Remember the PoGo Bal?
In Christmas of 1987, a new toy hit my neighborhood. I hadn’t even heard of it when my friend told me he had received one for Christmas and that I HAD to try it.
It was called the PoGo Bal (yes, it only has one L). For almost a year, it was an obsession amongst my friends, and its demanding physicality would lead to quite a few hard falls and injured ankles.
What is a PoGo Bal?
A PoGo Bal is a rubber ball with a platform around its perimeter. It sort of looks like the planet Saturn, where the platform is the rings. To use it, you stand on the platform while trying to hold onto the rubber ball with the sides of your feet. Then you simply try to bounce like you are using a Pogo Stick. The trick is to not lose your grip on the ball while keeping your balance as you go up and down.
Three things I remember about using my friend’s PoGo Bal.
Gripping that ball with the sides of my feet engaged muscles that I was not accustomed to utilizing.
The sides of my feet were sore just from the damage they took from the friction of constant motion while holding on for dear life.
Keeping the ball section optimally inflated was a challenge. My friend had an air pump nearby, and we would inflate between uses just to make the most of it.
Like the Hula-Hoop or Yo-Yo, once you saw it in use it was simple to understand, but could be difficult to master. It is just the sort of clever and simple toy that toy companies dream about. So it might not be a surprise to learn that the idea for the toy was already almost two decades old when it broke big in the United States.
Introducing the Springbal!
While the PoGo Bal would become a hit in the United States in the mid-Eighties, the toy’s concept goes back to the late Sixties. In 1969, two Belgians, Van Der Cleyen and Ribbens were granted a Belgian patent for a similar ball.
The right to make the product would jump around over the years, and they would eventually apply for a patent in the United States, but it took a while before it came to market as the LoLo Bal. Which would become very popular in Europe and would also come to market in the U.S. through the company, In-Tech.
As you might guess, when Hasbro would release the PoGo Bal, the two companies and their respective “bals” were destined to meet in court.
When was the PoGo Bal released?
While many people associate the PoGo Bal with Christmas 1987, Hasbro actually released the toy in the winter of 1986 in two test markets, Orlando and Los Angeles. It did very well and a few months later they took it nationwide.
The timing was perfect, they would hit stores in the early spring of 1987, retailing from a little over $11 to as much as $18. By early summer, they were already selling out. While word of mouth was strong, the key to its success was advertising.
Rich Anguila, editor of Toy & Hobby Magazine at the time, noted that although similar products existed, like LoLo Bal, it was PoGo Bal that dominated. Even though LoLo had been released earlier.
According to Anguila, “It doesn’t seem fair, but advertising is the key. Some companies have a lot of money to promote their toys, and other’s don’t.”
In the July 1987 issue of that magazine, PoGo Bal was the third most popular toy in the nation, only losing to two powerhouses, Barbie and G.I. Joe. While PoGo Bal was so far the big winner in the battle of the bals, the increased advertising and sales did seem to help with sales of the LoLo Bal.
Toy stores at the time reported that it was difficult to keep either in stock. Parents interviewed that summer stated that they were just happy to get either one and that their kids didn’t seem to notice the difference.
What was the difference between the PoGo and LoLo Bal?
While construction and materials seems to be marginally different. They didn’t look or feel that dissimilar, and certainly they didn’t perform much differently. Instead, what made them distinct was the branding and range of colors.
Both had three offerings. PoGo Bals came in yellow and orange, green and yellow, and gray and black. LoLo Bals came in red and black, yellow and blue, and yellow and red.
I have been looking at these online and comparing colors and really like the red and black color combo on the LoLo Bal.
Advertising helped propel that PoGo Bal to heights, but what did that look like? Well, it all looked and sounded as you might expect a high-energy eighties toy ad to look and sound.
Two that stand out, are this one that has kids PoGo-ing around some odd cross between an ancient stone temple and Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. When suddenly a giant hand reaches into the window to tries to ruin the fun (and maybe kill them). I am still not sure what the narrative is in this ad, but visually it is a real treat.
The next is a bit more straightforward. It features young people using the PoGo Bal to get around, dance, serve food at a restaurant, and even play basketball.
The highlight though is when the San Diego Chicken shows up on a PoGo Bal. It is random, just like the weird giant hand in the above commercial, but a bit more satisfying.
How did it do?
PoGo Bals did well for Hasbro. In 1987, when it was the hottest toy of the summer season, they sold 3 million of the bouncing wonders. Which is about $35 million in sales.
While that is a hit, it was still a relative minor hit, as many “summer toys” tend to be. A Toy like PoGo Bal can help strengthen Hasbro’s bottom-line, but it will not have long-term impact of a year-round toy. For example, while PoGo Pal pulled in $35 million in 1987, Nintendo, which had the biggest toy of the year with the NES, made $750 million.
Year-round toys are defined by their lasting power. Not only do they transcend seasons, but also have the ability to be sold for years and easily be refreshed.
As the eighties marched on, they would attempt to refresh the PoGo Bal. While the variations were interesting, they couldn’t capture the energy of the original release.
Hasbro would continue to sell the PoGo Bal for a long time and did some interesting things with the product over the years with both color and functionality.
I find these three variations most intriguing.
First was the PoGo Bal Jr. A shrunk down version of the original that would work for the kids who were under 8 years-old. Not only was it smaller, but it featured more kid-friendly graphics like Mickey Mouse.
Second was the inevitable, more extreme follow-up, The PoGo Bal Blaster. It was for the PoGo expert who found they weren’t getting enough height on their bounce. It made the toy more fun, but also a bit more hazardous. Today, this one is probably best-remembered for the commercial they released where they demonstrate how you could really get some air on one of these things.
Finally, I have seen a couple of PoGo Bals were they have a face replacing the ball. Sort of a take on Madballs, but without the grossness. Sadly, I have yet to find a good description of the product outside of eBay listing, but I will keep looking.
Remember Van Der Cleyen and Ribbens? Well, they were not so happy that their LoLo Bal was playing second-fiddle to Hasbro’s version of the toy, claiming that the idea was completely based on the Springbal design. Hasbro, on the other hand, claimed that they had legally obtained the rights from a party that had obtained the patents.
In August of 1987, a United States District Court judge sided with Hasbro, and they would continue to sell their PoGo Bal.
PoGo Bal Today
Hasbro would innovate on the original PoGo Bal. They would add new colors and features over time, but they could never recapture that lightning-in-a-bottle summer of 1987. By the mid-nineties, they appear to still be available in some stores. While that was the case, there was no advertising for the product, and it slowly crept into bargain bins before disappearing entirely.
But that was not the end of the PoGo Bal, because it would eventually bounce back. Companies would sell variations on the original under new names. Then in 2021, the company License 2 Play announced that they had acquired the rights and would be selling the original PoGo Bal with three color options.
Now fans of the original can relive their childhood or share it with their kids and introduce a whole new generation to the magic of this amazing toy. Sadly, I haven’t seen any new advertising for the version, but thanks to the magic of the internet, we can still enjoy the old stuff. So go pick up your PoGo Bal and get bouncing like it’s 1987.