Since the start of the NFL, Wilson Sporting Goods has been the official football league manufacturer; every pass, every touchdown, every field goal in the history of the NFL has been a Wilson Duke football. Throughout the years there’s been an evolution of the game, the safety equipment, and the eliteness of the players. One thing, however, has remained unchanged: the football itself. It's time for a change in product and increase in sustainability commitment from the Wilson company.
You may have heard the common American football term “passing around the pigskin” despite there not being any pigs involved in the making of a football. There are actually relatively few ingredients that go into a football: cowhide, vinyl lining, and stitching. The bulk of the football is the cowhide and one cowhide can yield approximately 15-25 footballs, depending on the size of the animal.
Before the Patriots’ “Deflategate” scandal, not a lot of people paid any attention to the actual football in games. Something that people are surprised to learn is how many footballs each team goes through in any given game. According to NFL rules each home team is required to provide 36 new balls per game (24 if its an indoor stadium) plus an extra 12 balls just for kicking. If you do the math- 48 balls per game x 32 NFL teams x a whole lot of games- that's roughly 25,000 footballs the NFL uses each season, not counting the preseason and playoffs. Of course the most important game of the year requires the most amount of footballs, so 120 specially made balls are produced for the Superbowl alone. When you put it all together, you’re seeing at least 1,650 cows during the course of one NFL season. The current production practices of these footballs is a wasteful one that is taxing on the livestock industry.
At the end of the game, most footballs are either thrown into the crowd, kept by players to sign and donate, sold, or reused as practice balls, but no footballs are allowed to be reused as game-day balls. The nature of these NFL rules need to be revised in order to lower the number of livestock used as products and to increase the sustainability of the sport. Although that’s not a rule specifically set by Wilson, as the official football supplier they have a duty to put pressure on the NFL to change their ways.
The footballs life cycle begins with the cows themselves. Wilson sources cowhide from small farms across the U.S., specifically in Ohio, Texas, Kansas, or Nebraska. These farmers raise their cattle more sustainably than most. Each cow has acres of land to roam and are fed plant-based diets. Farmers take these extra precautions during the cows life, and during the butchering process, to ensure the leather is of good quality before selling it to Wilson Sportings Goods. The leather that goes into making a Wilson Duke is the highest quality and grade available. If there are any imperfections on the cowhide, then Wilson will either not purchase it or use it to make a retail football instead. Because of the high quality needed for the NFL footballs, Wilson sells their Dukes at upwards of $100 per ball. There was very little information available about the working conditions and wages of the Wilson Sporting Goods’ factory where the balls are made. The only thing they had to say was every Wilson football is hand-made by their employees at a factory in Ada, Ohio. Each football is individually cut, sewn, stitched, and inflated by one of the crafts-people.
Now if you play a recreational sport or are just looking to purchase a football for fun, chances are you are not buying the $100 pure-leather Duke. Wilson also produces a composite football made of synthetic leather, which looks and feels just like the real thing. These recreational balls are mostly used for youth sports because they are not high in quality so they are much cheaper. Also, the synthetic leather becomes slippery when wet, which wouldn’t be allowed in professional or collegiate sports.
The synthetic football alternatives save livestock lives on the front end, but actually tend to be a little less sustainable towards the end of its life cycle. The process in which the synthetic leather is made involves more chemicals and tanning than the natural leather, which also means real leather footballs have a higher capacity to biodegrade once they end up in a landfill.
The positives of the composite footballs are they are more durable than real leather and often have a longer life cycle than Dukes. Composite balls can last someone their entire childhood or at least multiple seasons of a recreational football league, therefore they do not need to be produced and sold in such high quantities. On the flipside, the Duke footballs have a very short life cycle, since the balls that were not sold or kept by players to donate get thrown away at the end of an NFL season and pile up in landfills.
Wilson Sporting Goods is one of the foremost producers of sporting equipment for any type of sport at any experience level. You can’t go to a sporting goods store or attend a game without coming into contact with one of their products. Despite their strong presence in the sports industry, they have a very low presence in terms of sustainability. Their website mentions “Wilson Sporting Goods’ Global Sustainability Efforts” which consists solely of designing sustainable tennis balls and sustainable packaging in place of the old plastic tennis ball packaging.
If Wilson Sporting Goods really wants to commit to being more sustainable, especially in their footballs, they need to make a few changes. First, they need to be more transparent about the production of their composite footballs and exactly what chemicals they use to tan and strengthen their synthetic leather. Second, they should look into finding a more sustainable alternative to cowhide. If the composite footballs were the same quality of real leather, then professional and collegiate sports could cut down on their use of cows and protect livestock’s life on land. Third, make a commitment to offsetting their production of the leather and use less chemicals in their tanning process.
Although I applaud them for taking a (small) step forward with their production of the sustainable tennis ball, it is not enough from a company that has such a strong hold on an entire industry.