A gold colored football statue stands proudly at the Pakistani city Sialkot’s main traffic circle. For a nation dazed over cricket and one that is reeling from social and political distress, this statue illustrates Sialkot’s distinctive strength as a global football manufacturing hub, providing premium hand-stitched footballs commissioned by the best brands of this sport.

Image source: Forward Sports and FIFA (http://footballs.fifa.com)

Even when Addidas introduced the China manufactured Jabulani football at the World Cup in South Africa, most of the 45 million footballs sold worldwide were sourced from this enterprising industrial city of Pakistan. According to Pakistan Sports Manufacturers and Exporters Association, Sialkot-based football ball manufacturers grabbed around 30% cent of the total orders globally for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.  This however was a set-back, as the Sialkot had bagged 70-80% of the orders during the 1998 and 2002 World tournaments, and the 2006 FIFA World Cup footballs were hand-stitched in Sialkot.

The Jabulani football in South Africa marked the arrival of machine-made footballs. Struggling to compete with technology (from China in particular) – the Sialkot-based football manufacturers are now working to upgrade their technology to regain their own world cup within the football manufacturing industry.

Sialkot and Football

 

Though football is well-appreciated by Pakistanis, the nation itself is not a football power, ranking 165th out of 202 countries in the world. But Sialkot’s reputation goes back a long way as a provider of the world’s best hand-stitched footballs.

 

Pakistan exports 30 million balls per annum, accounting for 20% of the city’s USD 1.25 billion exports. Nike, the official supplier to the English Premier League and Danish Select Sports A/S, supplier to the Danish National league, procure their footballs from Sialkot. Sialkot has also been a forerunner in supplying balls to Adidas, the official provider of match balls to the FIFA tournament.

However, lack of focus on Pakistan’s enterprise level industries has eroded the influx of export orders. In 2006, the industry took a significant blow as new players like China, India and Thailand entered the international market, offering better technology and cheaper solutions. Balls for the FIFA 2006 World Cup were machine-made in Thailand for the first time. Past year, “Jabulani,” the official 2010 FIFA World Cup football, came from China, primarily because they had the available infrastructure.

Adidas liaised with Sialkot-based Forward Sports to manufacture replica World Cup balls; 5.5 million of which were exported this year. Adidas also shared its proprietary technology with Forward Sports to produce thermal-bonded balls for the 2010 Champions League; one of the three football manufacturers in the world to hold this technology. “The feedback was very positive and we have been commissioned to produce balls for the next Champions League in 2011. We are now targeting London Olympics 2012,” said Chief Executive Masood Akhtar Khwaja, Forward Sports Private Limited.

Running 80 stitching centers, the company churns out 25,000 balls every day, of which 2,000 are machine-made (thermal bonding) and the rest hand-stitched. According to Khwaja, the company has the infrastructure and technology to compete with Chinese manufacturers, which was lacking in the last FIFA World Cup.

The promotional balls market, estimated to be around 40 million, is currently being dominated by China. Local manufacturers will need to invest in machine-stitch technology to regain their lost share. Forward Sports aspires to win back both the tournament and promotional market for 2014. “We have only one way to go and that’s forward,” says Khwaja.

Other local manufacturers share similar opinions. Sialkot-based TajMahal Sports Company foresees prosperity for the Pakistani football industry but is concerned with the ongoing challenges such as slow technological advancement, shortage of skilled labor and soaring prices of raw materials. Running 35 stitching centers in Sialkot, the company exported nearly 2.5 million balls in 2010, sliding down from 5 million balls in 2006. Recently, the company invested in machine-stitch technology and has started producing a small quantity of machine-stitched balls, 5% of its total output.

Taj Mahal Company’s Football at Sao Palo 1938

Managing Director Khalid Mehmood, of TajMahal relayed that if these challenges could be resolved, Pakistan could produce premium quality balls relatively cheaper.

What’s Lacking?

Pakistan’s decline in export figures was seen in 2009, when export earnings was recorded at USD 164 million, as compared to the earnings of USD 221 million per annum between 2005 and 2008. Most prominent reasons for this 26% drop were:

  • Increased costs of production and delays in delivery due to frequent and prolonged power shortages. This tarnished the reputation of local suppliers. TajMahal Sports cited a 5% increase in costs due to the use of electrical generators.
  • Machine-made and machine-stitched production being superior to hand-stitched footballs; a machine can produce 36 balls a day whereas a worker can hand stitch an average of five to seven balls per day.
  • Terrorist threats and sectarian violence deterring foreign delegate visits to the operational centers.
  • Lack of recognition for Sialkot manufacturing of high quality footballs; local manufacturers catering to global brands have not been given the recognition they truly deserve. “If we consider the 4P’s of Marketing; Product, Price, Place and Promotion, personally, I believe that [Sialkot’s] football industry focused on the first three but left out promotion. People recognize brands like AdidasNike and Reebok because these market giants advertise and keep reminding the masses about what they do. Unfortunately, Pakistan was not able to build a brand,” says Aleem Sheikh, Head of Research and Carat Operations, Orient Media. If Pakistan would have been able to build a brand of international stature, the scenario would be different today.
  • Due to low wages and fluctuating demands, many workers have shifted to different industries.
  • The stigma of child labor still plagues the industry even though Sialkot’s football-stitching industry is now manned by International Labour Organization- International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (ILO-IPEC) and the Independent Monitoring Association of Child Labor (IMAC), covering approximately 95% of exportable football production. It is said that child labor may be present in counterfeit products, but even that opinion is not authenticated.

What Can Be Done?

The business community within the football industry is optimistic and forthcoming, despite the prevailing circumstances. The industry looks forward to:

  • Investment in new technology. Leading brands prefer machine-stitched balls because of better quality, increased consistency and the absence of the stigma of child labor.
  • Streamlining the casual workforce hired by manufacturers. Workers need to be offered minimum wage, over-time, social security, old age and medical facilities. Gender discrimination needs to be eliminated with equal male and female compensation.
  • Government level incentives that would elevate the structure of local enterprise-level industries. Trade related packages should be introduced to stop the diversion of export orders and also bridge the trade/fiscal deficit. Slashing of import duties, revival of export debate, infrastructural improvements, financial assistance and other forms of support would go a long way.
  • Marketing steps and strategies need to be deployed on an industry and nation-wide basis to promote Pakistan as a premier football provider.

What Does the Future Behold?

The future of the football industry in Pakistan remains bright. Pakistan has the best craftsmanship, raw materials, tradition, skill, expertise, business linkages and entrepreneurship to flourish in the market.  The Small and Medium Enterprise Development Authority is in the process of establishing a Sports Industries Development Centre that would help the local manufacturers sought modern technology and infrastructure.

Pakistan has a fair chance to harness its current potential; there is sufficient demand for machine-made, machine-stitch and hand-stitched balls in the global football fraternity. If the local industry manages to leverage on its strengths and focus on pivotal areas, it will gain the success and status it truly deserves.

Key Learning Points:

  • Pakistan has a rich history as a manufacturer of quality hand-stitched balls. Pakistani footballs have been commissioned by the best brands worldwide but are now facing stiff competition from the likes of China that have adopted new technological approaches to manufacturing.
  • Premium quality hand-stitched and machine-made footballs are used in actual tournaments, clubs and other league matches whereas hand-stitched are needed for practice purposes too. Machine stitched balls are relatively cheaper than machine-made and are widely demanded for promotional purposes.
  • The demand for Pakistani-manufactured balls therefore still exists (whether hand-stitched or machine-stitched), and Pakistan is taking steps to increase its competitiveness in the industry alongside streamlining their own manufacturing practices.
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