The hopes of one British family to become permanent residents of the United States may well rest on an 8-foot by 4-foot collection of plywood, nets and ramps designed to teach children how to kick and head a soccer ball. Its creator, Alan Ball, is hoping to turn the invention _ dubbed Ball-E-Wall _ into the hottest sports item since Nike Air Jordans.
There's more than money at stake here.
Ball is hoping the Ball-E-Wall will be enough of a commercial success to warrant a small manufacturing plant in St. Petersburg. Even better would be for a major sporting goods company to buy the rights to the product and pay Ball a lot of money.
"Then I could buy a business," says Ball. "I could buy a McDonald's and employ 30 people."
Either way, Ball needs to start a business that will employ enough American citizens to satisfy immigration authorities that his business is necessary to the area's economy. Then, authorities will let him and his family stay in St. Petersburg, rather than forcing them to return to England.
Right now, the Balls face the very real prospect of having to leave the States in the not-too-distant future. Their visas have expired and they are appealing the Department of Immigration's denial of an application for a permanent visa.
Although the Balls own two trailer parks in St. Petersburg, they manage the concerns themselves and employ only three part-time workers. That's not enough, according to the government.
After searching unsuccessfully for a business they could afford that employed enough people, Ball decided to try to make a go of a product he started developing eight years ago "when I realized Americans can't kick a ball. They can throw anything, but they can't kick," he said.
He noticed that there weren't enough walls to use for kicking against, so he devised a portable one. He added two angled wings on either side and a net across the top to keep the ball from going over the wall. Finally, Ball devised ramps to attach to the top and bottom of the back wall that lift the ball up in the air. Without the ramps, a player can practice kicking, chasing and dribbling the ball. With the ramp, players can practice heading the ball.
Ball-E-Wall will be unveiled officially this weekend at the Sports and Recreation exhibit at the Florida Suncoast Dome. Ball said he is anxious.
"I stayed up until 3 o'clock in the morning last night doing the voice over for the video," Ball said Monday. "Barbara kept saying, "Nobody will understand it, you have to sound more American.' "
Eight years in the United States have not erased the British accent from Ball's speech. He has the most difficulty pronouncing the name of his own product. When he says it, it sounds more like "Bowl-E-Woll." He tries broadening his vowels, but can't get it quite right.
He considered having one of his children narrate the video. Dean, 21, the eldest, retains a trace of London in his voice. Adam, who was 9 when he came to live in the States, has no trace of a British accent. And 10-year-old Karly is, as Ball puts it, a "typical American Tom-boy."
None of the family wants to return to England, although Barbara and Alan would like to visit their elderly parents. But because their visas are expired, they would not be able to re-enter the Unites States if they left.
Permanent residency has been the Balls' intention since they moved here in 1983. On the advice of an individual touting himself as an "immigration consultant," Ball invested $300,000 in two trailer parks in St. Petersburg. He thought the investment would not only generate income but satisfy government requirements for permanent residency.
He received an L-1 or "inter-company transfer" visa and was assured that after five years they could apply for permanent visas.
The Balls faithfully renewed the visa every year or two. In 1986, Ball gave the immigration consultant $900 to file for citizenship for the family.
"That's the last I ever saw of him," said Ball.
They learned through another immigration consultant that an L-1 visa cannot be converted into the necessary E-2 or "treaty investors visa."
The L-1 visa ran out in May 1989. Immigration has twice denied the Balls' request for permanent visas. They don't expect to hear a decision on the second appeal until the end of the year.
In the meantime, they have spent more than $10,000 in the process, not to mention the money invested in the trailer parks and their home or the money being used to create and market Ball-E-Wall.