key customers in the design phase, and as beta testers. Plus, let's face it, someone can complain about our software in a blog, but it's not going to get written up in newspapers, or splashed across the news in the way that Shaq's reaction to the new ball was.

Still, it's a good reminder about making sure that key constituents are part of the product creation process.

P.S. Because they are a Massachusetts-based company, I'm particularly sympathetic to Spalding and the costs (production, reputation, good will) that this has meant for them. I do think that they are handling things quite nicely, however, in offering anyone who bought the old-new (or is it new-old) basketball a way to get their money back. My guess is that most people will hang on. You never know. The ball that was introduced this year might be deflated now, but it might be worth something someday.

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