While elite athletes are often rightly lauded for their physical skills and winning mentality, the sports equipment they use are often overlooked. However, having the right equipment can be the crucial difference in the outcome of a game, whether it is a ball, a racket, a glove, or a shoe. One of the most prominent and successful brands in the industry is Wilson Sporting Goods, which has been producing high-quality products for over a century.
One of the most recognizable sports equipment brands in North America, Wilson Sports produces high-quality products for many major sports, including basketball, baseball, football, soccer, golf, tennis, badminton, softball, racquetball and volleyball.
In all American sports history, no other brand has been partnered with a league longer than Wilson and the NFL. That means every point scored in the NFL has been with a Wilson Football. Named in honour of the game’s pioneering legend and NY Giants owner, Wellington Mara, the Duke” NFL football remains a sporting icon that is synonymous with the game of football.
Return to the NBA
Wilson hit the headlines in 2021 when they returned as the NBA’s official basketball manufacturer after 37 years away. Seemingly inspired by the new ball, the Philadelphia 76ers are hoping to upset the NBA Championship odds this year and win the championship for the first time since 1983 – the last time Wilson was the official ball manufacturer. But how did Wilson originate and how did it become a key sports manufacturer for so many professional leagues?
The history of Wilson Sports dates back to 1913, when it was founded as the Ashland Manufacturing Company by Sulzberger & Son’s, a meatpacking company based in New York. The company used animal by-products to make various items, such as tennis racket strings, violin strings, and surgical sutures. In 1915, Thomas E. Wilson, a former president of another meatpacking company, was appointed as the president of Ashland Manufacturing Company and renamed it after himself.
Wilson had a vision to create a successful sporting goods company that would significantly improve the performance of athletes. He started to expand the company’s product line by acquiring other businesses, such as Hetzinger Knitting Mills, which produced athletic uniforms, and a caddie bag company, which made golf balls and bags. He also added basketballs and footballs to the company’s offerings and introduced innovative products, such as the double-lined leather football.
In 1918, Wilson left the company to focus on his meatpacking business, but his legacy continued. The company acquired Chicago Sporting Goods Company, which made uniforms for professional teams, and struck a deal to supply equipment for the Chicago Cubs baseball team. It also hired Arch Turner, a leather designer who created the leather football that became the standard for the sport.
In 1925, the company changed its name to Wilson-Western Sporting Goods after forming a distribution agreement with Western Sporting Goods. It continued to grow and diversify its product line throughout the decades, making equipment for sports such as golf, tennis, badminton, and squash. It also acquired other brands, such as DeMarini, EvoShield, Louisville Slugger, and Luxilon.
The company continued to innovate and expand its product range throughout the 1930s and 1940s, introducing such items as the first steel-shafted golf clubs, the first sponge rubber tennis balls, the first molded basketballs, and the first plastic helmets for football.
Knute Rockne, football coach of Notre Dame, worked with Wilson to develop a new double-lined leather football, and the first football that was valve inflated. These two developments were instrumental in helping Rockne to develop the modern passing game in college football. In addition, Rockne and Wilson developed the first waist-line football pants with pads that could be removed, thus providing the player with the ability to move more freely. Wilson was also making a major impact in other areas of sports as well, such as the cardboard tube containers for tennis balls that soon became the standard packaging for the industry.
In golf, the company developed the R-90, a sand wedge golf club inspired by Gene Sarazen’s victory in the 1932 British Open. That year alone, Wilson sold over 50,000 of the sand wedge clubs. In 1939, Wilson achieved a major innovation in the design and manufacture of golf clubs with its ability to bond different layers and types of wood together to produce a criss-cross pattern that resulted in more power, better direction, and a longer period of use than previous designs which employed other wood.
Throughout the fifties and sixties, the company continued to grow, innovate, and expand its operations abroad. In 1970, Wilson was acquired by PepsiCo, Inc. The Wilson brands were chosen as the official basketball of the National Basketball Association, and the official football of the National Football League. Wilson provided almost all of the uniforms for teams in Major League Baseball, and the company also provided the United States Summer Olympic team with all of its official uniforms and clothing. The success of these agreements saw the Wilson brand name become recognised around the world.
During the 1980s, Wilson products were endorsed by over 100 of America’s most famous and well-respected athletes, including golfer Sam Sneed, NFL star Walter Payton, legendary NBA player, Michael Jordan, and baseball’s Roger Clemens.
In 1985, Wilson Sporting Goods was acquired by Westray Capital Corporation and ultimately became part of the Amer Group Ltd. The multinational corporation opened subsidiaries in Japan, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Canada and worldwide sales subsequently boomed.
In May 2021, Wilson introduced its first premium sportswear collection featuring both retro and contemporary styles for men and women, as the brand looks to expand its offering still further. In July 2021 in its hometown, Chicago, Wilson launched its first ever retail space, a hugely impressive standalone 2,247-square-foot store. More have followed, including its first West Coast store in Santa Monica, and further expansion is planned including stores overseas.
Wilson Sports has a long and rich history of creating products that enhance the performance of athletes at all levels. From its humble beginnings as a slaughterhouse by-product maker to its current status as a key sports manufacturer for major sports, Wilson continues to be driven by sporting innovation and excellence.