March Madness’s new official game ball from Wilson Sporting Goods, which will receive its biggest audience yet during Monday’s national championship game, gained a lot of attention upon its tournament debut. Wilson’s Evo NXT ball came under fire from players, fans and others on social media for its look, its grip and its effect on shooters.
NCAA athletes are just the latest basketball players to complain about a new product from Wilson. The sports manufacturer this season replaced longtime sponsor Spalding as the NBA’s official ball provider, and players are still adjusting to the change. NBA stars CJ McCollum, president of the players association, and Devin Booker are among those who have expressed discomfort with the new ball. Los Angeles Clippers star Paul George even said the transition was one of the reasons behind the NBA’s shooting woes in the early part of the season.
Wilson, a subsidiary of Amer Sports Corp. which is owned by the Chinese sportswear giant Anta Sports, is reportedly paying more than $20 million annually to be the NBA’s official sponsor. Anta Sports, which posted $7.7 billion in revenue in 2021, took over from Spalding. While Wilson might’ve been the highest bidder in negotiations, sources believe the leagued ended the 30-year partnership with Spalding as a strategic move to repair its lucrative relationship with China, which has been icy since Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of Hong Kong citizens protesting the Beijing government in 2019. (Morey was general manager of the Houston Rockets at the time.)
It is working if true.
Chinese Central Television (CCTV) broadcast an NBA game last week for the first time in 18 months. The state-run broadcaster, which has exclusive NBA TV rights, had paused coverage following the Morey incident (besides showing the NBA Finals in October 2020). The move cost the NBA millions of dollars. If CCTV goes back to regular coverage, that will certainly hint that those tensions have eased.
At least one Wilson executive defended the NCAA ball last month, but the criticism, while fading, hasn’t disappeared. This year’s Sweet 16 round was the lowest scoring since 2015, and some believe the double-layered grip ball played a factor in the shooting drought.
Wilson’s contract with the NCAA is set to expire in August of 2023, and it likely wants to avoid anything that may hurt future negotiations. It’s unclear if there will be any changes made to the ball moving forward, but it wouldn’t be unprecedented.
In 2006, previous sponsor Spalding switched the official NBA game ball from leather to a microfiber composite ball—a move that was met with backlash from players. The NBA announced the following year that it was reverting to the familiar leather ball.
Basketball isn’t alone in rolling out new equipment. Other pro leagues have also implemented changes in recent years, with varying receptions.
Wilson last year provided the Women’s Tennis Association “high-altitude’’ balls for the finals of its tournament in Guadalajara, which sits about 5,000 feet above sea level. Major League Baseball tweaked its official Rawlings ball last year after the league broke its single-season record for home runs in 2019. Ahead of the new Premier League season, Nike unveiled the latest version of the Flight ball, which the company says has an enhanced look intended to help players react quicker and read the spin of the ball better.
As the disapproval from NBA players for the Wilson ball seemed to be dying down, the formal unveiling of the Evo NXT during March Madness put the manufacturer back in the spotlight. Whether the complaints result in further equipment changes, or in players having to accept and adjust, is still a jump ball.