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  • Writer's pictureNed Patton

Football? Basketball? Composites?

I want to talk a little bit about composites used in sports. I want to start with what you might see when you go to a football, basketball, baseball, or hockey game that you didn’t know was made using composites. Last week I shared a pic of one of the latest carbon fiber drivers when I was talking about carbon fiber, so we also need to touch on golf this week.

We also will touch on what you can buy for home use, or gets used in larger parks with football fields and baseball fields. And also, a little on some of the newer flooring for school gyms, and your local neighborhood gym, as well as some of the other things that have made the transition from traditional metals to composites.

Composite materials have come into use in organized sports in a big way. Even the stadium seats have moved to a molded plastic (ABS usually) seat with composite material (usually fiberglass) hinges and mounts.

This is primarily because metals will corrode over time and need to be either painted or replaced from time to time, and the old wood seats also need to be painted nearly every season, whereas composites stand up to weather and the outdoors well. And, the plastic seats with composite hinges are equivalent in overall cost to metal and wood benches.

What about the balls that get used? While the NFL and NBA don’t use composite footballs or basketballs, both of these are used in college, high school, and local community leagues. Composite basketballs are made using a composite material that is synthetically produced and feels like a leather basketball. The same is true of a composite football. The NCAA uses the Wilson composite basketball for its official ball.

These balls do not require a break in period, they last longer, and much unlike leather can be used indoors or outdoors on any court surface.

Which brings us to what the basketball court surface is made of. In the NBA of course, since the tradition of maple floor basketball courts has a very long history, they are all hard maple. But, in high school and college gyms and basketball courts, where the floor gets as much hard wear and abrasion as it does, several venues have moved to a composite flooring that is a specially engineered layered composite material that has a top surface that looks like wood and has a wood floor feel, but is far more abrasion and water resistant than a maple floor.

This stuff is a fairly hard vinyl flooring that requires very little maintenance, does not require refinishing, and will stand up to very heavy use. So, when you go see your local high school game or college game, if the floor of the court has recently been replaced, it might be a composite material.

What about some of the other things in the games of football and basketball that are made from composites?

Helmets in sports have been made using composite materials since the early 2010’s. Motorcycle helmets, NASCAR helmets, baseball helmets , ice hockey helmets, have all been made using composites – predominantly carbon fiber/epoxy for several years.

The football helmet to the right has a rather interesting story. Initially when the carbon fiber football helmet was produced it was for youth league, peewee league, and high school football. This was in 2015. When this helmet was tested against the traditional ABS helmet, the results that came back from the lab that showed that the carbon fiber helmet would reduce concussions by nearly 50%.

Since then, even the NFL which was the last holdout, has adopted the carbon fiber / epoxy helmet as its standard. And of course, it has reduced concussions by a very significant margin in not only the NFL, but in all football leagues.

Another example of composites that you see on the football field is the ever present set of goal posts. These were traditionally made using steel pipe where the curved post was a piece of pipe that was bent into that shape, and then the cross pipe and uprights were welded onto it. But, in 2014, the uprights changed from 30 to 35 feet, making them very heavy and not as stable as they should be. In addition, steel goalposts needed to be repainted every few years.

Since that time, most stadiums in the country have move to entirely fiberglass goal posts. They are lighter, stiffer in a strong breeze, and don’t need to be recoated or repainted every few years.

And, finally, golf. Anyone that has followed the game knows that the best clubs made use carbon fiber shafts, and the best woods (driver, etc.) are carbon fiber. These clubs are rather expensive, but most of the pros have moved to “graphite” shafts and “graphite” woods. The main advantage to using carbon fiber – especially in a driver – is that not only can you tailor the swing weight, you can also move around the center of mass of the head of the driver to adjust it to how you hit the ball.


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