Getting Airborne

How Jim Kenner and Gail McColl beat Wham-O at its own game.

By Randy Michael Signor

T.J. Barson, a world-class sports-disc freestyler, told me this story about Jim Kenner and his wife, Gail McColl, owners of Discraft. “I heard they did this great trick where Jim stood on the street and threw a disc through an apartment, going in one window and emerging from another on the other side of the building–a display of finding the perfect line through the room. It wowed the crowds. I asked him about it one night, and he admitted it was an illusion. Gail was in the apartment, and when the disc came in one window she’d throw an identical disc out the other window, timed so that it looked like it was the first disc. Pure showmanship.”

Later I asked Kenner about the story.

“Didn’t happen,” he said, chuckling.

What made the story believable was that Wham-O, which makes Frisbee discs, used to sponsor demos by two early free-style champions during halftime at NBA games. One of their best tricks was to stand on one baseline and throw huge, curving shots that turned upside down before they went into the basket at the other end of the court. The crowds would go nuts, unaware that this shot, which is often used in disc golf, is much less magical than it looks.

I told Barson what Kenner had said.

“Must have been someone else,” he said.

Kenner and McColl probably wouldn’t mind a little mythmaking if it drew attention to disc sports and their company. They started Discraft in 1978 in Walled Lake, a suburb of Detroit, because they were unhappy with the discs Wham-O made. “The rims were too sharp and everyone suffered from ‘Frisbee finger,'” says McColl, referring to the raw spot you’d get after throwing for a while.

In those days there were few competitions, and they were all run by Wham-O. But as the sport grew and players began taking it more seriously, they rebelled against the idea that one company could own the game. And when Kenner made his first freestyle disc, many of the best players liked it better than Wham-O’s. Wham-O tournaments wouldn’t permit the use of non-Frisbee discs, so the players started an alternative circuit.

Kenner and McColl were surprised that disc sports didn’t take off faster than they did. Even today few people have heard of ultimate or disc golf, the two most popular games. Yet almost 1,000 disc-golf courses have been built in this country, more than 300 of them in the last two years, and nearly 15,000 players have joined the Professional Disc Golf Association. Disc golf is played pretty much like golf, except that players throw special discs–drivers, approach discs, putters–into metal baskets on short poles. It’s so similar to golf that when my parents and I compare games we don’t need to translate. Ultimate is a field sport that combines elements of soccer and basketball, though you can’t run with the disc; one of Kenner and McColl’s discs is now the official disc used in competitions.

Kenner and McColl weren’t the only ones challenging Wham-O in the late 70s. Innova-Champion, which specializes in golf discs, was repeatedly threatened by Wham-O attorneys, who insisted that only Wham-O could make flying discs. Innova eventually got a few patents of its own, and in 1993 it sued Discraft for patent infringement, arguing that Kenner and McColl had copied its wedge-shaped edge. “We never intended to infringe on anyone’s patent,” says Kenner. “We thought we’d done it right, but evidently Innova didn’t agree.” They settled out of court, and today Discraft works under a license from Innova.

The lawsuit shook up Kenner and McColl, but they went on designing. Their new Elite line–which includes the world distance record holder, the XL–may be the best set of discs you can buy. A big part of its secret lies in the plastic, a particularly smooth, resilient type that retains its shape and sleekness after colliding with a tree or rock. “It’s a highly competitive business,” says Kenner. “I was at a trade show in Chicago last fall, for plastics. I came across this one booth, and there’s this guy standing in there holding one of my discs, one of the new XLs. I ask him about it, and he tells me that this guy who’d just started his own disc company had shown it to him and asked if he could duplicate the plastic.” He smiles. “That’s what I’m up against.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Elayne Gross.