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Hoop Dreams

For years, when a competitor wanted to belittle the Morey bodyboard company, it would slip a Barbie doll into advertisements--a subtle dig at Mattel Inc.'s ownership of the nation’s premier bodyboard line.

Morey ditched the doll in November when Torrance-based Wham-O Inc.--a new company that’s trying to revitalize an old toy industry name--purchased Mattel’s sports division--including the Morey, Frisbee, Hula-Hoop and Hacky Sack brands--for a reported $20 million. Now, the surf industry is waiting to see if the newly reconstituted Wham-O will spend what’s necessary to keep the Morey and Boogie lines afloat in an increasingly competitive niche.

The same goes for the rest of Wham-O’s eclectic blend of lifestyle toys that youngsters and adults kick, ride, toss and shimmy.

The company’s retro products and packaging stirred up what observers describe as healthy interest during the annual industry Toy Fair in New York City in February.

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“The potential is there,” said Cliff Annicelli, associate editor of Playthings, a New York-based toy industry trade magazine. “There has been a backlash of sorts growing from parents looking to try and get their kids away from a lot of the electronic toys.”

Mattel started collecting sports lines such as Morey, Frisbee and Aviva in the early 1990s to help diversify its product mix.

But the sports division, with estimated sales of $30 million, was dwarfed by the El Segundo-based company’s other lines--including Tyco and Fisher-Price. Sports division sales remained flat, observers say, and Mattel sold it last year to focus on big products such as Barbie, Big Wheels and Cabbage Patch Kids.

The new management team, including several former Mattel executives, hope to revive the old Wham-O trade name, which lay largely dormant under Mattel. They plan to bring new products to market, reintroduce old toys--such as Monster Magnet--and try to squeeze more sales from category leaders such as Morey, Hacky Sack and Frisbee.

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Wham-O took its name from the the San Gabriel-based company that Rich Kneer and A.K. “Spud” Melin founded in 1948 and named after the distinctive sound of its premier product--a slingshot.

For decades, Wham-O used a steady--if corny--stream of advertisements to market brands such as Frisbee, Hula-Hoop, Water Wiggle and Super Ball.

Wham-O’s founders--Melin lives in Irvine, Kneer in Arcadia--sold out to a San Francisco-based company in 1983. Kransco Group Inc. in turn sold the Wham-O line and the Morey board business to Mattel in 1994.

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Mattel created a few new wrinkles during its stewardship--including a Frisbee bearing a Grateful Dead logo and a Hula-Hoop that converted into a jump rope.

But industry observers suspect that Wham-O never really clicked with the toy industry giant.

“Mattel does Barbie dolls and Hot Wheels really well,” said Kneer, 72. “But I think some of these brands got a little bit lost over there. They’re really oriented toward Christmas sales, and these lines are really for the summertime.”

Businessman Michael Cookson--who sold his privately held Aviva sports line to Mattel in the early 1990s--said he jumped at the chance to join the investor group that acquired the sports division, including a manufacturing plant in Tijuana and a marketing office in Torrance.

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“While Mattel does lots of things very well, we thought we understood this group of products better and see a lot of potential,” said Cookson, who now serves as Wham-O’s San Francisco-based chief executive.

Dun & Bradstreet pegs Wham-O’s annual revenue at about $30 million. But Cookson said recent acquisitions of lines aimed at young kids and teenage girls already have boosted total revenue to about $50 million.

To hit the gold mine that turned Wham-O’s founders into millionaires, the new Wham-O will have to have solid products as well as effective advertising.

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“People talk about our marketing, but the key to success was really very simple,” said Richard Gillespie, a 30-year Wham-O executive who now designs parade floats in Pasadena. “We looked for really new and unique products that we found to be interesting and amusing.”

“We spent a lot of time on getting just the right name, feel and price point,” Gillespie said. “But the real test was in test markets--did people take out their wallets and buy it. We had a lot of what we thought were great products that went nowhere.”

Wham-O isn’t the only toy company pitching fun. But what Wham-O has--and competitors envy--are brand names such as Boogie, Frisbee and Hacky Sack.

New Wham-O TV ads will begin airing during the Memorial Day weekend on MTV and Nickelodeon. And they’ll incorporate a healthy dollop of nostalgia.

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But Wham-O’s retro look will be tempered by the knowledge that a pure nostalgia trip could turn off media-savvy youngsters.

Wham-O’s $6-million ad campaign, created by Bates USA West in Irvine, will showcase the familiar Wham-O logo and slingshot sound--but the message will be aimed squarely at younger eyes and ears.

“We want to make sure we’re relevant,” said Wham-O President Bret Hadley. “Sure, Wham-O has been around for 50 years, but with kids it might as well be 500 years.”

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Market research suggests that the Wham-O name will appeal even to youngsters who don’t remember seeing its commercials, said Bates USA West spokesman Jeremy Skiver.

And ads will hit hard at Wham-O’s market position as “the official toys of summer,” Skiver said. “The original Wham-O did a tremendous job early on of branding itself as the company that makes fun, and we’ll continue doing that.”

One thing Wham-O won’t have to do is explain how its better-known toys work, said Ned Levine, a Providence, R.I.-based brand consultant. “It’s likely that every 6-year-old knows what a Frisbee is and what to do with a Hula-Hoop,” Levine said.

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That’s a far cry from the 1950s, when Kneer and Melin would set up outside stores to show potential customers how to flip a Frisbee or work a Hula-Hoop.

Wham-O, Levine said, also should benefit from sales to older consumers who want to buy a bit of nostalgia for their children and grandchildren.

Rather than relying solely on familiar brands such as Frisbee, Wham-O hopes to use the Wham-O trade name to introduce new lines, including a baseball bat that delivers a “home-run sound” and an electronic device that teenage girls can use to learn dance steps or cheerleading routines.

But don’t expect Wham-O to stray far from its heritage. “Wham-O redefined how people have fun,” Cookson said. “And all customers will need to use our products is a mind and a body and the desire to have fun.”

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Wham-O also hopes to strengthen its sales among sports enthusiasts who want professional-quality flying disks and bodyboards. Industry observers say that some hard-core athletes questioned whether Mattel, a toy company, could make performance products.

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Cookson recognizes the need to rebuild bridges to key retailers in the surf industry. The company has signed a new team of bodyboarders who will tour the U.S. this summer pitching the Morey and Boogie lines.

And, rather than opening itself up to another Barbie-like dig, Morey and Boogie will be marketed independent of Wham-O. Boogie will be marketed at discount stores, while Morey boards will retail for upward of $180 and will be sold at surf and sporting goods stores.

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Cookson, who founded and led several toy companies, most recently served as chairman and co-founder of the Wild Planet nature and exploration toy company. Wham-O Chairman Paul H. Mullan--a partner with Wham-O’s major investor, New York-based Charterhouse Group International Inc.--previously served as chairman of two Charterhouse companies, Del Monte Corp. and Fleer Corp., the sports trading card company.

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Several Mattel executives--including one who’s a reigning Frisbee national champion--also jumped ship to join Wham-O when it was sold.

Wham-O also invited Capistrano Beach resident and surfer Tom Morey to continue serving as a consultant. Morey, 62, invented the bodyboard during the early 1970s, and will tour this summer with Morey’s board team.

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“I see tremendous potential out there right now,” Morey said. “We carry a certain amount of stigma because of where and how [Morey and Boogie] have been sold lately. But Michael Cookson and the others are jewels. They really understand and care about these products.”


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