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The Rebound

It’s been a long journey to the NBA finals. The 2019-20 NBA season went on hiatus on March 11, and it was not until June that the NBA’s Board of Governors and Players Association finalized plans for 22 teams to return under stringent health and safety protocols and accompanied by measures to promote social justice. Even the ball the referee threw into the air for the opening tip-off on September 30 took a long journey before arriving at the “bubble” in the middle of Walt Disney World where the finals are being held.

Though not from Harlem, an official NBA basketball is itself a Globetrotter, the product of a supply chain that spans North America, Japan, China, Malaysia and Vietnam. Not unlike the sneakers worn by the Los Angeles Lakers or Miami Heat, basketballs are part of a global network of designers, suppliers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers. Kentucky-based Spalding, which has had exclusive rights to make NBA basketballs since 1983, depends on efficient cross-border logistics and exacting quality control to ensure consistency and performance.

Pick (Peaches) and Roll

Things started out a lot more simply. On December 1, 1891, in Springfield, Massachusetts, Dr. James Naismith hung two half-bushel peach baskets at the opposite ends of a gymnasium and set out 13 rules for “basketball” to his students at the International Training School of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), which would become Springfield College. From 1891 through 1893, a soccer ball was used to play the game.

The first basketball was manufactured in 1894, was made of laced leather, and was about four inches larger than a soccer ball in circumference. At the request of Naismith, it was created by Albert Goodwill Spalding, a former pitcher for the Boston Red Stockings and Chicago White Stockings, who had founded his namesake sports equipment company in 1876.

The inaugural season of the NBA did not come until 1946-1947. Chicago-based Wilson got the nod to make basketballs for the league from 1946-1983. In 1983, Spalding was given the exclusive rights to make NBA basketballs, but those rights will pass back to Wilson at the start of the 2021-2022 season. More on that to follow.

For now, Spalding is responsible for getting those orange pebbled-leather balls to the 30 NBA teams. What does that process look like? This piece from ESPN outlined the journey of a basketball from the factory to the finals, described below.

Globtrotting Basketball corrected

Following the Game Plan

Operating out of Chicago, Horween Leather Company is one of the oldest leather tanneries in the United States. Horween receives about 3,000 cowhides a week, largely from slaughterhouses in Iowa and Ontario, Canada. The hides then go through a three-week process of hair removal, tanning, embossing, finishing for color, durability and feel, and finally drying. A 1,000-ton press with German-made embossing plates gives the leather its distinctive pebbling. Each basketball takes about three to four square feet of leather. Four to five times per year, roughly 10,000 square feet of leather gets shipped to a manufacturing facility in China where balls are assembled.

Inside each ball, nylon winding made in Japan forms the outside of an inflated bladder (the balloon-like structure that holds air), adding structural integrity and durability. The inner sphere of the ball is covered with rubber from Malaysia and Vietnam. Eight leather panels are glued together by hand.

Once the balls are finished, they travel via ocean to Alexander City, Alabama for a three- to four-week testing process, where the balls must pass diameter, weight, and rebound checks. The NBA ball must be inflated between 7.5 and 8.5 ounces per square inch, and when dropped from six feet, the basketball should bounce 52-56 inches high.

In 2006, the NBA committed a flagrant foul and tried to implement polyurethane leather basketballs. The composite material was viewed by the sporting goods industry as the next new thing and the balls were less expensive to produce than real leather balls. However, the new feel and the difference in rebound height led the NBA Players Association to file two unfair labor practice charges with the National Labor Relations Board. The NBA quickly went back to real leather.

China NBA Viewers

That’s the Way the Geopolitical Ball Bounces

While the contract with Spalding still had two years to run, in May 2020 the NBA announced that Wilson would be the official game ball starting in 2021-2022, the league’s 75th anniversary season. In the press release announcing the upcoming partnership with the NBA, Kevin Murphy, the General Manager of Wilson Basketball said, “Our commitment to growing the game of basketball on the global stage is at the heart of Wilson and our new partnership with the NBA.”

Of course, China is of major strategic importance to advancing that global growth. More than 600 million viewers in China watched NBA content during the 2017-18 season. Tensions between China and the NBA flared in fall 2019, when a tweet from a Houston Rockets executive supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters prompted China to blackout NBA broadcasts and streaming in China.

Game three of the 2020 NBA finals coincided with the one-year anniversary of the tweet. While the finals had been streaming on China’s Tencent, state broadcaster CCTV’s decision to televise game five of the finals marked the first NBA broadcast in the country in over a year. Meanwhile, the NBA continues to face scrutiny for its relationship with China, which was only heightened in the summer of 2020 following reports of abuse at NBA-run Chinese basketball academies.

The league continues to try to navigate these issues, aware that there remains tremendous interest in the NBA in China and huge financial opportunity. Similarly, Wilson Basketball’s Murphy noted, “We have to perform in the U.S., but the growth will come from global sales. We have a presence in China, which is a very fragmented market (for basketball sales) and a big opportunity for us.”

Wilson in China

Outside the United States, Wilson currently has rights to the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association, the Basketball Champions League in Europe and the National Basketball League in Australia. As part of the deal with the NBA, Wilson will also be the official game ball of the Basketball Africa League.

Interestingly, while current NBA ball rights holder Spalding is owned by Fruit of the Loom (which is owned by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway), the Wilson brand is part of Amer Sports Corporation, a Chinese-owned Finnish sporting company.

Jump Ball

Wilson has said that its NBA balls will have the same eight-panel configuration and that it will continue to source from the Horween Leather Company, which is already the sole supplier of leather for Wilson’s official NFL game balls. Other U.S. and global supplier decisions are unclear. Mindful of the 2006 synthetic ball fiasco, Wilson has said its engineers and product designers would work with NBA players to develop and approve the new basketball.

The new game ball will be introduced in fall 2021 for retail sales. The NBA and Wilson both hope their partnership will be a slam dunk, with trade bringing the pebbled ball to basketball courts around the world.


Leslie Griffin

Leslie Griffin is Principal of Boston-based Allinea LLC. She was previously Senior Vice President for International Public Policy for UPS and is a past president of the Association of Women in International Trade in Washington, D.C.



Play Ball

In a popular mid-summer tradition, the best players in the American League squared off earlier this month against the best players in the National League in an All-Star Game, with the American League pulling off its seventh straight win.

No sport is more American than baseball. Credit goes to colonists who invented variations on games played in England. By 1845, the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club codified rules of play that define the game today, including a diamond-shaped infield and the three-strike rule.

So many of us grew up playing Little League and we’re still throwing the ball to our kids (if you want to see a grown man cry, cue the last scene of Field of Dreams). Baseball and softball combined had 25 million participants in 2016, making them the most-participated team sports in the United States. That means we buy a whole lot of gloves, bats and protective gear for millions of our little leaguers in addition to top-of-the-line professional gear to support the big leagues.

Gearing Up

Americans buy over $47 billion from sporting goods stores every year at a Dick’s Sporting Goods, Bass Pro Shop, Sports Authority and others. We import much of the lower-cost equipment for amateur play, but there’s a rich tradition of high-quality baseball equipment made in the U.S.A. that thrives alongside imports, demonstrating that trade enables a diverse marketplace that benefits us as consumers.

Louisville Sluggers are still made in the United States. Rawlings’ pro gloves are made in Missouri but has production overseas for other lines. Rawlings also makes Major and Minor League official game balls, producing them in Costa Rica. Most athletic footwear is produced outside the United States, but New Balance is banging out high-quality cleats in Boston.

All-American Baseball Graphic TradeVistas ADurkin

Buy Me Some Peanuts and Cracker Jack

Trade helps bring us the physical gear needed to play, but it also ensures that viewers can watch the game when they aren’t in the stadium. The All-Star Game was televised nationally by FOX Sports but was also broadcast worldwide by network partners in more than 180 countries. Broadcasting rights are a form of trade in services (see our article on Super Bowl Broadcast: Who Has the Rights?).

A Different Kind of North American Trade Deal

In 2016, 27.5 percent of players on the opening day rosters in the Major League were born in 18 countries other than the United States. Now Major League Baseball is expanding its borders in other ways by exploring whether to bring a team back home to Montreal, Canada and create a club in Mexico City, which would be the start of a truly North American Major League.

Exporting American Culture

Baseball has been popular in this hemisphere for decades and we all know that Japanese super fans go crazy for their Tokyo Yakult Swallows, Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants. Experts who track the baseball industry are seeing significant growth in interest worldwide.

In March 2017, the fourth World Baseball Classic featured teams from the Netherlands, Australia, Taiwan and Israel. The qualifying tournaments saw teams fielded by South Africa, Czech Republic, Spain and Pakistan. While millions of Americans watched the final game between the United States team and Puerto Rico, perhaps even more significant was the attendance of more than one million fans at ballparks around the world from the Tokyo Dome to Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul to Estado Charros de Jalisco in Mexico.

Major League Baseball is also helping to drive global interest in the American pastime through its PLAY BALL initiative. Players from the majors and minors travel to schools throughout the United States and internationally to give kids the opportunity to learn and participate in baseball and softball.

MLB Play Ball Initiative

Credit: PlayBall spends a week teaching kids baseball and softball in the greater London area,

Tariffs are Not Hitting a Home Run with Sporting Goods Industry

It’s nearly impossible to write about trade these days without touching on tariffs, which have crept into our weekend sports.

Days before the All-Star Game, Bill Sells of The Sports & Fitness Industry Association testified regarding the administration’s proposed tariffs on products from China. He was representing the association’s 300 companies and 750 brands that manufacture and sell sports and fitness products. The association stated support for the President’s efforts to bring China into compliance with international standards for protecting intellectual property, but expressed concern the tariffs would add costs to final goods, straining family budgets to pay for more expensive helmets, baseballs and other sports equipment exported from China.

The association also said the cost of component parts to make equipment like customized golf clubs in the United States would be higher and that member companies’ supply chains cannot pivot fast enough to change sourcing patterns. For products that require leather, like baseball and boxing gloves and athletic footwear, there’s hardly a domestic producer to replace China’s production because American capacity for manufacturing apparel and leather goods dropped 85 percent in the last three decades.

Bleacher Report

Bart Giamatti is a former president of the National League and commissioner of baseball. Writer Donald Kagan has described Giamatti’s romantic depiction of baseball as a Homeric Odyssey:

“The batter is its hero. He begins at homebut his mission is to venture away from it, encountering various unforeseeable dangers. At each station opponents scheme to put him out by strength or skill or guile. Should they succeed he dies on the bases, defeated. If his own heroic talents are superior, however, he completes the circuit and returns victorious to home, there to be greeted with joy by the friends he left behind.”

We get it. Our family loves taking in a Washington Nationals game and seeks out Minor League games when on summer road trips. But by far the best seat in the house is on the bleachers at our local field where my daughter plays. The grace and athleticism of this sport is worn beautifully on the girls and women who play the game. There’s something fabulous about the juxtaposition of bows and braids sliding into the dirt at home plate. And we agree, every at bat offers suspense, strategy, and the opportunity to build inner strength for every girl on the field.

Trade is part of our lifestyle – play ball!

Andrea Durkin is the Editor-in-Chief of TradeVistas and Founder of Sparkplug, LLC. Ms. Durkin previously served as a U.S. Government trade negotiator and has proudly taught international trade policy and negotiations for the last fourteen years as an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University’s Master of Science in Foreign Service program.

This article originally appeared on Republished with permission.