On the ball: does the AFL need to design a better footy?

More than 30 years have passed since the AFL last looked at the specifications and standards for making Australian footballs. puuikibeach

In the game of Australian Rules Football (as with other football codes), few pieces of equipment are more important than the football itself.

And yet the relative attention paid to the ball by the AFL is quite at odds with the equipment’s importance and the amount of money the league turns over. In fact, it’s been well over 30 years since the AFL last looked at the specifications and standards that determine and prescribe how an Australian football should be manufactured.

But recently the AFL commissioned the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living (ISEAL) at Victoria University to conduct a comprehensive review of the critical performance characteristics of Australian Rules footballs.

Changes

In most other football codes, such as soccer, rugby league and rugby union, administrators have actively and regularly considered the playability and performance characteristics of the ball. In soccer in particular, new balls are designed for every major championship and several manufacturers try to steal market share from the leaders by introducing new and innovative products.

This often involves the use of new synthetic materials, surface covers and panel composition. The fact there is much more competition between ball manufacturers in games such as rugby and soccer also drives innovation of playing equipment.

Whatever the governing body deems to be the important performance characteristics of the ball need to be translated into competition-specific standards. Certain elements of ball performance may be singled out as characteristics becoming the focus of its (re)design. For example, the averse effect of balls becoming heavier in wet conditions may lead to the governing body tightening the weight and water absorption specifications of the ball.

Of course there is a risk involved in frequently changing the performance characteristics of playing equipment, in particular when discontent is voiced by the highest profile players of the game in the world.

This happened during the 2010 soccer World Cup in South Africa where the Jabulani ball, designed for Adidas by the sport technology department of Loughborough University, was frequently criticised for being too “floaty”, too light and too unpredictable.

Sport engineers at Loughborough argued that objective measures indicate the Jabulani was the best ball ever produced, and that subjective views widely communicated through the mass media were largely responsible for the public verdict the ball attracted. It did not prevent Adidas from selling record numbers of the product around the globe.

The AFL operates in a different playing equipment business environment compared to soccer and rugby. Australian football is only played in one viable commercial market (for ball production) – Australia. This has led to at best an oligopolistic market for Australian footballs (there is more than one manufacturer), but it could even be argued that Sherrin, as the dominant producer of footballs, can operate as a monopolist – as only Sherrins are used in the AFL competition.

In other words, hardly any pressure has been exercised through market forces to spend time and resources (by manufacturers) on constantly improving their products so competitors would not overtake them. It has been the intervention of the governing body of the sport – the AFL in this case – to consider its options in regard to regulating the improvement of the ball and spur innovation.

Spot the difference

The objectives of the current research project at ISEAL, from the AFL perspective, are simple. We seek to determine what the critical performance characteristics are of Australian footballs according to AFL stakeholders. Based on stakeholder insights, should we – and can we – make improvements to the ball for the betterment of the game as a whole?

From departure point we started to interview a diverse range of AFL stakeholders, including present and past AFL players (from eight different clubs representing four different states), administrators from the AFL, state leagues, country leagues, umpires, media representatives, several ball manufacturers, a sport technology and innovation company and a number of state League and junior players from Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria.

The most striking and maybe surprising outcome of this first stage of research was the fact that almost all interviewees commented on how inconsistent the shape and size of AFL match balls is. Even the six balls selected for every AFL match varied considerably in terms of size and shape.

There was also general agreement that balls that are “kicked in” performed better than balls that were brand new. Even when manufacturers unequivocally argue there is no difference whatsoever between yellow and red balls (other than colour of course), most elite players and umpires prefer the yellow ball, suggesting they seem to perform better.

This is an intriguing finding as objectively there should be no difference in performance. Subjectively there seems overwhelming agreement that there is.

Most interviewees seem to prefer to play with a Sherrin – perhaps given Sherrin’s dominant market position and 130 year history in the game – even when many also argue there may not be great differences in performance between different brands.

Balls of the future

Manufacturers argue that most of the inconsistency in production of balls derives from the fact that natural (leather) material is used to manufacture the product. With the inherent variation in the raw materials come the differences in output quality.

This problem could easily be solved by using synthetic materials to produce Australian footballs, but all stakeholders agree that a “real” Aussie football can only be made of leather.

In light of these findings, the second phase of the research project will take a large group of elite AFL players to the biomechanics laboratory at the Institute of Sport, Exercise and Active Living (ISEAL) at Victoria University’s Footscray Park campus.

Non-branded balls from different manufacturers will be used to conduct a range of objective (record, measure, analyse) and subjective (blind testing and ratings) ball performance tests. The outcomes are expected to be available early 2013, and will be used to advise the AFL on tightening manufacturing specifications, and to consider a range of possible improvements and innovations that can be applied to the Australian football.

This will bring the Australian football from the 1980s to where the rest of the game resides – at the forefront of professional sporting practice in the world.