I’d heard about them from another Peace Corps Volunteer and I thought they sounded too good to be true. A football that never needs pumping, that never gets a puncture, that can be run over by a car, that can last for ten years. Surely wishful thinking on the part of the manufacturer. If the product was really that good why wasn’t it here already, why hadn’t regular footballs become obsolete?
The balls on the internet retail for $40, this is obviously a prohibitively high price for most of the customer base that this ball is aimed at and who would benefit most from access to it. If you are living in a community where most people live on under $1 a day you are not even going to dream about spending that much on a ball. But $40 for ten years play is a great investment! I have seen countless balls here destroyed in a matter of days and though cheaper than the worldfutbol they are still not inexpensive. Boys and men in villages here often group together to buy a $10 ball, normally to see it get a puncture after a few games. What then ensues is a heroic effort on the part of the boys to constantly resuscitate the ball to a playable state, until it becomes a a hideous Frankenball which must eventually be discarded. And yet people keep making this $10 investment. They value the game of football so much that they are willing to take the risk that they could be throwing their $10 into the gutter.
Even at an optimistic judgement of a $10 ball lasting a whole month in village and you say that the $40 worldfutbol lasts five years, the worldfutbol is still the sounder investment. One month of play with the $40 ball works out at 67cents, whilst if you wanted to play with a $10 ball for five years constantly it would cost you $600.
So why isn’t this ball/invention huge already? The ball was invented three years ago. Why hasn’t it made crappy $10 balls in developing countries obsolete? I know Sting has been involved in the promotion of the ball but I don’t think that is quite enough to explain it.
I’ve played with the worldfutbol a few times now and its definitely different from a regular ball, it swings in the air, the bounce isn’t as big as a well pumped up regular ball (I’ve noticed here that people like to keep their balls very well pumped up, even though that makes a puncture more likely, it appears people are definitely interested in the quality of the bounce of the ball), and it is hard to shoot hard with it. Yet you can still play the game very effectively and kids love it. In fact I think kids might prefer it to a regular ball as so many of the younger kids play barefoot. But the slight drawbacks of the ball are still not enough to make it an unwise investment for a village in my opinion.
Lets look at some other issues. Availability is clearly a huge issue. Who wants to sell a product that lasts ten years when you can sell a product that lasts one month and the customer will still keep coming back for more. Getting a product like this to the markets where people actually want it and where it would be most useful needs the backing of the vast network of independent football sellers. The market here isn’t like the UK or US where if you have an innovative product all you need to do is convince one of the major retailers to stock it e.g. Walmart, JD Sports and then a huge population immediately would have access to it. And the worldfutbol, even though it is a better value product more suited to the environment here and suits the customers needs more fully doesn’t satisfy the retailers needs.
There is also the problem of the lack of faith in the product. How can I prove to you that this football will last for ten years unless I give it to you for ten years or you know someone who has had one for ten years? I’ve told people in village that this ball will last for ten years and they have either laughed in disbelief or smirked at what they see as my naivety. I admit even though it seems pretty indestructible my credulity is stretched to think that anything will last for ten years in this environment. However I have hope that if the ball does actually last for ten years so many people will see it and verify that it is not a gimmick and ball sales could soar.
Another potential problem is that the ball is not being marketed or pushed as simply a great innovative product which addresses a problem. It is being pushed as a quasi charity. I can’t knock this too much as I am trying to tap into this and get a donation of balls from the company for The Gambia. I have a few misgivings about this – giving away the balls devalues them, if the first time everyone encounters one of these balls is through a donation it will make them much less likely to cough up the cash if they do ever see it for sale in the market, even if the donation has proven to them that it is an excellent product and especially as they will be being asked to pay more for it than a regular football. Also, and this is just speculation as much of this ramble is, but I believe that pushing the business as some sort of philanthropic enterprise probably doesn’t attract the investors necessary to push this product hard and make its sales explode. Instead it attracts Sting.