Wilson's new smart football can measure your spiral

The company expands its smart sporting goods lineup

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Playing football in a 3,000 square foot room is not easy. That’s less than 10 percent the size of a football field, and considerably smaller than a backyard or a driveway. But that was entirely the point when Wilson Sporting Goods picked Lightbox, a swanky event space on Manhattan’s west side, to preview the company’s newest product, the Wilson X Connected Football. The company was trying to say that with this ball — which goes on sale September 8th for $199 — and the accompanying app experience, the "stadium is everywhere."

The point of this de facto tagline is that you can use the Wilson X football in the smallest of spaces and still be able to recreate those big game moments. You may be stuck at the office, but that doesn’t mean you can’t throw a Hail Mary pass to your co-worker that wins the Super Bowl.

It’s something football fans dream about all the time, except with this football, that dream won’t just be in your head. You’ll also be able to watch it unfold in the app, and the whole experience will be backed up by some impressive statistics about just how awesome (or awful) your throw was, numbers that Wilson says no one — not even the pros — has ever had access to, especially in such an immediate way.

"You guys just changed the game of football," Gus Johnson, veteran sportscaster, says to the Wilson X team on his way out of Lightbox. Johnson is the voice of the app that comes with the Wilson X football, so he’s probably a bit biased. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. "I’m there every week, for 25 years, and I know how these coaches obsess over numbers and how they want as much information as they can possibly get," he says. "You just made everybody’s job really easy for the most important position in the most popular game in our country."

The new football is similar in a lot of ways to the smart basketball that Wilson released last year. It has sensors inside (mostly accelerometers; Wilson says gyroscopes are too power-hungry for a product like this), and it uses Bluetooth to send that data to an app on your phone. You don’t have to charge the ball, either. Kevin Murphy, Wilson’s general manager of team sports, says it will last for over 200,000 throws, equivalent to 500 hours of continuously throwing the ball. It can pull this off because, like the basketball, the sensors are in a sleep state most of the time; you "wake" them up by performing a unique motion, holding the ball up on end for two seconds and then flipping and repeating that process. (This way the ball won’t turn on in your bag or your trunk and run the battery dry before you ever get to try it.)

That’s where the similarities end, though. While the new app looks similar to the one for the basketball, it represents a big step forward for what Wilson wants to do with these products. You can see it from the moment you open it up: the menu screen features a live ticker at the bottom that shows what your friends have been doing with their footballs, and on the right is an avatar that you can customize with actual NFL logos and jerseys. Wilson’s long-standing partnership with the NFL is a huge advantage here — countless football-related video games and franchises have flopped over the years because of the NFL’s vice grip on its intellectual property has forced fans to play as fake teams like the "New York Knights." It’s a big deal for hooking players into the system.

The app features real NFL teams and logos

The new app also has game modes like the last one did, but they’re richer experiences this time around. There’s a mode that simulates a full game between two teams, and one called "Final Drive," which lets you play out the dramatic final march down the field that happens so often in football. And, because of the licensing deal, you can pick the team you’re playing against in each of these modes. Each team has different ratings for things like offense, defense, and special teams, and the software will make it harder or easier for you based on who you play against.

But the Wilson X football is really all about the tech that’s in the ball, and the variety of stats it can populate in the app. It makes the basketball look like a glorified scorekeeping tool. From just one throw, the app can tell you the football’s peak velocity, an estimate of how far it traveled, the spin rate (in RPM) of the ball, and the "spiral efficiency." The app also takes all of these numbers and creates a composite score for each throw, similar to the NFL’s "passer rating" statistic for quarterbacks. "You know, they say ‘he throws a really tight ball,’ but they’ve never been able to put a number to that," Johnson says. "Today we’re able to put a number to that."

Watching these stats populate in real time is mesmerizing. I’m not good at throwing a football, but that I enjoyed learning exactly how bad I am is a testament to the way the whole experience works. And, while there are no tips, tricks, or tutorials baked into the app just yet, you could see how just knowing these numbers could point you in the right direction, or at the very least let you know where you stand. My first throw at Lightbox had a spiral efficiency of 18 percent, but as I warmed up I got that number up to 61, and you can bet I felt good about that.

There are also some party game modes that play off these stats, like an elimination mode where you can set a bar — for example, "throw a ball with a rotation of 200 RPM" — that everyone playing with you has to clear, and it gets harder round by round.

But the game modes point out a big flaw with the Wilson X football. The app is robust, but it’s still just an app, meaning you have to have your phone or your tablet nearby so that you can keep track of what it’s been tracking. Otherwise, you’re just playing a regular game of catch.

I found the same problem with the basketball, too. You’d start up a shooting challenge mode and then, do what exactly? Put the phone in your pocket? I tried using Bluetooth headphones so that I could at least hear the audio cues, but the multiple delays involved — the signal going from the ball to the phone and then the phone’s audio signal making it to my headphones — made for a frustrating experience.

The stats are fascinating, but it's tricky to keep looking at the app

The same goes for the Wilson X football. There’s all this wonderful, rich data, but it’s not easy to keep an eye on it all. Murphy says Wilson tried to nip this problem in the bud by including a "wrist coach" with the ball — an elastic arm band that you can slip your phone into, modeled after the playbook wristbands that pro quarterbacks wear. It’s a clever solution, and it even adds to the make-believe side of the experience, but it’s also a bit isolating.

The whole point of this football — from the game modes to just the toss-around stats experience — is that it has to be used with at least one other person. It’s supposed to be social. Your phone’s speaker isn’t going to be loud enough to inform your friends of what’s going on, and yelling out what the app is doing isn’t the best experience, either.

You could try other workarounds, like plugging your phone into a speaker system. But at that point your backyard game of catch has gone from throwing around a $20 football for a half hour to using a $200 ball that requires an afternoon’s worth of setup and breakdown. The stadium may be "everywhere" with this ball, but just like the real thing, there’s a cost for admission.

For now, the company seems fine with the niche nature of its Wilson X products. It’s why, even after a year on the market, the basketball still sits at the same $199 price tag. In the meantime, the company’s working on how it can repurpose this new ball and the underlying tech for teams, colleges, and anyone else that wants to get its hands on all the unique data it can generate. Customers come and go, but Wilson knows those partnerships can last a lifetime.

In fact, the NFL is already working on putting more tech in its game balls — a project that, as the official supplier, Wilson is involved with, though it’s separate from the Wilson X ball. The new Wilson X football still sounds like the thing the team is most proud of. "We’re working on things too that are, humbly I would say, similar and beyond what [the NFL] is already doing," Murphy says in reference to the new ball. "And of course when we get to that point, as a good partner, we’re going to share that with them."

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