Not everything Nike does revolves around cool shoes and apparel. Its connection to the world of sports is about giving athletes the tools they need to perform at their absolute best. And, for soccer (er, football) players, that goes beyond footwear, jerseys and shorts, and protective gear — the ball may be the most important element of their game.
For decades, Nike's been working to develop the best ball possible, going from spheres made with hand-sewn materials to others that will work the same on wet or dry conditions on the field. Now the sportswear giant says it has designed its most aerodynamic ball of all time, "Nike Flight."
According to Nike, the new Flight ball is "a revolution in football aerodynamics," delivering 30 percent "truer flight" than in its predecessor, the Nike Merlin ball that was introduced in 2018. What this means, exactly, is that the Flight ball has a more consistent travel path as it flies through the air after being kicked. Nike says that, in order to reduce wobble and deliver a more predictable and consistent flight, it had to create a new technology called AerowSculpt, a material wrapping the ball that's intended to make air flow around it instead of gripping its surface.
The brand compares the features of this ball design to the dimples on a golf ball, which can affect the spin, drag, and lift. With Flight, Nike says the result is a ball that makes less unpredictable movements, leading to fewer changes in direction mid-air — a feat that wouldn't be possible with a ball that was completely smooth. Considering how important long ball kicks are in soccer, the AerowSculpt construction on Nike's Flight ball, and its promised accuracy, should be a welcomed improvement for players everywhere.
"The construction started with a square shaped Aerotrack groove," said Kieran Ronan, Nike's senior director for global equipment. "Over the course of the 68 iterations, we modified the shape of the groove, added sculpted chevrons, and explored multiple features throughout to deliver one geometric pattern that helps promote a more stable flight." Those AerowSculpt design details aren't hard to miss: The Flight ball is covered in what looks like dented, thick lines, each one carefully sculpted to be able to influence how the ball flies.
“Everything done at the [Nike] Lab is rooted in science.”
Additionally, Nike says Flight is made with a fuse-welded, four-panel construction that has 40 percent fewer stiff seams than most traditional 12-panel balls. In other words, its materials requires less stitching. This will allow players to have an easier grip on the ball whenever it touches their feet and, at the same time, have a more accurate sweet spot every time they hit the Flight ball with power. And, since it won't be as unpredictable in the air, all of these features combined should make it easier for players to hit their target during a cross to a teammate or a shot on goal.
Aside from more than 800 athletes who helped Nike test its Flight ball, the company says it also relied on data from a robotic leg that was programmed to replicate kicks from actual, human players and then repeat them over and over again. That automated testing, combined with real-world data, helped Nike measure ball performance (like how much it wobbles if you hit it in a certain spot) in different settings and then use that information to adjust features accordingly. This robot, which Nike built in-house at its Equipment Innovation Laboratory, is a key part of why the company ended up with over 68 iterations of the Flight ball, before eventually landing on the final product you see here.
"Everything done at the [Nike] Lab is rooted in science," Ronan said. "Here, we are able to detect small differences in performance that may not be perceivable to most athletes, but when those small differences are iterated upon 68 times, the result is a noticeable leap in performance."
While football may not be the biggest sport in the U.S., that's certainly not the case for the rest of the globe, where passion for the game is rampant. And with Nike's current flagship ball, the Merlin, being used in some of the most prestigious professional leagues — including the Premier League in the U.K. and Serie A in Italy – the Flight ball will have its moment to shine soon. That can be both good and bad, as there have been soccer balls in the past with aerodynamic innovations that were deemed "too perfect" for their own good.
Still, Ronan is confident in what his team has achieved with the Flight ball, he told Input in an interview, saying that the rigorous testing from players and robots alike will make it "the best possible product" that Nike can bring to the market. "There's always gonna be a question," he said. "But our hope and our wish is that everything comes together the way we planned it, and if something were to happen, we will work through it, figure it out, get better, and we'll keep moving forward."
“No ball, you don't have a game.”
Ronan said the Flight ball has been in the works for eight years, a sign that Nike wasn't trying to rush its development until it was perfectly happy with how it performed in every possible scenario. Its real test, however, will come once the ball launches on June 29 and players all around the world have a chance to play with it and put it through its paces outside of a controlled environment. On a professional level, Flight will be used in the Serie A, Premier League, Russian Premier League, National Women's Soccer League, among others.
"The ball, over the years, gets notoriety if it doesn't do what people [want it to do ]," added Ronan, noting that consistency of flight was chief among the factors considered during development of Nike Flight. "The ball is almost the unseen object, but actually is the most important part of the game. No ball, you don't have a game."