The Origin of the Sports Illustrated Football Phone

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YouTube

#TBT, our new Thursday series, takes a look back at the people, places, things, and trends that held our fascination in decades past—both the unforgettable ones, and those you only wish you could forget.

In the 1990s, the magazine industry was having some issues. People suffered a five percent drop in circulation in the first half of 1990; Sports Illustrated dropped by seven percent that same year. Publishers could discount titles, but steep markdowns on subscriptions affected ad rates; sales departments needed to be able to say people were paying close to full cover price in order to entice advertisers.

Time, Inc., which owned both People and SI, thought it was time for a different approach. The sports magazine had previously offered tapes of football and basketball bloopers to new subscribers, which had a high "perceived value" due to the exorbitant cost of VHS cassettes in the 1980s. They performed well, but there was only so much footage of uncoordinated athletes to go around.

Michael Loeb, SI's circulation director, was tasked with conceiving of a new idea. What could be done to get people excited about the bland process of ordering a magazine subscription?

The elegant solution: a football-shaped phone. The flip-style receiver and handset were covered in a hard shell of rubber, textured for grip, and featured a ringer that sounded like a referee’s whistle. Oval and unbalanced, it had to be placed on a stand when not in use—in this case, a kicker’s tee. There were “mute” and “redial” buttons and not much else. The appeal was in the absurdist performance art of watching people express delight over a phone you could play catch with, then call people to tell them "you won’t believe what I'm calling you on." 

SI purchased airtime on cable channels to promote the phone. The two-minute commercial spots quickly became something of a phenomenon, blending a recognizable brand with a made-for-TV kitsch product. "A lot of things came together at just the right time," Loeb tells mental_floss. "It was cheap to advertise on cable, and you could get a credible phone product out of China for a few dollars."

Working with SI employee Martin Shampaine, Loeb spent months on the logistics: the phone's weight had to be distributed correctly in order to stand up on the tee, and the cord couldn't obstruct the phone opening. "We needed to find out where exactly the break in the mold would be, where to put the hinge. It took a lot of iterations."

The phone became highly visible during the 1990 holiday season, promising viewers of the mini-infomercial (created by marketing legend Jeff Meltzer, who brought us the Amish fireplace) that a one-year, $55 subscription would earn them the conversation piece.

Anecdotal evidence reports less than favorable experiences with the gift, however: its bulbous shape made it uncomfortable to hold, and tossing it around usually meant it would eventually crash to the floor. "Honestly, when you played catch with it, it would hurt," Loeb says. (Meltzer also owned one. "I couldn't get a dial tone," he says.)

To the best of Loeb's recollection, the phone was only available through early 1991. Fortunately, the marketing department had more than one kind of ridiculously kitschy device available. Another promotion centered around a Get Smart-style sneaker phone. According to Meltzer, both ads were a mixture of real reactions—the football phone segment was shot outside Giants Stadium—and paid actor endorsements.

The promos garnered a lot of attention for Time, Inc. Dennis Miller mentioned the telephonic sneaker in a 1990 stand-up special. In 1993’s Wayne’s World 2, Garth ponders if he’ll ever get his football phone. "It was like a mood ring," Loeb says.

While the notoriety was nice, the gimmicks also accomplished their main goal of raising the magazine’s circulation: Loeb recalls that a million subscribers came on the heels of the novelty phone era. Many had signed up just to get the future-yard-sale item.

SI considered other variations, including a baseball phone and a Volkswagen Bug phone, but nothing made it out of test marketing. The company decided to back away from the offers in the early 1990s, returning to VHS compilation tapes like the one featuring Muhammad Ali.

Novelty phones, previously one of the telecommunication industry’s highest-margin lines, have been relegated to eBay listings; Sports Illustrated currently offers new subscribers a windbreaker and T-shirt with the NFL team logo of your choice. Thanks to cell phones, we’ve probably seen the last of any free gift that requires a phone jack. You can watch the entire two-minute ad below.

Amazon Customers Are Swearing by a $102 Mattress

Linenspa
Linenspa

Before you go out and spend hundreds—if not thousands—of dollars on a new mattress, you may want to turn to Amazon. According to Esquire, one of the most comfortable mattresses on the market isn’t from Tempur-Pedic, Casper, or IKEA. It’s a budget mattress you can buy on Amazon for as little as $102.

Linenspa's 8-inch memory foam and innerspring hybrid mattress has more than 24,000 customer reviews on Amazon, and 72 percent of those buyers gave it five stars. The springs are topped by memory foam and a quilted top layer that make it, according to one customer, a “happy medium of both firm and plush.”

Linenspa

Perhaps because of its cheap price point, many people write that they first purchased it for their children or their guest room, only to find that it far exceeded their comfort expectations. One reviewer who bought it for a guest room wrote that “it is honestly more comfortable than the expensive mattress we bought for our room.” Pretty impressive for a bed that costs less than some sheet sets.

Getting a good night's sleep is vital for your health and happiness, so do yourself a favor and make sure your snooze is as comfortable as possible.

The mattress starts at $102 for a twin and goes up to $200 for a king. Check it out on Amazon.

[h/t Esquire]

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8 Surprising Facts About Chuck Norris

Chuck Norris.
Chuck Norris.
Jason Merritt, Getty Images

For decades, martial artist and actor Carlos Ray Norris Jr. has been kicking his way into the hearts of action film fans. In addition to his competitive karate career, Norris has starred in a string of successful movies as well as the long-running CBS drama Walker, Texas Ranger. With Norris having reached the milestone age of 80 years old back in March 2020, we’re taking a look at some of the more interesting facts about his life and career.

1. Chuck Norris is a military veteran.

Chuck Norris stars in Lone Wolf McQuade (1983).MGM Home Entertainment

Born on March 10, 1940 in Ryan, Oklahoma, Norris was the oldest of three boys and a self-described “shy” child. After a move to California, Norris attended North Torrance High School. After graduating, he joined the U.S. Air Force, where he became a member of the military police in the hopes of pursuing a career in law enforcement. It was in the service, while being stationed at Osan Air Base in South Korea, that Norris first discovered the martial arts. When he once found himself unable to control a rowdy drunk in a bar while on patrol duty, Norris realized he needed combat skills. He studied Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do before returning to California. When he was discharged from the Air Force in 1962, Norris began teaching the skills he had acquired to students.

2. Steve McQueen got Chuck Norris into acting.

Norris became a world champion in karate contests, which lent credence to his abilities as a martial arts instructor. He taught several celebrities the finer points of self-defense, including the Osmonds, Priscilla Presley, and Steve McQueen. Norris even trained Price Is Right host Bob Barker. But not all his schools were doing well, and after retiring from competition in 1974, Norris was looking for other opportunities. McQueen suggested that Norris try his hand at acting. McQueen was right—eventually. It took several years and nine films, but Norris had a breakthrough with 1982’s Lone Wolf McQuade.

3. Chuck Norris needed to obey a producer’s request in order to face off against Bruce Lee.

While Norris didn’t become a household name until the 1980s, his turn as a villain in 1972’s Return of the Dragon (also known as Way of the Dragon) opposite Bruce Lee wound up being a seminal meeting of two onscreen martial arts legends. When Lee was looking for an adversary for the climactic fight, he called Norris, whom he knew and was friends with. But the film’s producer insisted that Norris gain 20 pounds so that he would appear to be much larger than Lee on camera. “That’s why I don’t do jump kicks [in the movie],” Norris told Empire in 2007. “I couldn’t get off the ground!”

4. Chuck Norris founded his own martial arts system.

Taking the knowledge he had acquired over many years of training in Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do, Norris developed his own unique martial arts system and philosophy that he eventually dubbed Chun Kuk Do. In addition to combat techniques, the system encourages students to develop themselves to their maximum potential and look for the good in other people. It was renamed the Chuck Norris System in 2015.

5. Chuck Norris once marketed Chuck Norris Action Jeans.

Thanks to his fame in the martial arts world, Norris was sought after to endorse athletic products. In 1982, martial arts equipment company Century recruited Norris to be a spokesperson for their Karate Jeans, which featured flexible fabric sewn into the crotch that would presumably allow the wearer to deliver a bone-crunching kick while looking fashionable. Eventually renamed Action Jeans, Norris promoted them for years.

6. Chuck Norris had his own cartoon series.

At the height of his popularity in the 1980s, Norris teamed with animation company Ruby-Spears for an animated series, Chuck Norris: Karate Kommandos. The show featured Norris and a team of martial artists fighting villains like Superninja and The Claw. Although 65 shows were planned, just a few aired. “We only did six of them, and then a woman at CBS said, ‘Those are too violent,’” Norris told MTV News in 2009.

7. Chuck Norris is a real Texas Ranger.

For eight seasons, Norris pummeled bad guys as the star of the 1990s CBS television series Walker, Texas Ranger, which became the first primetime show shot on location in Texas at Norris’s insistence. In 2010, Norris was named an honorary member of the Texas Rangers by state governor Rick Perry in acknowledgment of Norris’s work in raising awareness for the elite unit and for his work helping underprivileged youths via martial arts programs. Norris’s brother, Aaron Norris, who was an executive producer on the show, also received the designation.

8. Chuck Norris’s role in Dodgeball was a surprise to Chuck Norris.

Norris is generally good-humored about his persona and is often willing to poke fun at himself. But when he was asked to do a cameo in the 2004 comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, he passed because he didn’t feel like driving three hours to the movie’s set in Long Beach, California. When star Ben Stiller called to ask personally, Norris agreed, but didn’t read the script. He simply shot his scene where he offers a thumbs-up to the dodgeball competitors.

When Norris saw the movie in theaters, he was surprised at the context. “But in the end, when Ben’s a big fatty and watching TV, the last line of the whole movie is, ‘F***in’ Chuck Norris!,'” Norris told Empire in 2007. “My mouth fell open to here… I said, ‘Holy mackerel!’ That was a shock, Ben didn’t tell me about that!”