It’s been 30 seasons since the NCAA’s rules committee approved a smaller ball for the women’s game.
She’s had many suitors. But modern women’s basketball won’t forget her first.
Many of the players who will compete in the Women’s Final Four that begins Sunday in Tampa, Fla., have joked that they’re married to “Wilson” because of the hours spent with that company’s ball in gyms honing dribbling, shooting and passing skills. Before Wilson, Rawlings and Spalding dominated their time.
It’s been 30 seasons since the NCAA’s rules committee approved a smaller ball for the women’s game. The new configurations were determined to be one inch smaller and two ounces lighter than the NBA ball, but no such basketballs existed in April 1984.
Company: Baden Sports, Inc. (pronounced BAH-den).
Founded: 1979 by E.C. Schindler.
CEO: Michael Schindler.
Products: Basketballs, footballs, volleyballs, soccer balls, baseballs, softballs, rugby balls, playground balls, bats for baseball and softball.
Company name: E.C. Schindler named the company Baden as an homage to his German roots. Baden is a territory in Germany in which people emphasize health and recreation, Michael Schindler said.
Baden Sports, the Renton-based company, saw an opportunity and delivered.
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“They weren’t reluctant to get us going when we needed the jump-start, and I’m forever grateful to Baden for the production of that ball,” said ACC senior associate commissioner for women’s basketball Nora Lynn Finch, who was the inaugural chair of the NCAA’s women’s basketball committee from 1980 to 1988.
A better fit for the women’s game
When watching the game, turnovers and missed layups always have bothered Finch, a former coach and high-school point guard. She looked at her stature compared with that of men and was convinced that a slightly smaller ball would help women, who on average have smaller hands than men.
She enlisted the help of James Madison University and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) to research the theory. Using the existing youth ball and an NBA ball, the data showed Finch’s theory had merit. A lighter, smaller basketball did seem to give the athletes in the study more control of the ball and better technique when shooting.
At the time, however, the NCAA didn’t govern women’s sports as it did the men’s. Instead, Finch had to present the findings to the National Association for Girls and Women in Sport (NAGWS) as a representative of the NCAA. The association lumped all ages, skill levels and sports together with the same rules.
Despite the research, there was resistance to change. Some members of the NAGWS didn’t think the college game needed to be different from youth basketball. Some WBCA members thought it was a ploy by equipment manufacturers who could sell a new line of basketballs. More believed it showed women as weaker than men.
“Those things aren’t sexist. They aren’t gender negatives,” said Finch, referencing that women have smaller hands than men. “They are gender differences with the game’s rules adopted and adapted to the size and strength of the competitor. I favor that, hence I made the rule recommendation.”
Michael Schindler, CEO of the family-owned Baden Sports (pronounced BAH-den), also disputed the contentions.
“It’s got nothing to do with equal rights,” he said. “They (coaches) were putting politics into something at the detriment of the game. It made perfect sense to me. But it was a hell of a battle.”
NAGWS narrowly passed the change, and the NCAA began using the smaller ball for the 1984-85 season.
Building the perfect ball
Schindler played at Seattle Prep and couldn’t get enough of basketball. But it was his father, E.C. Schindler, who founded the company in 1979 as one of his many business ventures, naming the company Baden, a territory in Germany, as an homage to his roots there.
The younger Schindler made the decision to ditch the company’s original production of tennis balls to focus on improving the quality of basketballs. He was the product developer, salesman and overseer with six employees in 1980.
The company’s warehouse was situated off I-405 by the Longacres stables. Michael’s office was right in the middle of the warehouse, and he said the conditions – hot and no windows — were less than ideal.
“It was as bad of an office as you could be in,” Michael said.
It was there that he cultivated the first women’s regulation-sized basketball.
The WBCA’s beginning wasn’t any better. Its office was a donated space located in Wayne, Pa.
Founder Betty Jaynes knew of Finch’s research, but bigger companies such as Spalding, Wilson, Rawlings and MacGregor had balked at rush-ordering a sample ball.
She called Schindler from a pay phone to inquire about his company.
“She called, and it was like we’d known each other our entire life after 30 seconds,” Schindler said of Jaynes.
Schindler already was obsessed with making the perfect ball. He stripped the ball to its core through the years to improve its winding, the underlayer, the cushioning, the paneling, the seams, the nozzle, and the leather (and eventually synthetic materials).
During their initial conversation, Jaynes asked Schindler if Baden made a smaller ball, and he began working on a prototype.
The new size was adopted by the NCAA in 1984. The leather ball retailed for $30. Baden also became a sponsor of the WBCA for about $50,000.
Up for debate
Whether the game truly improved because of the changed size of the ball is a matter of opinion.
Women’s Division I programs haven’t combined to shoot better than 44.2 percent from the field since 1986. The amount of blown layups in a game is easy fodder for critics of women’s basketball.
“I always thought it was a mistake,” said retired WNBA/NCAA coach Lin Dunn, who was president of the WBCA when the change was made. “To me, if you want to help the game, go to a 24-second shot clock. Speed the game up.”
Finch admits there’s a physics standpoint to the small ball and the way it can deflect off the rim. However, everyone is using the same standardized ball and basket. And domestic players today have never competed with any other sized ball. FIBA even adopted the size for international competition in 2004.
“There’s a solution to that; it’s called practice,” TV analyst and former North Carolina State player Debbie Antonelli said of improving shooting efficiency for a more entertaining game.
The love of the game
The 1980s were an exciting time for the Schindlers, according to Patti, Michael’s wife of 35 years. They had front-row seats at Sonics games, and Schindler became friends with high-profile coaches – including Pat Summitt, Bobby Knight, Andy Landers and C. Vivian Stringer.
But the NCAA’s decision to allow companies such as Nike and Adidas to compete to be athletic departments’ brands for everything from equipment to apparel pushed Baden out of college basketball, he said.
And Schindler said if it hadn’t been for his competitors’ development of microfiber, he’d still own 75 percent of the basketball market today.
Baden is the official basketball on different levels, such as the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA). But Schindler also moved his company on to successfully selling products for volleyball and baseball.
Still, his downtime is mostly spent watching women’s basketball. Schindler, 65, peppers his conversations with impressions of University of Washington women’s recruits to WNBA All-Star Elena Delle Donne’s pure talent.
And the discussions always weave back to the ball.
“I love the sport and everything about making the perfect ball,” he said.