Bringing the 21 metre tall Nike Ballman to life in Jo’burg

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You would have to be living on a different planet to not realise that it’s the Football World Cup at moment. There is football frenzy everywhere (well, here in the UK at least) with flags being flown, football songs being chanted, pubs bursting at the seams when England is playing and not to mention vuvuzelas being blown (yes, some have made their way to our shores already!). However, the most breathtaking exhibition of the ‘beautiful game’ has to be in the Carlton Centre Mall atrium in the centre of Johannesburg where Nike’s Ballman has taken up residence for three months. This footballer is 21 metres tall, weighs 4.75 tonnes, is made up of 5,500 Brasil skills balls and is strung together by more than 10km of cable. If Nike’s ambition was to create an impact and draw attention to its brand, it certainly has achieved that.

However, when the concept for it was conjured up by Andy Walker, global creative director of Football Nike, and his team over at Nike Brand Design in Amsterdam they were told by a number of people that it couldn’t be done on such a huge scale. Walker then turned to Mike Ratcliffe, the design director at Leicester-based design agency Ratcliffe Fowler Design, who he had previously worked with on a number of projects in the past, who instantly said that he could take on this challenge of bringing the gargantuan sculpture to life.

The initial 3 metre tall prototype was scaled up and pre-built at Magna Science Adventure Centre in Sheffield before being shipped to South Africa. “Magna was the only structure in the UK that we could find tall enough to actually hang it in,” explains Ratcliffe. As the Carlton Centre has its own rigging structure, the designers had to build a substructure to go under that. “We built our own rig which is then fastened to their sub rig and on top of that sub rig is effectively a football pitch size (20 metres square) aluminium sheet and in that is laser cut a hole at every drop site, and there were about 570 drops. So, effectively you have a 20 metres square rig with holes that relate to the plan view of the Ballman himself,” adds Ratcliffe.

However, one of the challenges was that the balls were to be donated afterwards to local South African schools and charities so it was crucial that no balls were harmed during the design process. In order to do this Ratcliffe created a specially designed ring for each of the 5,500 balls that exerts 20 pounds of pressure in order to hold the ball in place. Each of these rings with a ball inside is then mathematically aligned to form the final design on one of the 570 0.8mm cables that hang down from the rig above. This required extreme precision and according to Ratcliffe the only way he can describe the hanging of it is to compare it to a game of Battleships.

However, the Ballman is only one aspect of the exhibition because below him is an equally impressive pavilion that is split by a centre circle and the nine Nike-sponsored team kits are showcased within internally illuminated boxes. To complement these kits, there are four ‘floating’ two metre sized Elite Series boots above sliced podiums. “There are some beautiful podiums that are cut through so they are counterbalanced on a very small point at the bottom of each and each one of those has a representation of two metre oversized football boots,” says Ratcliffe. “The whole thing is set on a huge grass circle with copy on the circle. The Ballman and pavilion sit together really well.”

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This whole project took over a year to produce and once the structure was shipped over in freight containers to South Africa, Ratcliffe and his colleague as well as a full team from Sharman Shaw Exhibitions and Summit Steel spent a month actually building it in the Carlton Centre. “Its truly amazing – it’s the biggest project we have worked on in terms of its profile,” says a very proud Ratcliffe. “I must also admit that its gobsmackingly precise – when you see it in real life the balls line up absolutely like laser.”

When its time for the Ballman to make his exit at the end of September it’s not just the balls that are being used again, as the whole exhibition will be recycled or donated. “Everything that is there has been manufactured in such a way that it can be taken apart and used again by someone else – we have not mechanically fixed anything,” says Ratcliffe. Pretty impressive considering the amount of waste often generated from such projects.


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