In a league of their own

May 9, 2002
Sporting-goods manufacturers compete for first place in the Sports Product of the Year contest.

The Infusion soccer ball has a built-in pump so players never have to search for a needle and pump again.

The fifth annual Sports Edge Magazine Sports Product of the Year competition showcases sports products that have set themselves apart from the rest. At the Super Show sportinggoods exhibition in Las Vegas this past January, thousands of retailers and team dealers cast their votes for the best new sports product of 2002. While no one winner had been announced at press time, here's a look at some of the finalists and semifinalists.

Pump it up
Last year, Spalding Sports Worldwide Inc., Chicopee, Mass., made headlines when it introduced the Infusion basketball with a built-in pump. The company is hoping to score another goal with the Infusion soccer ball. With Micro Pump technology, gone are the days of endlessly searching for a pump and needle to add air to soccer balls.

The hidden Micro Pump lets players air up the ball almost anywhere. Fully contained and integrated within the ball are a polycarbonate cylinder, valve, and piston assembly. Players twist a button that is flush with the ball to extend the pump piston. A simple in and out pumping motion inflates the ball. Once the desired amount of air has been added, the pump piston is repositioned, and the button is twisted and locked, once again flush with the surface. One minute of activation adds about a pound of air pressure.

Although design work had been done for the basketball, the soccer ball presented a new set of challenges, including getting the ball to comply with weight, size and shape-retention, balance, and rebound standards set by the International Matchball Standard and Federation Internationale de Football Association. Spalding spent 20 months developing prototypes.

"One of the big issues with a soccer ball is the amount of pressure and speed from each kick," says Ron Laliberty, Spalding's director of research and development for sporting goods. "Our test procedure was different than for the basketball. In the lab, our machine would shoot the soccer ball 45,000 times at a speed of 30 miles/hr, and we would see how it held up to the intense pressure. We would also hit the ball 100 times with a cylinder at 50 miles/hr. After each test, we would go back and see how we could make improvements by experimenting with different types of material construction."

Spalding finally decided on a TPU cover with a soft foam backing, which offers durability and a soft feel for more touch and control off head and foot. The Infusion soccer ball is machine stitched, better for holding shape than hand stitches, and features a butyl bladder, which reportedly retains air better than a latex bladder.

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