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Wham-O Expands Frisbee Line for Hard-Core Players

August 02, 2004|Michael Liedtke | Associated Press

Wham-O Inc. is putting a new spin on the Frisbee, the flying disks that have twirled through parks, hovered above playgrounds and wafted in the ocean air for nearly 50 years.

Backed by a major marketing push, Wham-O has retooled its product line to offer more sophisticated -- and more expensive -- Frisbees designed for serious players.

Wham-O is trying to reconnect with the masses of hard-core enthusiasts who drifted away and latched on to other flying disk brands as the Frisbee became known as a cheap children's toy.

The Emeryville, Calif.-based company hopes to change that perception with a fleet of Frisbees designed for disk golf and the team sport of Ultimate -- a fast-paced game that blends elements of football, soccer and basketball.

With its new emphasis, Wham-O has expanded its Frisbee line from 11 types of disks to 16, including five designed for Frisbee golf.

The products range from a 90-gram "entry-level" disk for kids to a 200-gram heavyweight designed for windy days at the beach. The elite Frisbees will sell for $10 to $15, about twice as much as the toy versions.

"Once we stepped back and really took a hard look at things, we realized that the Frisbee is an ubiquitous item with a lot of micro markets that are attracted to the disk for radically different reasons," said Peter Sgromo, Wham-O's senior marketing director.

A privately held company, Wham-O won't disclose its Frisbee sales. Sgromo said the Frisbee remained one of Wham-O's most popular products, ranking with well-known toys such as the Slip'N Slide.

Over the last decade or so, though, Wham-O devoted less energy to distinguishing its toy disks from the sleeker saucers designed for long-distance flight.

The slipshod approach caused the Frisbee to lose its cachet among the players who participate in disk golf and Ultimate games year-round. To these connoisseurs, the shape, weight and grooving of the disks make all the difference in the world -- nuances that Wham-O didn't seem to grasp.

The Frisbee's shortcomings helped competing brands made by Innova and Diskraft take off.

The years of neglect will make it difficult for Wham-O to win back some disillusioned players, David Waisblum predicted as he prepared to play a round of disk golf in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

"They have quite a mountain to climb because they will be playing catch-up," said Waisblum, who had been testing out Frisbee's new disk golf line.

Neil Bondy of Oakland, another disk golfer preparing for a round, agreed. "They are going to need a really good idea to make people want to buy [a new Frisbee] and use it," he said. "What they have come out with so far seems like the 'same-o, same-o.' "

Wham-O is framing its new marketing push as a return to the Frisbee's heyday in the 1960s and '70s, when hippies and other free spirits began to experiment with new ways to play with the disk.

The late Ed Headrick, a former Wham-O employee who invented the first "professional" disk model, helped popularize the flying disk as a counterculture sporting good by forming the International Frisbee Assn. in 1967.

A group of high school students in Maplewood, N.J., is widely credited with playing the first game of Ultimate two years later.

Headrick, who died in 2002, set up the first disk golf course in Pasadena 29 years ago. He asked Wham-O to allow him to attach Frisbee's brand to his unique twist on golf, only to be rejected, according to his son, Gary.

"That makes what they are doing now kind of bittersweet because they kind of turned their back on him and the sport," Gary Headrick said. "He still probably would have thought this is a pretty wonderful thing because he always wanted to do whatever he could to enhance the sport of Frisbee."

Because Wham-O's distribution channel includes Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and other mass merchants, many disk golfers and Ultimate players are hoping their sports soon will be winning converts.

"Having the marketing power of Wham-O can do nothing but help the sports," said San Francisco resident Greg Quiroga, a disk golfer who says he picked up his first Frisbee in the early 1970s.

Both disk golf and Ultimate have been steadily growing. About 100,000 people worldwide regularly play Ultimate, with the United States accounting for about half the participants, according to the Ultimate Players Assn. An estimated 3 million people play disk golf, according to the Disk Golf Assn.

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