The start to the world’s biggest sporting event, the FIFA World Cup 2010, is a lesson in poor risk management.
No, it’s not the political risks of South Africa: The country has managed the event spectacularly. The flop is an over-engineered ball, the Jabulani.
The ball flew over the goalie’s nest…
In every match that I have watched, the vast majority of free-kicks have sailed over the goal. Most corner kicks and other set pieces have overshot their targets. Many long passes have bounced over the heads of the recipients.
Those shots that make it to the goal are harder to predict and grasp. Many top goalies, including Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon, Spain’s Iker Casillas, Brazil’s Julio Cesar, Australia’s Mark Schwarzer, and England’s David James, have sharply criticized the ball.
As I see it, the strategies of FIFA, football’s international governing body, and Adidas, creator of the official ball, might have been overtaken by a marketing obsession that was not grounded in proper risk analysis.
The lure of reward
Adidas wanted to create a ball that’s fast. FIFA wanted to increase pace in an already fast-paced game, a game without the type of “time-out” interruptions you see in typical American sports.
Adidas claims the ball is the roundest and speediest yet. The speed and flight would translate into more goals. More goals = more viewer excitement, especially in the world’s biggest underdeveloped football market, the United States. The hope is that millions of soccer fans, fueled by goals galore in the World Cup, will shell out $150 to buy this sophisticated ball, generating a nice chunk of cash for Adidas and corresponding royalties for FIFA.
The neglected risks
1. Altitude. Adidas blames the ball’s strange movement to altitude. It’s surprising that Adidas marketers and designers did not take this adequately into account. Most places in the world, and especially South Africa, require balls that would behave predictably in different playing conditions. People play football on grass and sand and dirt and streets, and in different altitudes, not inside a lab.
2. Lab-idealism. Which brings me to the second point. Adidas claims that the ball reacts the exact same way each time a robot kicks it. But on the field, human players kick it, and the ball behaves to the unpredictable twitches and curls of each individual foot in ways that surprise the players. The ball’s “Grip N’ groove” technology makes its movement closer to “true flight.” Well, Adidas, this is a football, something you kick around, not launch into space from NASA’s Kennedy Center.
3. Strike Rate. Adidas and FIFA knew the ball would be difficult for goalkeepers to handle, especially in the air, resulting in more goals. But did they count the risk of strikers not being able to predict the ball’s movement?No wonder then, that Brazil’s main striker Fabiano called the ball “supernatural,” before adding, “it’s very bad.” The chart above shows the reality: scoring is at a historic low.
4. Aesthetics. The aesthetics of the “beautiful game” is important. It’s not just that set plays were overshot. Some of the goals ascribed–fairly or unfairly–to the ball’s unpredictability were downright ugly to watch. Even the Slovenian striker who scored a goal against Algeria said the goal was helped by a ball “really difficult to control.”
5. Goodwill. People are questioning if Adidas is really working for the good of the game. Why fix something that already works very well? Adidas’s strategy and glitzy ads are proving a bit static against the torrent of criticism that the ball is generating. Players have called the ball “a disaster” and even “the worst ball ever.” People are talking about boycotting Adidas products. Adidas has hinted that mainly teams sponsored by rival companies are criticizing the ball. But we fans are watching the World Cup, aren’t we? And the ball’s strange movement is clear. In the days of networked consumers, bad word travels real fast.
6. Revenues. Will all these affect the bottom-line? All else equal, yes. If professional football players are unable to predict how the ball will behave, why would ordinary people buy this expensive object to replace their trusted leather footballs? However, Adidas’s Jabulani sales have been good in the US, but it’d be interesting to watch Adidas’s share price here as the competition progresses.
The need for risk analysis
This fiasco, from both a product and public relations standpoint, could have been avoided if Adidas and FIFA had properly conducted risk analysis as part of their lofty marketing plans, and gave such analysis importance. They would have known then that the risks of spoiling the quality of the world’s greatest spectator event by introducing an untested, unpredictable product is unjustifiable, even from the bottom-line perspective.
The World Cup is not the stage for these experiments. Yes, the Bundesliga and MLS used the ball, but most leagues in the world did not. As Italy’s goalkeeper Buffon said, “The World Cup brings together the best players in the world and to those players you must provide something decent. The new ball is not decent.”
Football is the world’s most popular sport partly because the game is beautifully simple. All you really need is a ball. The whole game revolves around this round thing. But Adidas and FIFA may have taken their eyes off it.
Is Adidas willing to risk a quality flop at the World Cup in order to maximize short-term revenues? Well, in a competitive market, one’s mistake is another’s opportunity. So don’t be surprised if Nike or Puma or Reebok comes up with a glitzy ad of their own that makes fun of an over-engineered ball playable only by Wall-E.