Outside, cold winds blow flurries of snowflakes as workers report to the Wilson Football Factory in Ada, Ohio. It’s late January, and the team is gathering to take on what is their most important project of the year—making footballs for the National Football League’s Super Bowl. The process is an involved one, requiring a great deal of teamwork.
The Ada facility is just 150 miles from the birthplace of the NFL. It’s a small town, with just 6,000 residents living in its 2 square miles, but it’s a town that is proud of the work it does. The Wilson factory was built in 1955, and footballs have been made there since, but preparation for the Super Bowl adds a new level of stress. “This is the busiest two weeks of the entire year,” says plant manager Dan Reigel. “It’s trying to get out as many of these balls as we can.” For the Super Bowl, thousands of balls are cut, stamped, sewn, turned, laced, inflated and inspected. And that’s all done by hand. Both teams will receive 108 balls, each with the Super Bowl logo and the team names.
The balls are made with leather sourced from Horween Leather Company in Chicago. There’s quite a bit of history there as well. The Horween Leather Company is one of the oldest continuously operating tanneries in America. When the leather arrives in Ada, the workers at the Wilson factory guide it through the entire process. Every step is watched over by a worker—automation isn’t a part of the dynamic. It’s a multi-generational affair as well, with many of the workers having been taught their duties by their own parents who worked in the factory before them. That also means that the majority of the staff grew up together, resulting in a strong family feel in the factory.
As you can imagine, being chosen to make the Super Bowl footballs is a great honour for the team, and they invest a great deal of pride into making it. And the pressure is definitely one. Every year, the Super Bowl is the single most-watched television broadcast in America. That means that millions of people are watching with their focus keenly framed on that oblong, leather ball. “When they kick that Super Bowl off,” says Reigel, “to know that ball came from Ada, Ohio, that’s a pretty good thing for us.”