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Brad Broberg, Contributing Writer
Doug Strohm hopes to give an old game new life and turn a modest business into a much larger one.
Strohm, creator of the Ballpark Classics tabletop baseball game and president of Seattle-based Ballpark Classics Inc., expanded his lineup last month by acquiring Chicago-based Miggle Toys Inc., maker of Electric Football and other sports games.
The resulting Seattle-based company hopes to stand out in a digital world by addicting a new generation to games with old-school charm.
Backed by angel investors, Strohm rolled out his Ballpark Classics pinball game in 2007. The company now makes several editions of the throwback game, but Ballpark Classics Inc. was essentially a one-trick pony before last month’s acquisition of Miggle Toys.
“For the company to grow, what we needed was more product lines,” said Strohm. “It’s difficult to be a one-product company and be successful.”
That’s why Strohm jumped at the chance to purchase Miggle — and get his hands on Electric Football — when the owners approached him about making a deal.
“The previous owners didn’t necessarily see the potential in it,” Strohm said. “We’re going to give that company a big shot in the arm.”
The combined Ballpark Classics and Miggle Toys is now known as Tudor Games. Strohm is CEO of the Seattle-based enterprise, which contracts with manufacturers in Illinois, South Dakota and China to make its games.
Strohm declined to disclose the purchase price or sales figures, but Miggle Toys was the bigger of the two with a roster that included not only its trademarked Electric Football game, but also electric baseball, soccer, auto racing and horse racing products.
Tudor Games will continue to make all of those games, but Electric Football was the transaction’s grand prize.
“It’s the flagship product,” Strohm said. “I studied Electric Football when I wrote my business plan for Ballpark Classics.”
Invented in 1947, Electric Football remained popular for decades even though it delivered as much disappointment as excitement. Kids loved arranging the miniature players on the vibrating metal gridiron, but when they flipped the switch to begin play, the players would move like somebody had spiked the Gatorade, spinning in circles, clumping in a corner and wobbling toward the wrong end zone — that’s if they remained upright at all.
Somehow, though, Electric Football thrived. At one point in the 1970s, four different companies were making versions of the game and introducing various upgrades as they competed with each other on the nation’s toy shelves.
Then came video games. Nintendo and others nearly sent Electric Football the way of the leather helmet except for one thing: A contingent of fanatics never outgrew their love for the quirky cultural icon and continued to play Electric Football as adults.
Grownups from coast to coast compete in leagues under the loose direction of the Miniature Football Coaches Association (MFCA), a website where enthusiasts share information about rules, strategies and events such as the MFCA’s annual convention and Tournament of Champions.
While many people continue to think of Electric Football as an exercise in futility, that view is apparently as outdated as a drop kick. Today’s players actually move in the intended direction.
Some come with dials built into the base that can make them zig right or zag left. But the biggest improvement stems from enthusiasts learning how to tweak the prongs beneath the base to make the players move fast and — most important — forward. An entire cottage industry has evolved around tweaking bases and designing custom figures that mimic the colors, names and numbers of specific pro and college teams and players.
The goal for Tudor Games going forward is to retain the support of the existing Electric Football community while introducing a new generation to “how much fun the game really is,” Strohm said.
“Like any product, you need new blood, and the younger generation needs to get behind it.”
One of the first things on Strohm’s agenda is to develop applications for smartphones and tablets that keep score and provide other support for the game. In addition, Tudor Games is joining the newly formed Tailgating Industry Association to promote Electric Football as pre-game entertainment and is pursuing new licensing agreements with the National Football League and the NCAA.
Strohm recently hired James Baum, former president of Matchbox Toys and several other toy companies, as executive vice president of sales. His job is to build a national distribution network for all Tudor Games products, not just Electric Football, and get them on the shelves of more stores. As it stands, most sales occur online.
Basic versions of Electric Football sell for around $75, compared to $249 for Ballpark Classics, which is carefully crafted out of fine wood and high-quality felt. Unlike Electric Football, Ballpark Classics is entirely hand-operated, but both games reflect Strohm’s love for old-school games and his desire to “get people sitting across the table from each other playing again.”
Besides running Tudor Games, Strohm is chief strategist at Garrigan Lyman, a Seattle digital consulting firm, and is a former technology executive. He was 14 when he developed the prototype for Ballpark Classics using plywood and cardboard.
“Growing up in rural Ohio with four sisters,” he said, “I had to make my own fun.”
Thirty years later, Strohm fulfilled a boyhood dream by bringing Ballpark Classics to market so others could enjoy the fun of a hands-on game.
“Until our brains are in jars,” he said, “we’re going to need tactile, interesting, physical experiences like that.”
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