This story originally appeared on Rolling Stone.
In the summer of 1986, Martin Shampaine found himself on a lunch break, wandering somewhat aimlessly around Times Square, in search of a really good idea.
He worked a few blocks over at the Time-Life Building, where, as a marketing manager for Sports Illustrated, he oversaw all direct-mail marketing. That is, his entire job was to dream up ways to convince people they should subscribe to SI based on an offer sent to their mailbox. In the mid-1980s, people could be enticed to say yes based solely on the "premium" — what magazine folks call the freebie you got for signing up. It could be something as practical as a clock radio or a pair of cheap binoculars; the gift could also be something that was pure fun, like a VHS tape of wacky bloopers. Back then, there was no shortage of ways to sell someone a magazine.
However, the last couple of promotional campaigns had, in Shampaine's words, "hiccups." That means his department wasn't persuading enough people to subscribe, which is basically the worst news any magazine can get. Maybe they were 10 percent below expectations. That's not a spreadsheet result that makes the upper floors tickled. So he needed something new, something fresh that people had never seen before, a Cool Thing that would appeal equally to folks in Seattle and Santa Fe and Scranton.
Shampaine walked midtown Manhattan and scoured the electronics shop windows that dotted the street, keeping an eye out for something interesting — but also cheap. If it cost too much to market and ship, that cuts into your profits. Ideally, you wanted something that costs less than $10 to make and ship. But it also had to be memorable enough for people to want to plunk down $55 a year to get it. As Shampaine swirled these thoughts around in his skull, he came upon a little phone that resembled a frog sitting up on its hind legs. His first thought was how bizarre it looked.
His second thought was that it…kind of…looked like a football?
Shampaine raced back to the office and found an in-house designer named John Plunkett. He asked if it might be possible for Plunkett to sketch out a little football sitting on a tee, split it lengthwise and give it a hinge so it could open like a phone. After several revisions, Plunkett took his drawings to a model-maker he knew in lower Manhattan and had him create a prototype that had no electronic guts inside. Using that unit and a hand model, Shampaine was able to put together a direct-mail test that was sent to 35,000 random people identified as potential SI subscribers. Their response was overwhelming: Americans wanted the football phone, and they wanted it now, more than any other premium SI was offering.
Of course now, Time Inc. actually had to create several hundred thousand of them — without knowing if a phone inside of a football would even work.
Nearly 30 years after Shampaine's lunchtime walk, the SI football phone is recognized as unlike anything that came before. It proved to be one of the most successful marketing campaigns ever executed in American media. The purpose was to sell magazines, but the football phone also arrived at a time when the entire industry was experiencing a radical change. Cable was relatively new, so there was cheap commercial space to buy up. VHS decks had become popular enough that the idea of owning your own videotapes had become possible. And by the late '80s, consumers were tired of the same old offerings. You couldn't buy the football phone in a store or get it from any other magazine, and that exclusivity helped pull SI out of its doldrums. Along with a line of popular VHS tapes, as well as the sneaker phone that followed its football-shaped predecessor, the magazine sold around 1.6 million new subscriptions between 1986 and 1991, thanks in large part to the football phone. Time Inc. would routinely order hundreds of thousands at a time just to keep up with demand.
"Everybody had one. All of our relatives had one," remembers Michael Loeb, SI's circulation director at the time. "I just wish I'd kept a garage full of them. I'd be selling them on eBay."
The first Sports Illustrated subscription premiums started around 1981. Shampaine remembers that you could get a free baseball or maybe you'd snag a copy of the "Year In Sports" special issue. In 1983, you got a digital wristwatch. By 1986, SI was offering mini-binoculars and a carrying case. But as the numbers showed Loeb, Shampaine, and the rest of the team, the offerings were starting to fall flat, thus leading to his fateful Times Square walkabout.
But around the time SI began testing demand for the football phone — which was still not technically a phone and only barely even a football — they struck gold with another promotion. They discovered that enough people nationwide had VHS players that they should be offering some home video content as a giveaway. The idea of owning a VHS tape was still pretty novel: purchasing movies on VHS could cost you $40, $60, even $100 depending on the title. The rental market was growing, but most people just recorded live TV onto blank tapes. The idea of owning your own preloaded VHS tape with sports content — especially one that retailed for $34.95 — was a very alluring concept.
So SI partnered up with NFL Films to produce videos such as "The Best of the Football Follies" and "NFL Crunch Course." Shampaine tested them through direct mail, and the data showed a definite, though somewhat tepid, demand. It was only when Jose Perez, who handled TV commercial marketing, pushed to produce a "Follies" TV spot that subscriptions exploded. SI had its first real premium hit in years, and the two-minute-long commercials would become the stuff of legend. Cuba Gooding Jr. was to be cast in one, but it fell through after a disagreement centering on his hair. And in 1988, John Slattery was cast in the role of "Harried Man Who Braves a Rainstorm, Runs Into a Video Rental Store and Asks If The Manager Has That 'Football Follies' Tape" — 20 years before he was Roger Sterling on Mad Men.
While the blooper tapes became a hit, Loeb and his team set about to make the football phone a reality. Time Inc. executives flew to China to sign up whatever manufacturers they could, to get assembly lines moving as fast as possible. Loeb himself went to Taiwan several times to personally inspect production samples and make sure the color was correct and check on myriad other challenges. ("How do you describe what a football looks like to somebody in China?" he laughs.) But there was no shortage of potential complications that could arise, aside from getting the basic shape correct. The ball had to be able to sit securely on its tee-shaped base. The cord had to jut out of the ball at just the right angle and maintain its sturdiness. The ball had to be cut in half the long way so it could open, but it wasn't a straight line; the cut shoots slightly in at a diagonal halfway through, so as to angle more naturally when a person held it to their face. Yes, manufacturing in China was cheaper than it is today, but Loeb says Chinese production quality was also more suspect. The process took months to perfect. Time Inc. then felt secure in ordering several hundred thousand units and had them brought to America by container ship, which was far cheaper than by air.
In the end, the phones only cost Time Inc. about $4 each to manufacture and box; all they had to do was ship them to customers. Compare that to the $55 annual subscription rates SI was pulling in, and you see how each new phone boosted the bottom line.
Shampaine's customer responses told him the football phone would be a hit — if SI never followed through with production, it would've offered every person who responded to the survey with a free two-year subscription — but the response was unlike anything anyone there had seen. After a soft direct-mail rollout in late 1987, the phone grew into a phenomenon over the next two-plus years. Part of that was due to the ample commercial airtime Time Inc. purchased on the nascent cable channels that had popped up. (They were so overlooked, Nielsen didn't even bother rating them, so no one knew how much to charge for ad time.) "New York was ground zero for cable then, and the channels on the dial went from 13 to, like, 40 overnight," says Chuck Davis, who was SI's assistant consumer marketing director, and responsible for buying much of that airtime. "Because there were all these extra channels, there was massive availability for both content and advertising." Almost all of SI's commercials in the mid-'80s ran for two minutes.
In the fall of 1990, the football phone's promotional push culminated with a commercial filmed in the Giants Stadium parking lot, wherein people literally throw the phone back and forth (like a football) and talk about how they all want one for Christmas. The ad was specially designed to cater to women. Time Inc. wanted to convince every wife, mother, and girlfriend to get an SI subscription because the football phone would also make the perfect holiday gift for the men in their lives. "I'll buy it for my father, my brother, and my boyfriend," promises one woman as a symphonic version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" plays in the background. The commercial was inescapable, and years of testing, manufacturing, and marketing had paid off in the form of hundreds of thousands of new subs.
Shampaine was given a hefty bonus — he doesn't remember exactly how much — but he wasn't looking to get rich. As a 26-year-old who had felt the weight of the magazine's future on his shoulders, he merely wanted to produce something that would get people excited.
"All I know is I was incredibly happy then," Shampaine says. "I was just really pumped that we were able to break through and be successful.
Around 1991, Shampaine moved to another marketing unit inside Time Inc. and was a senior vice president within five years; he stayed with the company until 2004. One of the two patents he was granted while at Time Inc. was for a "combination handset telephone and stand." He now lives in the Washington, D.C., area. Loeb moved on to become the circulation director of Entertainment Weekly for its launch in 1990 and left Time Warner in 1992 to co-found his own marketing firm, which was then acquired by (who else?) Time Inc. in 2001; he's now the CEO of New York–based Loeb Enterprises. Chuck Davis is a venture capitalist based in Southern California and the CEO of SwagBucks.com, which helps customers acquire free gift cards by shopping online.
Loeb and the other Time Inc. honchos clearly did their diligence in selecting the right manufacturers, because even 25 years later, the phones themselves hold up remarkably well. After buying a random one off eBay, you notice the outer rubber casing still resembles a miniature football. It doesn't have the clear dimples of Wilson's NFL-approved "Duke," but it does boast a pattern akin to mud cracks that gives it texture and hand feel. The push-button numeric keypad has retained its tactility and springiness. The hinge that lets you open and close the phone doesn't hold up quite so well, but thousands of calls over the years will likely do that.
Best of all, when you hold the football phone, you can't help but think of the utter randomness of this little gizmo, the weird path of events that led a magazine company — unaccustomed to inventing things from scratch — to put so much time and resources into such an idea. And somehow, it all started with a desperate twentysomething walking through Times Square, hunting for a hint of inspiration.
Incidentally, if you subscribe to Sports Illustrated today, you get an NFL team jacket and a T-shirt for free. It's not a phone inside a little football, but what is?