Saturday, January 13, 2007

Episode 1 of Innovation in Sports: Involving Customers Early in the NBA Product Lifecycle? Priceless.

The NBA caused quite a stir this season. They designed a new basketball with Spalding that they touted as being much better with a laundry list of features and a patented technology. Some features were:

  • Spalding's Cross Traxxion(tm) technology which is a union of revolutionary design and breakthrough materials which eliminates the need for a break-in period
  • One-third the channel area to provide more material coverage for better grip
  • Moisture management material to provide superior grip and feel throughout the course of a game
  • More official details here from the NBA...
The old eight-panel ball had been been around since 1970. Were any of the new features asked for by players? Why did this redesign occur? Unfortunately the players where not part of the redesign process, so when the season began and the ball revealed many players voiced their dislike of the new ball.

Ultimately, David Stern relented and put the old ball back in to play at the start of the new year. So has there been any difference in the statistics between the 2 balls? This is a portion of Vince Grzegorek's story on the old vs. new basketball:

...However, it might lead us to conclude that besides the personal comfort of the players that may have whined about cutting their fingertips on the microfiber model there is really no practical difference between the balls in actual game play. We're talking about professionals here, professionals (best A.I. impersonation with the voice there), and they are going to make shots whether you put a microfiber ball in their hands or a leather ball in their hands. Heck, give them a little practice and they could probably make consistent shots with a soccer ball, a kickball, or whatever else you want to give them.

In this case, the groundswell against the change was so great that David Stern couldn't help but go back on his word and give the players back their leather ball. It might not lead to higher scoring games in the second half, and it might not lead to better field goal percentage, and all of the other stats might be the same; but if they players feel this vehemently about the basketball, then let them keep the one they want.

Even if the advantages and comfort of the good old leather Spalding are all in their heads.

Perception is everything (Here is the rest of Vince's article...). I heard a story from Luke Wroblewski at UI11 regarding redesigning QWERTY keyboards and needing a high degree of improvement (+30%) in order for people to want to move from something so engrained in their muscle memory.

Clearly the NBA did a poor job not in the design of the ball, but in using a process that left out listening to their core customers, the players. Of course you are going to get "spidey sense" reactions without any connection to statistics or facts. This is not about facts or quantitative study. These players are all about feel. Make them shift from a wide, creative awareness while playing the game to an uncomfortable feel of a new ball and they may be less visceral in their play.


Steve Portigal said...

Right. Managing the change is as important as the change itself.

Good thought exercise, if the NBA had handled things differently...
- announced their intention to improve the ball
- involved more players more often from earlier on
- been transparent about the design decisions as they were being made and refined

would the very same ball have succeeded?

It's not possible to answer the question, and it's very loaded, implying the complaints are not valid. It's possible that the complaints are valid, but the feeling about the tradeoffs between improvements and frustrations in the new ball is a powerful feeling and it changes that cost-benefit analysis that any player (any person, of course) would do.

Michael Grossman said...

I agree, I think the new ball could have been a success as is or with a minor tweak if they had had the players participate in the process. Interesting to note that on the NBA website promoting the new ball, they had nine players endorse it. Six of those nine players were retired, and supplied really removed quotes like this:

“We didn’t like to play with a new one because the new one was real slippery. It (the new ball) feels good in my hands. I’m sure being as old as I am that I can still shoot it.”
-- Hall of Famer George Gervin

Their listening channel pool was a bit off the mark.