The Wilson NFL football is a mark of American tradition and has served as the official game ball of the league since its inception. Unfortunately, this product has a long way to go in terms of sustainability. The process, manufacturer, and materials that go into Wilson’s ball generate limited environmental initiative and do not seem to be changing.
The official NFL football is made of two components: an inflated rubber bladder and tanned cowhide. The cowhide is the main component of the ball, and the least sustainable as well. According to MadeHow, one cowhide can generate around ~20 footballs. Considering that the NFL requires at least 24 balls per game among ~250 regular-season games, 6000 balls are required to fulfill the league’s needs which leans on 300 cowhides per season. This number is not considering imperfect balls, balls produced and sold outside of the NFL, or preseason and postseason games. With these considerations, Wilson reports producing 700,000 footballs per year which yield 35,000 cowhides. This component of production is wildly unsustainable and draws on agriculture, one of the largest GHG emitting sectors in the world. Cowhide is required for NFL usage because it generates a gripping, non-slip surface to the ball that allows it to be used in the rain. Unfortunately, neither the NFL nor Wilson seem to be engaged in a search for an alternative product. Synthetic rubber is used to produce cheaper, off-brand footballs but those are not fit for regulation under the NFL’s current standards. Until alternative materials are discussed or utilized, the sustainability of the Official NFL football will be non-existent and reliant on a sector with dire planetary implications.
One of the few saving graces of the Wilson football, in terms of its sustainability, is its local sourcing. Cows required to make the football are raised in the United States, mostly in the Midwest region, and are shipped to a processing facility in Ada, Ohio where the actual football is produced. Most cows are raised sustainably on cage-free farms with grass and soy-based diets; Sports Illustrated notes one facility in Bluffton, Ohio where NFL-bound cows are given 1,000 acres of land to roam before being butchered and utilized for their hide. This local sourcing cuts down on transportation costs and further GHG emissions. When it comes to the actual process of making the football, the least sustainable aspect of production is associated with leather tanning. Leather tanning is a procedure where cowhide is altered chemically to change color and become less susceptible to decomposition. As part of the process, the leather is soaked in water over a period of six hours to two days. This part of tanning is, obviously, water-intensive and doesn’t appear to use recycled water. On top of this, tanning makes the football less biodegradable. When the product inevitably ends up in a landfill, there’s a low likelihood of it “going away.” While local sourcing gives the Wilson football a small push towards sustainability, the actual football-making process and agriculture required to do so leave a less-than-desirable environmental impact.
Wilson does not seem to have a significant commitment to corporate social responsibility nor sustainability. They do list on their website that they have an effort to mitigate the risk of slavery and human trafficking in [their] supply chain, but they preceded this by saying “as required by the California Transparency Supply Chian Act.” Wilson seems to be checking the boxes and not going above and beyond to be stewards of the Earth. The company has made a small effort to achieve sustainability in their tennis division, however. In 2019, they created a plastic-free tennis ball container to match a new line of balls they created. While this is a step, it’s a small one. If you’re going to be one of the most influential distributors of sporting equipment in the world, you have to at least have a statement on ESG or CSR. While the company has shown small flashes of environmental stewardship, the initiative clearly isn't there and has a long way to go.