For a while there, it looked as if this could be a summer with nary a craze in sight. But not for long. Suddenly this has become the summer of the Velcro paddle and ball.
The idea for the new toy is simple: put stick-to-itself Velcro on a sphere that is roughly the size of a tennis ball. Apply the same stuff to two mitt- size disks that have a strap across the back for a handhold. Presto! A craze known variously as Magic Mitts, Scatch, Katch-a-Roo and Super Grip Ball. On streets, playgrounds and at the beach, players have added their own fancy moves, twisting into pretzel shapes to make behind-the-back catches, or getting a grip on the ball while doing a high-kick. Another trick: strapping a mitt on each hand to grab two balls at once. In short, the new adhesive playthings do what the Frisbee used to do, with less effort. Dropping the Velcro ball is also a lot harder: if it strikes any part of the sticky mitt, the orb stays put.
With prices that range from $13 to $20, the three-piece sets are pleasantly affordable, and even a novice can immediately start showing the skills of a big-league outfielder. "It's New Age baseball," says Ashley Petrus, 12, of Columbia, S.C., who liked the sport the first time she picked up a mitt. "You really get into it. The best part is the feeling of pride when you catch." And as her brother Brad, 9, pointed out after he neatly snared Ashley's pitch, "you don't have to be exact. If the ball hits on the mitt's side, it sticks."
A popular version of the game is Super Grip Ball, which is distributed by Paliafito America Inc. The company's founder, Mark Paliafito, 25, tried out a South Korean-made set on young players in a baseball league he was coaching last fall. "They loved it," he says, "and I started thinking about the potential this kind of thing had." With his brother John, 24, he formed a small California company, and in January bought the U.S. marketing rights with the guarantee that he would spend at least $1 million on advertising.
During the traditional spring-break bacchanalia, the Paliafitos handed out hundreds of free mitts and balls to college students on Florida and Texas beaches. The game caught on like, well, Velcro, and since then the Paliafitos say they have sold 650,000 of their Super Grip Ball and taken orders for nearly 1 million more.
In eye-popping neon colors, Super Grip sells briskly in toy stores and at the 75-store Sharper Image chain, whose typical customer is described as a man in his early 40s. What's the allure? "When the economy gets tough, you need a diversion," says Stephen Sandberg, owner of Sanco Toy Co., in Foxboro, Mass., who has shipped 100,000 Scatch games. "You look for something simple to do. You use your imagination, and make up your own rules."
Inevitably, fads fade, but while the mitt is still a hit, Mark Paliafito's company is lining up commercial sponsors who will stamp their logos on the Super Grip Ball. He also plans to make disks 7 ft. in diameter for team play. By next year, five new versions are expected to be on the market. And that should be welcome news even for beachgoers who do not play: the muted sounds from Velcro mitts will be displacing the annoying thwock-thwock-thwock of old- style beach paddle-ball games.