Can electric football ever again create a buzz?
APR 19, 2013 5:00a ET
Six boys laid three electric football games across a pool table, the felt still pristine because pool balls rarely moved from their pockets. They would handwrite tournament brackets on a piece of paper, select their favorite team and play through the night until their eyelids grew too heavy to continue — only to begin anew in the morning. The lone distraction came from an occasional plate of hot dogs sent down from Mom.
In the beauty of those young boys' imaginations, where hope and promise swelled, life circumstances, career choices and the realities of physical limitations hadn't yet obstructed their plans of being a National Football League pro bowler. Plenty of time remained for them to fulfill their childhood fantasies that didn't even really seem like fantasies at all. Why couldn't they grow to be 6-foot-3 and 200 pounds, with the athleticism of a gazelle and the toughness of a bullfighter?
Before that growth spurt arrived, they could wait and worship their idols in the company of others, living vicariously through make-believe out routes and toss sweeps. The board game that would define their childhood arrived under Christmas trees from toy stores or mail-in catalogs. It consisted of tiny plastic men fastened to prongs and bases, capable of buzzing and colliding for hours with the flip of a switch. On the electric football field, boys truly were in control of their heroes and their dreams.
Of course, those visions faded over time. Games made way for girls, cars and college. Life brought new challenges and, with them, old hobbies were left behind.
But Johnson and thousands like him have grown into middle-aged men, and now they long for a simpler past. So they gather, the mechanics and artists, construction workers and chefs, in recreation centers, bars and rented hotel ballrooms across the country — each searching to rekindle the imagination of their youth a few hours at a time.
"In electric football, your football heroes never die," says Johnson, a Philadelphia construction worker who runs a 32-person league on weekends that replicates schedules of previous NFL seasons. "It brings back the joy of being a child. It's about that fellowship, almost the way women have a book club. We might hang out, drink beers at the bar or smoke a cigar, but it's the electric football game that brought us all together."
Johnson is a member of the Miniature Football Coaches Association, a group so committed to maintaining electric football that it has formed leagues and teams in cities from coast to coast with the help of an Internet message board. There are roughly 400 official MFCA members who faithfully play the game, detailing their players with team-specific paint jobs, down to the finest face-mask links and Nike swoosh insignias. Their devotion has helped to preserve a game that threatens to slowly die out as a new generation moves on without it.
Before Tecmo Bowl and Madden transported boys to video-game heaven, electric football ruled. For 40 years, from 1967-2007, the NFL bestowed its official license upon the game and 50 million Americans bought the product. During the 1970s, when Johnson fell in love with the game, it was the highest-grossing NFL-licensed property in the country.
Since that time, its market share has diminished significantly, instead serving a tiny niche community of middle-aged game players and collectors. But Johnson is among those who recognize the smell of Mom's hot dogs and nostalgic appeal alone can't realistically preserve a game for future generations. What once represented a social phenomenon is but a shadow of a thought in the public consciousness.
What can be done to rekindle those same dreams for a younger demographic, and can it ever truly mean as much? One man with considerable influence in the electric football market has an idea to create a revival. And he's counting on the concept being crazy enough to work, to save a treasured game of the past before it's too late.
Doug Strohm understands what it means to dream big, to turn a grand idea for a sports board game into a profitable reality. His combination of confidence, business acumen, technological savvy and simple appreciation for childhood memories lead him to believe he can accomplish it again.
Strohm grew up part of a baseball family in Wapakoneta, Ohio, a fan of the Cincinnati Reds' famous "Big Red Machine." Like most boys in the area, he aimed to someday mimic the career arcs of Joe Morgan, Pete Rose or Johnny Bench.
Every summer, Strohm would attend the county fair with friends and seek out the pinball baseball game. A giant ball would cascade from a shoot and the player would try to correctly time his swing, smacking it with as much force as possible. But just as quickly as Strohm's enthusiasm soared, the county fair packed up, and his favorite game vanished until the next summer.
Rather than wait another year, he began developing his own version of the game at age 15 in the basement of his boyhood home using plywood and cardboard. He manipulated a Christmas wrapping paper tube into a pitch pipe and hammered a tiny bat near home plate. Although he went on to a successful career as a technology executive, he couldn't let go of the idea. More than 30 years later, in 2007, he launched the tabletop game as president and CEO of Seattle-based "Ballpark Classics" and earned an endorsement from Major League Baseball.
The realization that his favorite baseball game could appeal to such a wide audience gave him another idea: What if he could recapture the market for electric football, too?
"I may be crazy, but I think this is a great brand that's been around for a long time," Strohm says. "It's severely undervalued. If you look at the list of toy brands that still exist today — Barbie, Tinker Toys, Erector Set, Lincoln Logs, you name it — everything has been preserved and updated and moved forward. It's a huge opportunity to take a classic brand that has a wonderful name recognition and move it forward."
In February 2012, Strohm bought the electric football brand from Miggle Toys, which had taken over for Tudor Games back in 1988. Strohm — who recently left his job as chief strategist at Seattle digital consulting firm Garrigan Lyman to work full-time on electric football — noticed the previous owners had focused on the game as a lifestyle business rather than pushing more retail products and using technological enhancements to grow the company.
Strohm, 51, renamed the brand Tudor Games to pay homage to its original roots and immediately set out to market the game to a younger generation — a critical facet for prolonging the game's shelf life.
"We love the hobbyists, and guys that remember it are just delighted when they see it," Strohm says. "They spend a lot of money on it. They paint their players. They buy all the accessories they can get their hands on. All that stuff is great, but as a company, we're never going to grow the way we want to unless we can get it back in the hands of kids."
Strohm's company is in the process of developing applications for tablets and smartphones that keep score for the game. He wants to establish digital playbooks for gamers to choose from as they line up their pieces and build a program that tracks player movement to help determine what pieces should play certain positions. He also intends to push sales into major stores rather than online, where the bulk of sales existed under the previous owners. Strohm says Dick's Sporting Goods and Target have recently been added to a growing list of retailers that will carry the game.
The most immediate objective for Strohm is to earn new licensing agreements with both the NFL and NCAA. In 2007, Miggle Toys lost the NFL license and dealt a severe blow to electric football by branding the plastic pieces as generic teams. Strohm recently submitted paperwork to the NFL with the intention of rolling out officially licensed products in time for the 2013 season.
If all of these upgrades materialize, Strohm believes they will help electric football bridge the gap between the old version and one that more accurately resembles the video game world most kids have grown accustomed to.
"It's an obstacle, but I don't think it's going to be terribly difficult to overcome," Strohm says. "Until we're brains in jars, we have two hands. Some of us were born to have this tactile need and other people maybe not so much. But there's quite a few people that just will always need to have that physical touch."
The genesis for electric football began modestly in the 1930s at a metal company in New York, still years away from capturing the attention of a country. An employee at Tudor Metal Products was said to have created a gadget that moved figures across a metal surface using the vibrations from a tiny motor. At the time, the company used that technology only for car and horse racing games.
But when Norman Sas bought the business and became president in 1948, his vision was to implement the same technology into a football game. A year later, he was mass marketing the product for $5.95 as football grew in popularity across the East Coast.
The game pieces hardly resembled actual players, so Sas enlisted the help of industrial designer Lee Payne in the 1960s. Payne created figures that featured team-specific colors and looked more like their real-life counterparts. He also built cardboard stadiums mounted on the side of the game.
Those innovations helped lead the NFL to license the product in 1967, pushing the game's popularity into the stratosphere. A 1971 Sports Illustrated article noted it was the best-selling NFL-licensed product in the country. NFL team T-shirts and sweatshirts ranked second at the time.
Earl Shores is an electric football historian and co-author of the book "The Unforgettable Buzz," which is scheduled to be released this summer. According to Shores, the NFL earned $300,000 in royalties on the game in one year — a sum representing 5 percent of the total earnings. By then, the game retailed for $9.95 to $14.95, and Tudor Games made millions off the product.
In the mid-1970s, the game had become so popular that four companies — Tudor, Gotham, Coleco and Munro — each made their own version. But it was Tudor Games that endured into the 1980s because it was the only NFL licensed game, which allowed it to release updated versions of teams with actual logos each season. Other companies were forced to use generic plastic figures.
"Tudor was very smart with that team thing," Shores says. "They kept the game alive in the same household over a number of years where other games, you stick it under the bed or the attic and it's gone."
Electric football continued to thrive until the 1980s, when video games became a larger presence in households across the country. Sega and Atari were among the companies to take over the football simulation market, moving boyhood dreams to places a board game never could — toward pixilated men on a television screen. Sas sold the company to Mike Landsman and Miggle Toys in 1988.
Sas, who passed away last year at age 87, would tell the Washington Post in a 1998 interview the creation of video games represented "the beginning of the end" for electric football. But Landsman was undeterred in his pursuit to seize the market once again.
Landsman still clung to vivid memories of playing electric football as a kid on the floor with his brother in their Chicago neighborhood. And he wanted others to use their imagination the same way he had.
"It's probably the least expensive entertainment for a family, and it's exciting and it's competitive," says Landsman, 76. "It's what holds families together. At that time, it was really the state of the art. It was the most incredible game that was ever made up to that point."
When he purchased electric football, Mike's wife, Delayne Landsman, expressed considerable skepticism because of the enormous odds they faced.
"I saw my future going right down the tubes," Delayne says, "because the little electronic computer games were so hot that I didn't see how we were ever going to get this back in the market. As it turned out, we did."
Together, the Landsmans would advance the game as much as they could. They would incorporate plastic cheerleaders, coaches, cameramen, reporters and lighted stadiums — accessories that created an even more realistic experience.
And they would attract grown men who fondly remembered the game from their childhood, much like Mike Landsman had, by organizing tournaments for prizes. They started an Internet message board to connect players from across the country — which would help lead to the formation of the Miniature Football Coaches Association — and held the first of several electric football conventions in the fall of 1994 at Michael Jordan's Restaurant in Chicago.
It was a start. What the Landsmans couldn't anticipate was the electric football market bottoming out again.
Margie Windsor has seen electric football at its lowest point. She works as warehouse manager for Tudor Games and has held the same position since 2002, when Miggle Toys owned electric football.
The warehouse is located in the small town of South Beloit, Ill., (population 7,856) on the Illinois/Wisconsin border and is the only one of its kind in the United States. Windsor takes orders and ships games across the country to families interested in pursuing a forgotten hobby.
Since Strohm took over the company and created some much-needed publicity, the calls have increased. In fact, many people who make calls to Windsor are dumbfounded the game even exists anymore.
"They figured it all faded out when the computer games came in," says Windsor as she sits behind her office computer on a recent weekday. She is wearing a black sweatshirt with the words "EFL Football" printed on the front in yellow letters, and a framed electric football board game rests on the wall behind her.
Part of the challenge for Windsor and Strohm is to push electric football into the mainstream market. After all, if people don't know a product is still alive, how can they buy it?
In 2007, when Miggle Toys lost its NFL licensing agreement, Windsor didn't think she'd see the day the company would have an opportunity for a resurrection. Electric football fell even deeper into an abyss, off the radar as the popularity of officially licensed NFL video games continued to grow.
Landsman had developed stage-3 colon cancer and says he was a month late making a royalties payment. He says the NFL opted instead to give the license to a new company, Excalibur, which would later file for bankruptcy.
"It was like getting kicked in the groin," Landsman says now. "It was bad."
Whatever business Windsor and Miggle Toys received from electric football enthusiasts quickly vanished for a game that retailed for $59.95.
"We've had some pretty rough times after we lost that NFL license," Windsor says. "We hardly moved anything. There were a few days in there you wouldn't get any orders. Nothing. It was just down. Usually around the holiday season, between that Black Friday until Christmas, you can get anywhere from 60 to 70 orders in a day. Then, we weren't getting any.
"I thought a few times it was going to close right out. And I think it almost came to it a couple of times."
The 12,000-square foot South Beloit warehouse features shelves of board games and plastic pieces stored in cardboard boxes. Some of the pieces haven't moved for six years — since the NFL license expired — because the team logos are painted onto the sides of player helmets. Other college team pieces are packed away in bins at the front of the warehouse, stagnant until Tudor Games secures the NCAA license.
Windsor, much like the Landsmans, is waiting and hoping Strohm can pull off a comeback to obtain the licenses again.
"Oh gosh, people have been begging and begging," Windsor says. "I get calls all the time. I don't think there's a week that goes by that somebody doesn't call and ask if we got them back yet. I think Doug can make a go of the whole thing if he just puts his mind to it."
Despite the advancements Strohm continues to make in 14 months since acquiring electric football, the reality is this: There still are no guarantees buyers will clamor to own the product. And it will be difficult to match the widespread appeal the game captured so many years ago given the breadth of outlets available to kids today.
Johnson says one of the biggest challenges Strohm faces is convincing a younger generation to put in the time to make electric football a worthwhile endeavor. The original game was sometimes difficult to operate because plastic pieces didn't always move forward across the field. He and other serious hobby enthusiasts have learned to tweak their plastic bases with tools to improve the game performance, but that upgrade only comes from a labor of love.
"We're Americans," Johnson says. "We want things out of the box working fast. With this game, some of this stuff you have to sit there and take your time. That's a little bit of a hindrance compared to other games."
Strohm isn't deterred by this obstacle and says once people discover how much fun the game can be, it will change perceptions. He also is trying to make the game culturally relevant again on a far greater scale than before.
Electric football recently was featured in a Pizza Hut Super Bowl commercial, in which the game appeared for roughly a second. It wasn't much. But it represented a turning point for Strohm. About 108.4 million people watched this year's Super Bowl, making it the third most-viewed broadcast in television history.
More opportunities to push the product in front of a country will only help people want to give it a try, according to Strohm.
"I think action figures really make the difference," Strohm says. "They tap into some primordial urge we all have to put ourselves into that player's place. When you have 11 of those on the field squaring off against each other and you've cared for them and tweaked the bases to make them go where you want them to go and that perfect play comes off, it's a big deal."
It won't be easy to break through before other childhood curiosities take hold. Shores, 52 years old and an ardent supporter of the game, has a 17-year-old son who has no interest in playing. And Shores says that type of disconnect between generations isn't unusual when it comes to electric football.
"There's a real emotional attachment with electric football," Shores says. "I think that's the strongest element to keep it going, at least among the generation who's got it going. Whether we can pass the emotional thing on, I don't know."
Johnson certainly isn't willing to give up the fight just yet.
"Electric football doesn't have a retirement age," he says. "You can be 90. But you have to pass it on first. There are tons of kids that come in and watch us play. But they still haven't yet jumped into the water, so to speak. I would hope to say the future is bright, but who knows?"
In the meantime, Johnson will relive childhood memories on the electric football field as often as he can. And he will continue to dream like so many others, optimistic once more about a future that holds so much promise.
Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter.
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