Union workers create the balls for all NFL and college games at the Wilson Sporting Goods Football Factory in Ada, Ohio.
The pride of Ada, Ohio will be flying through the air inside State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona on Sunday as the kickoff gets underway for Super Bowl LVII, a matchup between the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles.
A rural village of 5,100 residents, Ada is the longtime home of the Wilson Sporting Goods Football Factory, where the footballs have been handmade for all 57 Super Bowl matchups. For one special Sunday each year, small town America can boast of its role in our nation’s premier sporting event for having produced the highest quality, 100% American-made football.
The 140 workers at the football factory and the people of Ada are proudly identified through the excellent craftsmanship that has helped the small town retain the manufacturing of NFL footballs since 1955. In today’s high-tech manufacturing world of automation, the Wilson Football Factory is a throwback. Every aspect of making the footballs is done by hand and has been since the first year of Wilson football production in 1941, when the factory was located near Cincinnati.
“People love working here and they come in to work and put tape on their fingers like they are getting ready for a game,” said Andy Wentling, the factory’s plant manager. “That leather can be pretty abrasive and it can dry out your skin, so they will put tape on their fingers in certain areas just to protect themselves.
“Our workers are craftsman. We have a factory tour and I get so many people that when they come in their jaws just drop to the floor because they can’t believe that we do everything by hand. To see that finished product and know there is not a single robot or any other automation that did that is quite amazing.”
Before joining Wilson eight years ago, Wentling had a long history as an engineer in the automotive industry, and he said he remains awed that these footballs are produced by only the hands of the local artificers.
“When I first walked in here there was not a robot in sight, it was just all people,” Wentling said. “These people work very hard and they are proud of the craftsmanship they are doing. It is a skill for sure. It’s zero automation and we kind of like it that way. It’s a really cool story to hand turn a football, sew it and lace it. Those are neat things, and we are not going to mess with it.
“We have a great relationship with the NFL and hopefully it never changes. We’ve been the official football of the NFL for 82 years, which is the longest partnership in any professional sports organization. Whether it’s baseball, basketball, hockey or whatever, we have the longest partnership.”
The 105 employees that work on the production floor and handle the footballs are members of Local 1385 of the Chicago and Midwest Regional Joint Board of Workers United. The building of these prized footballs attracts union workers of all generations, as employees range in age from 20- to 78-years-old.
Workers make footballs year-round, as Wilson supplies the pigskins for all NFL and college games. The Wilson football team produces about 500,000 balls a year and typically 2,100 per day, all by hand.
In fact, the factory produces five different size footballs: pee-wee size; footballs for players in fourth through six grades; a junior high school model; one for high school and college (which are the same size); and the NFL size ball, which is also used in the Canadian Football League.
“The NFL ball is a quarter-inch bigger in circumference around the middle of the ball but it is the same, it weighs the same, it is just a little bit fatter basically,” Wentling said. “The professionals know it obviously, and some good quarterbacks in college would know the difference, but I don’t feel it when I have the college or the NFL ball in my hand.”
For the Super Bowl, changes are made to the leather facing of the regular season NFL ball, giving it a unique look. A total of 228 balls are manufactured for the Super Bowl, with each team receiving 108 footballs, 54 of which they will use for pre-game practice and 54 to be saved for the big game.
NFL footballs are made with genuine cowhide leather sourced from the Horween Leather Company in Chicago and have been for all 82 years Wilson has made the balls. The leather carcasses are constructed two months before the Super Bowl football is ready to be built.
“We’ve already got the footballs built, but there is no bladder in them, there are no laces obviously because we have to put them back in a machine to apply the two teams names at a later date,” Wentling said. “We come in on Sunday after the final conference championship game is over and start stamping the team names on the ball until 4 a.m. The next group comes in at 6 a.m. and continues that process until they get done. Then we ship them to the teams.
“Nothing is different after the conference championship games are completed except we stamp the team names on there, which makes it a very unique ball.”
In making the balls, the first step is cutting the leather. The front side of the balls are stamped with the Commissioner’s name and all the other graphics that go on the ball, such as the color Super Bowl logo, the Wilson moniker, and the NFL football’s nickname, “The Duke.”
“I don’t know what year they switched to basically giving the ball a nickname, but it’s from Wellington Mara, who owned the New York Giants back in the day,” Wentling said. “His father owned the team and as a little boy the players nicknamed him the Duke, as in the Duke of Wellington. They picked on him a little bit when his father owned the team and then he grew up an eventually took over the Giants and to honor him — because he was a major part of the whole league and the NFC and AFC coming together –they nicknamed the ball after him ‘The Duke.’”
After the graphics go on the ball, workers sew it from the inside out and turn it right side out. Then, they put the bladder in the ball and lace it, then mold it to give it its final shape.
“For molding, we load the balls into these dies that are cut to the correct, perfect shape and we apply pressure internally and we push out on the leather to make it fit the right shape. But everything is really done by hand,” Wentling said. “We check the weight of the Super Bowl balls and they all get measured by short and long circumference. The balls are inflated before shipping and when they leave the factory the balls are anywhere from 12.5 to 13 PSI.”
One thing that Wentling — or any NFL player, for that matter — does not feel is the presence of a tiny sensor inside the bladder of the ball so it can be tracked on the field. The NFL players have two or three sensors connected to their shoulder pads as well, and all NFL stadiums are equipped with beacons that actually ping the sensors.
“This is our fifth full season of having sensors in the bladder of the ball and now we can keep track of the ball on the field and the players are tracked, too,” Wentling said. “We can get reaction times to know how quickly linebackers are reacting to a ball being thrown or a running back movements so they can coach these guys up a little bit with all of this data and analytics.
“Zebra Technologies partnered with the NFL, and they partnered with us to encapsulate the sensor in the bladder of the ball to make sure it doesn’t come apart, it’s not detected and that you can’t feel it in the ball. So, that next gen stat stuff you see on Sundays, they talk about catch probability or player separation from the defensive backs to the receivers so there is closure so they can detect how fast these guys are running. When the ball is in the air now, you can track it and say this ball is going to get caught or it is going to get knocked down or intercepted because of where a player is at. So, it is good information to have.”
The football sensors are an unusually high-tech addition to an 82-year-old product that is still made the old-fashioned way, entirely by hand.
The Wilson factory is the second largest employer in Ada, located in Northwest Ohio nearly equidistant from Toledo, Columbus and Dayton. It is in what is considered as farm country, but Wilson is able to recruit its talented craftsmen from nearby small towns such as Lima, Kenton, Findlay and McGuffey.
“To make a product by hand, we’ve got 100 people on the floor, but to make a game ball there is like 18 to 20 processes that has to happen, so we are looking at from 18 to 36 people that probably touched that football,” Wentling said. “To have that many different people touch it and to make a good product is hard to do and they do a good job of it.
“It’s not just any football. It’s very unique, and we are proud of our employees just as they are proud of making the Super Bowl football.”