About six years ago, when my son was 6, I was trying to get him into something more interactive than video games. I remembered playing electric football as a kid. But I wasn’t happy with [commercial sets] available. I actually make the football figures — hand-paint them, decal them, stick face masks on them, tweak the bases, do everything. Now I am about seven teams short of all 32 football teams [with around 60 players on each team] — home and away jerseys. I have throwback teams. I go to conventions, bring all my teams, occasionally sell them at $400 or $500 a team. But I don’t want to make a business of it, because I want to keep it fun.
I’m a 49er fan. I’ve got the ’94 team, the 2003 team and the current team. For me, the challenge is painting. The decaling is easy. The face masks are hard — you’ve got to buy them, spray paint them, pry them off metal sheets, bend them and super glue them, and they’re super tiny. You have to use tweezers.
Today’s boards are much better than they used to be — most are custom made. One guy in Texas makes surrounding stadiums that match the NFL stadiums. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the quarterback, which is the same as 30 years ago.
[The hobby] started as a way to connect with my son, but he’s 12 now and it’s too slow for him. Now there’s a fraternity of people I’ve met around the country. We meet annually in Canton, Ohio, and have a tournament in association with the NFL Hall of Fame. The national club is called MFCA — Miniature Football Coaches Association. There are at least 200 members. We have some in Europe, a few Frenchies.
Most people wonder why I do it — it was such a crazy game, frustrating and fun. People remember fighting among siblings. With electronic football you have the satisfaction of pitting yourself against a live opponent who is as good as you, the figures move fast, and you have to make decisions in a split second. You can get the figures to do so much more these days.
But the NFL has done everything they can to prohibit us. They’ve aggressively sicced their lawyers on some of the most progressive makers of decals and those who sell teams over the Web. So it’s gone underground. You have to know somebody to get anything these days. — as told to Brent Baldwin
Francis’ work is featured in “The Electric Football Game Art Show,” curated by Style Weekly Calendar Editor Chris Bopst, on display at ADA Gallery through Sept. 13. adagallery.com.