World Cup Fever Continues: World Cup Patent Filing Trends

Keith Smith investigates World Cup soccer ball patents, how weather affected new patent filings, and more...

Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.         - Bill Shankly (Manager of Liverpool 1959-1970)

Similar to Emma’s experiences in her post, my weekends were consumed by soccer for a long time. I’m a latecomer to soccer, getting introduced to fútbol via my son. For close to 15 years, most weekends were spent on the sidelines cheering my son’s team on to victory. And I have to say; I’ve become a convert. I’ve gone from thinking it’s a boring and uninteresting game to literally sitting on the edge of my seat watching a well-played contest between two exceptionally skilled teams.

Every season started the same way for us. We’d make a trip to the local soccer store and begin picking out a new soccer ball for the season. And shoes. Lots and lots of shoes (Man! Do kid’s feet grow a lot!). While shoes are arguably the most important equipment any soccer player purchases, the soccer ball really consumed our attention. It had to be the right ball.

After Emma’s post, and my son’s ongoing interest in game balls, I started doing a bit of digging into World Cup soccer balls. In the process, I turned up some interesting facts:

  • Adidas has made all the soccer balls for the World Cup for over 40 years (starting in 1970).
  • Their first World Cup ball, the Telstar, was a huge innovation. Based on a spherical construction from Buckminster Fuller, it was a more consistent shape and held up well over a World Cup match. This shape is also known as a Buckminsterfullerene C60 (see US 5,273,729 for a production method).
  • The iconic black and white pattern was chosen primarily for visibility. The 1970 World Cup was the first to broadcast in color and spotting the ball was important to the viewing experience.

Which raised the question: would a quick survey of Adidas’s soccer ball patents highlight any interesting trends? Turns out the answer is a definite yes.

For example, a quick look at basic patent filing trends for these patents shows a clear run up around each World Cup for the last 20 years.

Description: AdidasPatentTrends.png

Subject matter is also telling here. Early World Cup balls were all leather with an internal inflatable bladder. Apart from being difficult to produce (and keep round), the leather absorbed water. A lot. And as any true soccer fan knows, you don’t call a game because of a little rain. So as synthetic materials and coatings become more available, you start seeing patents with words like “hydrophobic” and “waterproof” (for example, US 5,040,795).

Another issue is stability and uniformity. While the introduction of the “Buckminster Ball” was groundbreaking, it introduced a few issues. For one, the many seams of the ball all had to be waterproofed. Further, each one of the small panels consisted of both an external leather piece with a potentially absorbent foam under layer. And the more seams on the ball the more it affected aerodynamics. All this made for serious challenges to make a uniform, stable, waterproof ball.

Through the late 1990s and early 2000s, we see patents on the structure and layers of the soccer ball to improve aerodynamics. US 6,302,815 or US 6,503,162 are two examples of this where the goal is to improve either durability, resulting in more stable aerodynamics, or the basic underlying structure of the ball (with similar results). This was an issue with the 1994 World Cup Questra. Goalkeepers complained that its unpredictability made defending difficult (on the other hand, the strikers loved it).

We get a hint at what’s to come by looking all the way back to the 1978 World Cup ball: the Tango. The external graphics design was the first break with the traditional black and white panels and provided a bit of an optical illusion. However, it implied a 12-panel layout that would be incorporated into many future balls (described in US 7,753,813, Ball for ball game and method for manufacturing the same). For more on the Tango, see the Wikipedia article on it here. In fact, this article mentions the waterproofing issues from above.

The 12-panel layout would show up on the outside of the ball with the 2006 Adidas Teamgeist. It’s challenging to see, but the panel design lays out across the underlying 12-panel layer. An attempt to further improve aerodynamics would be made for the 2010 Adidas Jabulani (US Patent 8,529,386, creatively titled: Ball), now down to a custom-molded 8-panel design. However, there were serious complaints from the goalkeepers—and, in contrast to the Questra, even some strikers—due to its unpredictability in flight.

Which brings us to 2014 and the Adidas Brazuca. The Brazuca has a unique 6-panel design that’s custom-molded and attached to maintain shape and provide stable aerodynamics. As Emma pointed out, we get a hint at the possible manufacturing process via US Patent 8,622,856, which describes making the three-dimensional panels (but doesn’t give away the six-panel design of the ball). It also uses the bladder and under layers of other Adidas soccer balls, addressing the aerodynamic concerns of the Jabulani while not compromising the already successful characteristics of water-resistance, spherical consistency, and overall ball feel.

So what will we be looking at for the 2018 World Cup? For the first time, Russia will be hosting a World Cup, so we’ll undoubtedly see a nod to the host country in the graphic design of the ball. As to what new technologies will be introduced, our best bet is to look to the commentary from the players in this World Cup as history tells us that this is one of the best indicators of soccer ball innovation. And hopefully, the US will make it to the quarterfinals this time.

If you’d like a look at the seven patents mentioned in this blog, and you’re an Innography user, you can take a look at them here.

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