Wilson smart football: First and long in the high-tech football market

Wilson Sporting Goods is first and long the high-tech football market. The company is touting what it describes as the world’s first smart football in a bid to capture the next generation of fans.

The Wilson X Connected Football and its companion app allow players pitching the pigskin to not only track training and skill improvement, but to compete virtually as the quarterback for any NFL team.

The ball will be available Sept. 8 for the NFL Kickoff game, but Wilson executives say there’s been high interest in pre-orders already. The connected football hits paydirt, scoring mostly high marks in a demonstration by a rusty armchair quarterback and a charitable friend, but more on that later.

Wilson aims to marry the dreams of young athletes (the company expects it to be hottest among 11 to 17-year-olds, offering both a junior-sized ball and a full-size NFL version) to play football games anywhere at any time, the ability to improve their throwing skills while competing against friends, and to lead a pro team to victory.


In other words, the ball is millennial friendly: marrying on-demand digital and real-world action, it’s both competitive and social, and it puts the player in the center of the action on a mobile device (it’s compatible with iOS and Android phones).

Huddle Up

The game offers five modes that can be easily selected on the free companion app.

* QB warm-up mode to get your arm loose and check out the stats it tracks.

* Elimination - up to eight players compete in an elimination-style competition in various throwing challenges that weed out the wannabes until there’s one QB left on the field.

* Precision - throw 10 passes to achieve as high a cumulative Wx Rating as possible — measuring distance, velocity, spiral efficiency, and spin rate.

* Game Time - play a full NFL game, selecting plays, managing the clock with time outs, and trying to win. Friends can join in this mode, playing as wide receivers or defensive backs for the opposing team.

* Final Drive - as the name implies, lead your team on a last-gasp drive and try to score to win the game as time runs down.

After each game, players can see their stats and performance analytics, see how they stack up globally, and the data is of course ready for social media sharing.

The Fundamentals

Setup took virtually no time: the ball was inflated and ready to go right out of the box. It’s made of a composite exterior that is easier to grip than smoother leather balls.

It felt lighter than standard NFL pigskins but Wilson’s Kevin Krysiak, director of innovation for team sports, assured me it would stand up to “Deflategate” standards in terms of weight and air pressure.

The free app downloaded quickly onto my phone and seamlessly connected with the tiny sensor inside the Wilson X Connected Football. Next was a succinct profile creation that allows you to choose an avatar (male or female, skin tone, jersey number, and NFL team), load up a social media handle if you wish, and quick tutorials that get you ready to play.

The ball includes a “wrist coach” that looks like the sleeves NFL QBs wear with the plays written on them. This one is designed to hold your smart phone (or recent iPod Touch) in a plastic compartment. The model I demoed was a little bit tight for the iPhone 6 inside of its protected case and was difficult to close so I ended up conducting some of the tests with it in the pocket of my shorts.

Wilson’s Krysiak says the sleeve is designed for holding the devices outside of external cases (up to an iPhone 6 Plus), much like other fitness bands and holders.

"Pokémon Go" Long

A friend and I tried all the drills and the ball, as advertised, easily tracked the aforementioned stats: distance, velocity, spiral efficiency, spin rate, and whether the pass was caught or fell incomplete.

The ball’s composite cover made it easy to grip and catch, the spirals were (mostly) tight and true, and the patterns suggested by the app were often useful.

Be warned, the fine print advises this ball is not intended for kicking so aspiring kickers will have to wait until a future generation.

It was fun to see how far the ball traveled in the air and how the app awarded yards after the catch (YAC). The situational skills and strategy features bring a Madden video game-like quality of managing the clock, selecting from the diagrammed plays, calling timeout and ultimately scoring the winning TD with no time left for your opponent to strike last.

The biggest hitches were some botched snaps, where the play never got underway. The ball didn’t seem to record all snaps (slapping the side of an upright ball) when the phone was in my back pocket, but it did react without error when the device was in the wrist sleeve.

Wilson’s Krysiak says it should have a range of up to 20 yards (good for some parents who may blanch at their kids playing football with a $500 phone on their arm). You can also manually press a button on the display to hike the ball.

The game is designed for two or three players (you can have a QB, wide receiver and defensive back), but it is possible to play alone. I threw a few passes to myself, not legal in the NFL, but some registered as catches while others did not. Krysiak explained that’s because a ball must have a spin rate of 150, so throwing tight spirals instead of lofting passes to yourself may solve that on days when your friends can’t come out to play.

Overall, the ball is primed for diehard fans that don’t mind shelling out $200 for a ball. That’s more than twice the retail price for an official Wilson NFL ball and “pricey for a ball” according to my friend, a father of two young boys.

Price aside, when I was in the target demo, I could’ve easily spent hours putting friends through drills and keeping stats. In fact, Wilson says the non-rechargeable chip is good for 200,000 throws. That works out to 5.5 years with 100 tosses per day, although the next Peyton Manning could conceivably blow through the limit in a year if he’s slinging 500 passes per day.

Of course, if that happens or your battery life goes dead (not an issue in my initial testing) you can still have an actual football and your imagination to dream up heroics as kids have done for ages.

And unlike that hot game trying to catch virtual characters in the real world, the Wilson Connected X Smart Football will have players paying attention to their friends and surroundings while actually trying to catch ‘em all--with their own two hands.