In the 154 years since Princeton and Rutgers played what became known as the first official collegiate football game, the sport has become a billion-dollar industry that enraptures millions of fans every season. But without 150 people working in a small Ohio factory, the game would be a nonstarter.
The Wilson Sporting Goods factory in Ada, Ohio, produces roughly 700,000 footballs – including 480,000 for the NFL – each year. By hand.
Each and every football used during any professional or college football game is produced at the factory, the exclusive supplier since 1955. The balls, made from stamped cowhide – no pigskin here – are cut, sewn, manipulated and stitched by the workers who define devotion to their craft, many who have worked 40-plus years at the factory.
“Our employees are dedicated and hardworking, show a passion for sports and are committed to upholding the excellence in craftsmanship that Wilson has become known for over its 100-plus year history,” says Sarah Houseknecht, Wilson spokeswoman. “And strong fingers definitely help.”
The now-familiar shape of the ball didn’t always look like that. When Americans first started playing football, the game was a combination of soccer and rugby, played with a round ball made from a pig bladder, hence the now outdated nickname. The ball could be kicked, but not touched with the hands and certainly never thrown.
Wilson historians say changes to football rules led to the development of the passing game, which in turn required a differently shaped ball. The first elliptical-shaped ball was introduced in 1897 and refined in 1912 — and hasn’t changed in 111 years.
Wilson began making official footballs for the league in 1941. Some 14 years later, the company opened the factory in Ada, a town of 5,256, give or take a few, located about 69 miles southwest of Toledo.
Each football consists of four panels of cowhide leather, tanned in Chicago. The panels are cut to size, then stamped with logos and emblems. All the official game balls have “The Duke” insignia stamped on them, a salute to New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, who was named after the Duke of Wellington and given the Duke nickname, when he started as a ball boy for the team in 1925. Wilson began naming its balls “The Duke” after getting the league contract.
The Ada factory assembles the balls, using steaming equipment and sewing machines that are older than some of the workers. Each ball requires several hands to complete, from the workers who sew the panels together to the crews who steam the leather to make it supple enough to turn right-side-out to the lacers who meticulously work the white leather laces on top.
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Many workers are football fans themselves, Houseknecht says, whether they follow a particular pro team, a college squad or the local Ada Bulldogs high school team. The footballs are all identical, so they can’t identify their own particular hand in crafting a specific ball, but they recognize their joint contributions.
Since 1969, the factory has produced all the Super Bowls footballs – about 100 balls for each game. Workers wait until the last championship game has been decided, then stamp the two winning teams into the leather and get to work.