Yo-yo craze Design advances are driving this ancient toy to brand-new heights of popularity.

December 13, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

One of the hardest toys to find this holdiay season is the X-Brain, right up there with Furby and Bouncing Tigger.

That's a Yomega X-Brain.

As in yo-yo. You know, two discs and an axle that go up and down on a string.

But the scarcity of the X-Brain is only the most obvious sign of what may be the biggest yo-yo craze since the late 1920's, when the toy was first marketed in the Untied States.

During the 90's, yo-yo sales have been averaging around 10 million a year, but industry analysts are talking about sales of 100 million for 1998.

"They're selling incredibly," says Jeri Thorton, manager of F.A.O. Schwarz in Towson. "Every other customer who comes in wants to know if we have yo-yos."

Twelve-year-old Chris Pund, who owns 10 or 11 models, says he got back into yo-yoing this summer because his friends all had.

He finds the new yo-yos like his Yomega Fireball a big improvement on the old-fashioned one he had as a young child. "It stays down longer," says Chris, who goes to Mount View Middle School in Ellicott City.

But the rebirth of the yo-yo isn't just a toy story. When you think about it, it's an example of American marketing at its finest, particularly when you consider that some yo-yos now cost $100 or more.

You have a low-tech toy like a wooden or plastic yo-yo that every parent in America would approve of. Now you have to sell it to the kids. So you add some high-tech features like Yomega's "patented clutch system," which brings the yo-yo back automatically, or metal ball bearings and other mechanisms that increase sleep time. (When you throw the yo-yo down and let it spin until it dies, that's its sleep time.) If there's more sleep time, the yo-yoer has more time to do tricks - which is, after all, the whole fun of owning a yo-yo.

Suddenly that classic toy has become a high-performance machine.

Just as important, you give your yo-yos names like Brain and X-Brain, Fireball, Silver Bullet, ProYo II and Turbo Bumblebee. You add wild colors or fashion your yo-yos out of see-through plastic. You manufacture models that glow in the dark, strobe, change colors or make sounds.

You have a Web site, of course. Yo-yo Web sites get as many as half a million hits a month from as far away as Vietnam.

Then you start competitions, how-to classes in retail stores and even exclusive clubs like Team Yomega. (You can't be a member until you've taken the classes and mastered 37 tricks.)

"It's no longer a toy," says Yomega's Jane Howes. "Yo-yoing is becoming a sport, an extreme sport like snowboarding or roller blading."

Those in the know call it yoing.

And if you really want to start a craze, you launch your first national TV campaign (as Yomega did this fall) or hire a public relations firm (as Playmaxx did this year for the first time).

But if the craze is going to take off, as this one has, you have to count on a little luck.

"For boys there's not a new hot toy this year," says David Barber at Playmaxx. "That helps yo-yos."

Manufacturers better not count their chickens. Seven-year-old Dillon Waitkus says he asked for a yo-yo after seeing one of Yomega's commercials. "My granddad showed me how to use it," says Dillon, who attends Joppatowne Elementary School.

But even though his yo-yo is his favorite toy right now, he's asked for a PlayStation for Christmas. "Then it'll be my favorite toy."

Dillon actually owns not one but two Yomegas, a Brain and a Fireball.

You would think kids would only need one yo-yo. After all, most people can only play with one at a time. But yo-yos have also become collectors' items; and because they are reasonably priced compared with a lot of collectibles (many of the most popular ones cost from $4 to $12), youngsters can afford to collect as many as 20 or 30 different models.

Of course, not every yo-yo is reasonably priced. Playmaxx's new Cold Fusion sells for $150. It makes Yomega's Metallic Missile look like a bargain at $115.

Remember, that's two discs, an axle and some string. Yes, string: 100 percent cotton is still the best.

OK, Cold Fusion's discs are high-strength aluminum, and the axle is a ball-bearing axle. At a national competition this year, the Cold Fusion set a new record for sleeping, 7 minutes and 8 seconds. (The world record for a traditional yo-yo sleep time was 53 seconds.)

But still, $150. Who's buying this yo-yo?

Not just the professional yo-yoists and collectors you'd expect, says David Barber at Playmaxx. Some are being sold to parents.

"For some kids," he says, "It's the one thing they want for Christmas."

Yo-yo enthusiasts - with many exceptions, including the 1998 world champion, 18-year-old Jennifer Baybrook - are boys. Specifically, boys aged 7 to 14 or 15.

"After that," Stuart Crump Jr., editor of the newsletter Yo-Yo Times, says sadly, "they get interested in the opposite sex and driving."

His son, 9-year-old Tim Crump, is still enthralled. "There's just no toy like it," he says. Tim's favorite trick is Dog Bite, where - as he describes it - the yo-yo comes back and grabs your pants.

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