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Underdog rewarded with gridiron glory

SMALL BUSINESS

A series of fortunate breaks helps a former sports agent realize his dream of turning tabletop football into a burgeoning enterprise.

September 13, 2007|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

Richard Crasnick rode in three championship parades with the Los Angeles Lakers, wrote speeches for a basketball legend named Magic and toured Europe with Olympic gold medalists. But the biggest sporting event of his life is playing out in a drab warehouse in Carson, using a thin triangle of leather less than half the size of a credit card.

Crasnick is president of FIKI Sports, which stands for "Flick It and Kick It," a two-person business that includes his lifetime pal, Craig Matthews. They are betting on a sport that couldn't be more low tech in an era of sophisticated game consoles that contain more technology than a supercomputer did 10 years ago.

Paper football is played by two people sitting across a table or desk. The "ball" usually is a sheet of notebook paper folded into a flat triangle. Touchdowns are scored by flicking the triangle until it hangs over the edge of the table without falling off. Points also are awarded for "kicking" the ball with your finger through your opponent's goal posts -- formed by his or her index fingers and thumbs.

Crasnick's version, projected to bring in $1.5 million in revenue this year, is the result of a shared daydream with his brother, Michael, 16 years ago. They took a paper football, wrote the then-Los Angeles Raiders team logo on it and slipped it into a small plastic bag to mimic packaging.

"We had both played it growing up in Beverlywood and we thought 'What a great idea,' but we decided that the ball had to be leather, like a real football. Then we tossed it in a drawer," Crasnick said.

Almost nothing about Crasnick's background prepared him for what was to come, and the 47-year-old entrepreneur admitted that he knew little about running a business. But Crasnick said he kept running into people who did know things, such as how to find the right factory in China to manufacture his product, develop a national sales team and break the ice with the National Football League.

Crasnick, who majored in journalism at Cal State Northridge, worked for the Lakers from 1981 to 1989, eventually becoming the team's director of promotions. He later became a sports agent with Olympic athletes as clients and helped promote celebrity basketball games on MTV, among other things.

In 2000, "more out of desperation, not inspiration," Crasnick said, he pulled the plastic bag out of the desk drawer and called Matthews, who owned a gym for children in Torrance.

"I didn't want to work for anyone else . . . but never in my wildest dreams did I think the paper football idea would get this far," Crasnick said.

It took months, sifting through samples from China, to find the right leather. Crasnick said he managed to stay afloat with financial help from family and friends as he searched.

Crasnick had a prototype made and launched a patent search, certain that no one else had come up with the idea. He was wrong.

"A retired schoolteacher had already made one, licensed to a company called Klutz. I was mortified. Someone had already done it," Crasnick said.

Klutz turned out to be three Stanford graduates from Palo Alto, purveyors of "how-to" activity books, including one on tabletop football that came with a crudely stitched leather triangle. Klutz liked Crasnick's stand-alone game with a plastic goal post, and, after negotiations, he came away with an agreement that promised Klutz a share of the profit.

Crasnick had no idea how to find a factory in China to mass-produce his footballs, but he got lucky. A friend on a business flight had a seat next to a chatty agent from Hong Kong whose business was directing the right product to the right factory.

By 2001, Krasnick had 100,000 leather triangles but no warehouse. He moved most of the furniture out of his Santa Monica apartment and shipped directly from there. He attended gift trade shows, feeling out of place among the picture-frame and plush-toy crowd. Then good fortune surfaced again.

A man struck up a conversation at Crasnick's booth at the California Gift Show and asked him how he managed his East Coast sales. Crasnick said he was doing it himself, and the man winced.

" 'You'll never get anywhere this way,' he told me," Crasnick said. The man referred him to a consultant to the gift industry who helped Crasnick obtain independent sale representatives in various states.

His footballs were moving at game stores and gift shops, but it took three years to sell the first 100,000 units.

The big break came early in 2002, when Crasnick and Matthews visited Collegiate Licensing Co. in Atlanta, which handles brand management and trademark enforcement for 300 colleges and universities.

From that visit, and trips to Ohio State University and other schools, FIKI Sports obtained the right to have official team logos on its footballs. The entrepreneurs chose several perennial football powerhouses, including Ohio State, Michigan, Texas, Oklahoma and UCLA.

The leather triangles were an immediate hit, Crasnick said.

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