Re-thinking sports marketing now that fans are in charge
by Coach Martin K. Zitter
Who invented the rubber ball? No one knows exactly who but we have a good idea about when and where and I think maybe how.
The place was somewhere in Southern Mexico, now formally known as Mesoamerica, near today’s Veracruz, and sometime after 4,000 years ago. We know that because archeologists have found and analyzed several ceremonial rubber balls some 3,600 years old found there preserved in an underground body of water known as a cenote. (sen-O-tay)
The inventor probably belonged to the advanced civilization we know today as the Olmecs, a people who had a written language, did math and astronomy, carved great temples and giant nine-foot-tall 15-ton stone heads wearing pugnacious male expressions and what appear to be protective helmets.
But the inventor of the first rubber ball was most likely a woman.
The rubber tree, which produces a sticky white sap known as natural latex, grows mostly in the tropics and is still widely cultivated. By itself, dried latex won’t hold a shape or bounce but when combined with other plant materials containing fiber and the element sulfur in precise proportions, it becomes a useful polymer.
In the good old days, and often still, men hunted and women gathered and cooked and there was a vast selection of fruits and roots, shoots and berries in the vast tropical rain forest that surrounded our heroine's village.
Imagine a bright young woman contemplating the strange white goop coming out of what we today call the Castilla Elastica tree and wondering - there just has to be a way to serve this stuff up and make it palatable for the family.
Perhaps she took a bowlful of it back to her village and plopped it on her kitchen table which would have been lined with an array of bowls containing all manner of food-stuffs that she used daily, and began to mix - trial and error.
Maybe she mixed in the sacred Plumeria or the revered Cacao flower or the fragrant Frangipani. Or something more mundane like teosinte,the ancestor of corn or bean sprouts. Nothing made it edible, but she persisted.
Years might have gone by until she -- or even a later descendant -- finally tried something really strange: equal parts latex plus Ipomoea Alba, the Heavenly Blue Morning Glory and guayule plant extract.
When she examined the result, she saw that it had solidified into the shape of her hemispherical bowl and upon biting it felt it give way but neither tooth nor nail could dent it.
Finally, in frustration she took this congealed mass and tossed it toward her corner scrap pile where it quickly encountered a wall and much to her astonishment it returned right back to her.
Well, a rock had never done that, nor a stick or even a rotten mango. She ran to show her father this strange behavior and he went to show the chief and all the village gathered to see this magical thing that the harder you tried to throw it down on the ground the stronger it came right back to you.
Clearly, there had to be a new, previously unrecognized god in this thing. And it was time to tell its story. After trying mightily to put it on the ground, it was noticed that because it was soft and giving in the hand, it could be thrown from one to another without the pain that a rock might cause.
And if you watched it carefully in flight from hand to hand it resembled the path of the sun and the moon and the stars across the sky and because of their fascination with the natural world that was truly a magical connection.
Being a strong and active people and eager for competition they did exactly what today’s youths would certainly do; they created games that centered on the ball and their bemused elders became the first sports fans.
We know from stone inscriptions, carvings, ceramics and a few surviving codices that rubber balls and other rubber goods were produced and traded through Mexico, Guatemala and Belize for some 3,000 years and that over 1,300 highly decorated special purpose ballcourts flanked by sloping inclines were built throughout the region.
Unfortunately, there was no National League franchise office to codify and standardize the sport so a wide variety of games developed over the millennia.
Consider: some 3,000 years, a dozen major civilizations rose and fell, perhaps 150 generations and an eventual 1,300 ballcourts with various local chieftains, emperors, kings or queens through the centuries each creating and deciding their own rules and regulations. Some hit a two-pound ball no bigger than a softball with custom carved stone knuckles; others volleyed a nine-pound projectile with a thrusting leaping hip-strike- -thwapp. Some employed great brutality, sacrificing the losers through decapitation or perhaps the winners who were deemed more worthy, not unlike the Gladiators in latter day Rome, or robbing and murdering out-of-town visitors and spectators. Today's soccer hooligans have a fine, long tradition on their side.
Sometimes it got pretty bad, but it was child's play compared for what the Spanish Conquistadors had in store for them.
To be continued...
Learn more about early Mesoamerican games and find out how to play them now at
Blog References: http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/1999/rubber.html --