On the Sunday night of the AFC and NFC championships, hours after the Broncos beat the Patriots and the Cardinals shut down the Packers, the lights were burning at 217 Liberty Street in Ada, Ohio. Located at that address is the factory where Wilson Sporting Goods makes regulation NFL footballs—4,000 a day, 700,000 a year. But on that Sunday night, a core group of Wilson's craftspeople were working on the year's most important batch: the 200 balls (100 per squad) that would be sent to the teams bound for the Super Bowl.
"We have part of the construction done the night before," said Kevin Murphy, Wilson's general manager of football. "But once the championship games are over, we take our best people, and they spend 18 hours finishing them up and getting them ready."
That all-night shift is as sacred to Wilson as the football is to the 49 percent of Americans who are fans of the sport. And in this case, one could not exist without the other. Wilson has been the NFL's official ball for 75 years, and it's made every football used in every Super Bowl.
"This is an American football in an American sport, and a handcrafted product built by craft labor," Murphy continued. "The uniqueness of the product and it being made in the U.S.A. is a powerful marketing statement."
No kidding. Most brands would kill to have that kind of relationship with an organization valued at $45 billion in 2014. But unlike other brands that shell out fortunes just to say they make the NFL's official yogurt or motor oil, Wilson isn't just physically integral to the game, but it also enjoys the advantage of having joined the club in the old days.
In 1920, the owners of America's nascent professional football teams gathered in a Hupmobile car showroom in Canton, Ohio, and formed the NFL. One of those men was Chicago Bears founder George Halas. Halas' players were already using Wilson footballs, and it was Halas who rose at an NFL meeting in 1940 and proposed that the league adopt Wilson as the official ball. It did.
The ripple effects of that decision are felt nearly everywhere. Thanks to the NFL affiliation, countless high school, college, and Pop Warner leagues use Wilson balls, too. "For us, the NFL relationship is critical," said global marketing director Amanda Lamb, "because it gives kids the confidence that their Wilson footballs have the same level of craftsmanship."
Speaking of which, the Broncos and the Panthers are in the process of breaking in the 100 footballs they both received from Wilson last week. Of these, each team chooses 50 that'll be used in the Super Bowl—a decision that in an instant creates the most valuable batch of footballs on the planet. "Those balls are submitted and locked into bags," Murphy said, "and held securely until game time."
This story first appeared in the Feb. 1 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.