The oblong, three-dimensional shape of a football is known as a prolate spheroid. This is a symmetrical shape defined by rounded edges on both points and along the axis. The shape of a football wasn’t intentional, but a consequence of early footballs being made out of pig bladders that had this unique shape. As the forward pass was developed, teams discovered that when combined with laces, this spheroid shape could be thrown great distances with accuracy.
In my playing days, there was no shortage of embarrassing failures by myself and my teammates trying to pick up a loose football. Despite the desperate pleas of our coaches to, “just fall on it,” the temptation to try to scoop up this awkward, bouncing ball was always too great.
In this article, we’ll discuss how a shortage of rubber in the mid-1800s led to the use of pigs bladders for footballs, and how and why the sport maintained this prolate spheroid shape even after the footballs could be more efficiently manufactured at a standardized size.
- The name for the shape of a football is called a prolate spheroid
- The earliest footballs were made of pig’s bladders which, when inflated either with air or straw, had a similar shape
- When combined with laces, teams discovered that the shape was efficient to throw, and so the prolate spheroid design persevered even when bladders were no longer necessary in the production
How a Football Got Its Shape
The unique shape of a football can be traced back to the sport’s earliest days in the mid-1800s. Before rubber was readily available, many footballs were made of the inflated bladder of an animal, most commonly a pig. While the animal’s skin wasn’t used, the nickname “pigskin” was born and still exists in football vernacular today. 
These earliest footballs had to be either manually inflated or stuffed with hay or straw to maintain their shape. This gave the “ball” a shape close to a prolate spheroid but there was a lot of variability between individual balls. 
With the inception of the forward pass in the early 1900s, progressive teams quickly discovered that gripping the ball by the laces was the most efficient way to throw the prolate spheroid object accurately. As passing became a more and more common feature in the game, the decision was made to keep the unique shape of the football along with the laces even when they were no longer necessary for stitching the seams together. 
The Unique Shape Leads to an Interesting Game
In most of the world’s most popular sports, the ball is round and uniform. There’s no surprise with how the ball bounces or where it’s going. This makes football unique from other sports like basketball or soccer where players can anticipate where the ball will end up.
The odd shape of a football means that when the ball hits the ground, it’s anyone’s guess where the ball will bounce next and it depends a great deal on if it lands on its side or a point.
This is why most coaches will stress to their players to not try to pick up a bouncing football. Instead, if there’s a fumble or a similar situation, coaches will implore their players to just fall on the ball and not try to advance it. There’s no shortage of football bloopers where some of the most athletically gifted players on the planet look ridiculous trying to scoop up an errant ball.
The funky shape of a football can lead to a comedy of errors but also can lead to some unique strategies or moments that introduce some randomness to the game. The happy consequence of using pig’s bladders was also serendipitous and wound up being the perfect shape for throwing far down the field with accuracy.
Do you like the unique shape of a football with all its weird bounces? Would you change the shape if it’s up to you? Let us know in the comments below.