Every Super Bowl Football Is Handmade in Ohio

The NFL have partnered with football-makers Wilson Sporting Goods since the establishment of the league itself, with their iconic ‘Duke’ football being a centerpiece of games to this day. But few know that all of these footballs are handmade in Ada, Ohio, and have been since 1955. Cover graphic by Caitlin Evans for Midstory.

For many Americans, the Super Bowl might just be the most important event of the year. And that’s not just hyperbole — the 2024 game between the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers drew in 123.4 million viewers, breaking records for most-watched television program ever.

But none of it would be possible without a little village called Ada. In fact, every single football used by the NFL is carefully handmade in a football factory right there in the Northwest corner of Ohio.

Comprising mostly cornfields and a small population of around 5,000, Ada is at first unassuming: “There’s not a whole lot to do in Ada, but we like it that way,” Andy Wentling, plant manager of the Wilson Sporting Goods factory, said.

So why are footballs made there? 

The answer goes back to 1941, when the NFL was established. They struck a partnership with Wilson Sporting Goods, creators of the iconic “Duke” football, to provide them with footballs for all of their games. This marked the beginning of the longest ball partnership in sports — meaning every NFL touchdown has been scored with a Wilson football.

In 1955, Wilson set up operations in Ada, and never looked back, now calling the village home for more than 70 years.

Image courtesy of Euan Morrison via Wikimedia Commons.

According to Wentling, the successful partnership has endured in part due to shared values of tradition and craft.

“There’s zero automation here,” Wentling said. “It’s unlike any manufacturing you’ll see in the world because it’s all done by hand. We haven’t changed anything — or very little — and nor do we want to; we would like to keep that history.”

According to Wentling, each ball begins as a genuine leather cowhide, which is cut into around 22 individual balls. Each ball is then sewn together on vintage sewing machines. The sewing process is done inside-out to conceal the stitches, so once it is complete it must be turned (a difficult task for which steam is used to soften the leather). Next, the lacing is added, and finally, the ball is molded to its iconic shape — and scrupulously inspected.

Much like footballers themselves, the factory workers endure physically demanding tasks.

“If you watch them sew and turn and lace, that is very hard work,” Wentling said. “So your hands and your elbows and your shoulders — it does wear and tear on the folks, [but] that passion and pride that we take to make the game balls makes it worth coming to work every day.”

Hard work creates a close family environment in the Wilson factory, along with a deep sense of pride.

“That’s kind of a deep core value in Hardin County,” Lindsay Walden-Hollar, director of the Ada Chamber of Commerce, said. “We are salt-of-the-earth people who appreciate a good hard day’s work and good work ethic.”

And, of course, Wilson employees share something else in common with pro-footballers: a ferocious love for the sport. According to Wentling, water-cooler talk in the factory isn’t about what they got up to in the week, but about football games and their outcomes. Fridays are filled with employees sporting their favorite team’s jerseys, and buzzing with excitement to see their hard work on the screen on Sundays.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Dedication to sport and craft is just one of the reasons why some employees of the factory have been working there for up to 40 years. Walden-Hollar said that Wilson is one of the biggest employers for the county, rivaling Ohio Northern University and the agricultural industry.

Wilson’s decades-long partnership with Ada provides more fruit than just employment opportunities; both Wentling and Walden-Hollar spoke positively about the relationship between the two.

“[Wilson] are really good about anytime that youth organizations need footballs donated, or our organization needs them. They are the first to say ‘Yes, we are able to help do that,’” Walden-Hollar said.

In turn, Wentling is grateful for the city’s support for the factory.

“I’ve been here eight years going on nine,” Wentling said, “and Lindsay and Jamie Hall (the village administrator), the chief of police, the mayor — everybody has been so great to work with.”

The community’s embrace of the Wilson factory has even culminated in an annual festival called the Made in Ada Wilson Football Festival. 2024 will be the festival’s eighth year.

According to Walden-Hollar, the festival takes place on the first weekend of football season, and features a giant handmade football dropping from a crane following a countdown to kick-off the season. The event gathers around 1000 attendees who enjoy food trucks, live music, games and giveaways — plus the opportunity to watch Wilson employees handmake footballs outside.

“[It’s] a fun thing for our community to do because we’re the only community in the United States that can celebrate having the Wilson football be made in our hometown,” Walden-Hollar said.

Ada’s unique claim to fame also brings tourism to the town, with visitors from all over the state — and even the country — stopping by to request tours of the Wilson factory. Tours of the factory include getting to see NFL footballs’ handmaking process, along with being able to purchase footballs and merchandise.

But perhaps the most special opportunity for football fans and Wilson employees alike is the Super Bowl. For the past 25 years, Wilson has sent around 10 employees to the Super Bowl with machinery to make footballs on-site during the game.

Wentling said that attendees can see the workers build the footballs and can even pay to have one made for them and watch the process.

According to Walden-Hollar, it’s just as special for the employees, who get the opportunity to demonstrate their pride and see the fruits of their labor flourish in real-time.

“They get to go out and showcase their talent and craftsmanship to the world,” Walden-Hollar said. “And they’re all coming from Ada, Ohio, to do that.”

Ada factory workers at the 2019 Super Bowl. Image courtesy of Thomson200 via Wikimedia Commons.

While the Super Bowl is typically the most exciting day of the year for the football industry, 2024 brings something else to look forward to.

Wilson is building a new factory on their Ada site, which is anticipated to open in May 2024. The factory will include a fan-experience zone and retail space to enhance the factory’s tours, as well as upgraded facilities for the employees.

Walden-Hollar said that it is going to be “huge” for the community by driving up the local economy. She hopes that promotion of the new facility could draw thousands of new visitors to Ada, boost Ada’s credibility and highlight the meticulous work that goes on in the factory.

“It’s long hours. It’s hard work. It’s exhausting. But we know it’s worth it,” Wentling said. “Because when you talk to some of these fans … sometimes we’ll actually cry a little bit. They’ll tell us a story about a football and what it means to them — we don’t really realize the impact we have on people until we go to the [Super Bowl].”

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