EDMONTON — Wilson Sporting Goods will ship a total of 1,948 new balls to the Canadian Football League this season.
And every one of them will look, to the untrained eye at least, exactly like the 1,948 footballs that Wilson made for the CFL last year.
But they’re slightly different. What that difference might be, however, is open to interpretation. Here’s a sampling of pre-season opinion:
Calgary punter Rene Paredes: “I find it a little less round than the other one. That’s the only difference I see.”
Winnipeg kicker/punter Justin Medlock: “It’s maybe just a little softer. The older balls, you’d get one and just know it was going to be tougher to break in.”
B.C. receiver Manny Arceneaux: “You can tell the pebble part, the grip part, is a little different.”
Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly: “It doesn’t feel any different to me. Shape and size seems the same. I guess the leather is different. With the old ball, every once in a while you’d get one that felt way different, so essentially I guess the benefit would be they are more consistent.”
In March, the CFL’s senior director of football operations Ryan Janzen announced the adoption of the new ball.
“It has the same laces and markings, including our stripes,” Janzen said. “But it is made of a slightly harder leather. Our partners at Wilson say that allows it to hold its pebbles better.”
The new ball is the same length as the old one, but the circumference upon inflation could be as much as an eighth of an inch larger than the 2017 edition.
The change came after players tested the NFL ball made by Wilson during 2017 mini-camps and training camps. The CFL said in March that “feedback from quarterbacks indicated they preferred the laces used on CFL balls but the leather of the NFL balls.”
The board of governors made it so at their winter meetings and the new balls were ordered. They are the same price as last year’s model, wholesaling for $75 and retailing for $150. So there wasn’t much of a gamble involved, according to CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie: “You take your wins where you can get them,” he said with a chuckle.
It wasn’t a victory for Calgary quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell. While he appreciates the difference in the leather, he was disappointed the league didn’t make a more drastic change to emulate the smaller NFL laces.
“The biggest difference would have been if we changed the laces, like all the QBs wanted, but I don’t think the kickers wanted that,” said Mitchell. “It always spins better to me without the fat laces on there. I thought kickers would have loved that, but I guess not.”
He does like the fact that the ball seems to hold its shape better than the previous iteration.
“The other ball, you use them for two, three weeks, the leather gets dusty or scratchy, if you will,” Mitchell said. “I find these ones keep their tack a little bit longer.”
All Wilson footballs, including those manufactured for the NFL and CFL, are made in Ada, Ohio, out of Horween leather that comes from a production facility in Chicago. Horween sends 750,000 square feet of leather to the Wilson shop every year to make into footballs for high school, college and the pros. And it’s bovine leather.
“None of it is pigskin, nor has it been in recorded history,” said Skip Horween. “The closest they got to it, pre-1900 when it looked more like a rugby ball and before the galvanized rubber bladder, I think they used a pig’s bladder to inflate the ball.”
He said both the NFL and CFL have moved to leather with deeper pebbling.
“They got some feedback from the skilled players, who want it firmer, a little more pebble depth,” he said. “You wouldn’t see it. It’s a little oilier for lack of a better descriptor. I don’t really know what the real term is. It’s not quite as harsh a feel.”
Wilson, which became the official CFL ball for the 1994 season, sends each team 200 balls for the regular season. The company also provides 100 more to the league for playoffs and 48 for the Grey Cup game.
This isn’t the first time the CFL has made changes to its most iconic piece of equipment. They went to sewn-on stripes in 2006 but quarterbacks resisted and a year later they went back to painted on stripes. The raised laces debuted in 2007. Prior to the switch to Wilson, the official CFL ball was the Spalding J5V.
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