CSI—Barrie, Ontario: how a small-town board-game developer snagged the hottest franchise in the industry

How a small-town board-game developer snagged the hottest franchise in the industry

It could be the Johnny Cash wardrobe. Or maybe it's the hockey hair. Whatever the case, you'd never mistake Mark Sutcliffe for Gerry Schwartz or the Donald. After all, the 39-year-old entrepreneur simply doesn't come across as a typical corporate deal maker or an entertainment industry mover and shaker. The guy looks like he'd be much more comfortable getting his hands dirty in a garage than in a boardroom (not that there's anything wrong with that).

A few years ago, Sutcliffe–who studied transportation administration at Sheridan College in Oakville, Ont.–lived pretty much like most hard-working truck terminal managers. He spent his days dealing with drivers, not celebs. What Sutcliffe dreamt about while on the job, however, is another matter. It is also the reason he now regularly rubs elbows with folks from Letterman's A-list.

In recent months, the former full-time transportation professional has hung with Wayne Gretzky and racing hero Bobby Allison, not to mention World Wrestling Entertainment diva Trish Stratus. And that's just while networking. When working, Sutcliffe hobnobs with TV gods, including William Petersen, the actor who plays quirky bug-lover Gil Grissom, the Las Vegas forensic expert on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. “Mark's the man,” says Eric Szmanda, the spiky-haired heartthrob who plays Greg Sanders, one of Grissom's cooler sidekicks on CSI. “I wish he'd give me a piece of his action, but I'm just a pawn in his world.”

What's up with that? Simple: Sutcliffe has got game. In fact, developing games is his thing. And when it comes to playing against the competition, the president of Barrie, Ont.-based Specialty Board Games Inc. apparently knows how to bring it. “I guess we blew them away with our presentation,” says Sutcliffe, referring to a decision by CBS and Alliance Atlantis to award his former hobby firm the game rights to their hit CSI franchise two years ago. “At first, creating games was just a dream,” the founder of SBG adds. “I just knew trucking wasn't the career for me.”

True enough. After years of leaving traditional board games in their closets and under their beds, families have started to put down the video games and roll the dice again. Part of the comeback, industry watchers say, is due to the cocooning trend that heightened after 9/11. Whatever the case, TV-based games, which can save millions on marketing, are among the most popular. And Sutcliffe's CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, The Board Game, which is like Clue with gore, was one of the hottest properties on the US$2.4-billion global board-game market last year. Total 2004 unit orders came in at about 700,000, generating revenue of about US$10 million for SBG after profit-sharing with CBS and Alliance Atlantis.

Sutcliffe's company–which now has about 20 full-time employees and third-party manufacturing facilities in China, the United States and Canada–just released a CSI: Miami game. This year, the profitable outfit, which has many pots on the product burners, will also release a Nancy Drew title and DVD-supported board games targeting NASCAR and World Wrestling Entertainment fans. Each project is run by focus groups and costs about US$250,000 to develop, not counting the man-hours Sutcliffe puts in. They also require about US$500,000 in marketing support even with TV name recognition. In 2005, Sutcliffe expects to break the US$20-million sales mark. “But our ultimate goal is to take this company to [US]$100 million,” he says.

At first glance, not to mention second and third look, the selection of SBG–which was a struggling three-man shop at the time–to develop a CSI game seems rather odd for a major American television network. After all, the other bidders were established U.S. gaming companies, including, sources say, more than one household name like Hasbro. That US$3-billion industry giant is known for legendary toys like G.I. Joe and Play-Doh; under brands Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers, it has turned out board game titles like Scrabble and Monopoly. When Sutcliffe met CBS in 2003, on the other hand, he had produced just three geographic trivia games (on Ontario, Quebec and New York) and a sports trivia game on golf, generating revenue that would have made dot-com executives blush.

And, hey, when it comes to crime, SBG's base of operations is no Las Vegas. Barrie is no stranger to crime: The city's recent history includes at least one killing spree that would make good fodder for any CSI episode. “But that is one of those things you never expect to happen in our neck of the woods,” says Barrie police spokesman George Cabral. As for forensics, well, the annual police budget (which would be hard pressed to cover salaries and perks for 10 CSI shows) limits Barrie's identification branch officers–who don't drive Hummers–to routine stuff like fingerprints and shoe moulds. The department doesn't employ entomologists. It doesn't even do its own ballistics.

The other funny thing about this tale is that SBG didn't come up with the CSI game idea. Sutcliffe first approached CBS to do a game version of The Amazing Race. “We wanted to do a game about the world,” Sutcliffe says. “But we had started to learn with our other products that it is expensive to advertise and market. So we thought the smart direction was to base our products on a TV show that everybody recognized.” The Amazing Race pitch turned out to be a bit of a lead balloon, at least initially, but the network's consumer product people liked the Canadian minds that tried to float it. They also liked how the game play mirrored the show, so Sutcliffe was sent home to think about bloody murder. “When we take on a game topic, we're all over it,” he says. “I wanted the brand to be well represented, so I went and got every episode and watched everything to wrap my head around how we could do it.” He also called in Toronto Sun writer Max Haines, who consulted Toronto police and sifted through 2,000 crimes to intensify forensic-based scenarios that would suit a board game. In less than seven months, SBG created a whodunit concept in which players collect evidence like CSIs. It was presented to CBS, shortlisted, then named best of the bunch. Seven months later, the game was on the shelves.

SBG's industry coup makes sense when you factor in CSI creator Anthony Zuiker. Not long before pitching the pilot to CBS executives, he was making a living driving a Las Vegas tram. The show concept was the first TV script he'd written. In other words, Zuiker knows what it's like to be a nobody selling creative ideas. And when he got his big break, it was thanks, in part, to Canada's Alliance Atlantis. That's why Zuiker–who has had some strange CSI-related product ideas (think: autopsy dolls) tossed his way–immediately had a soft spot for the Ontario team charged with putting his show on living-room tables. “My big motto is, 'All great things come from Canada,'” he jokes. Zuiker–who once thought inventing toys and games would be his thing–freely endorses the game; he flew to New York in February to help Sutcliffe promote the release of the game version of CSI: Miami. And having one of the most powerful players in TV land volunteer to work SBG's corner at the American International Toy Fair, the largest toy trade show in the Western Hemisphere, is typical of Sutcliffe's luck. In fact, SBG has been built on not just determination, but serendipity, too.

The range of products at the 102-year-old American International Toy Fair blows your mind. There is plenty of what you'd expect: toy planes, toy trains, toy cars, etc. There is also lots you'd never imagine–unless your kid is named Jason or Freddy. (Consider stuffed zombies called Teddy Scares, some of which sport bloody axes–helping explain why others come with bug-infested chest wounds.) The show is not for kids; it actually warns first-time attendees to “save yourself and your child the stress and embarrassment of being turned away.” The annual event is about money; it even bills itself as the place where “play meets profit,” a message shared by some of the thousands of products it attracts. (Stock Rush: A Week on Wall Street, for example, promised to give youngsters a taste for pain and gain by recreating the “distress” and “agony” that comes with playing volatile mining stocks.) Simply put, the New York toy fair is a cleanup show for buyers still looking to add stock to their shelves in February. The focus is on independent outfits. And it's a war of attrition for companies that have yet to crack the mass market. Good and bad ideas alike have a tough time surviving. “Look around this show,” says Scott Irwin, SBG's vice-president of global distribution, from a booth on the expensive upper level of the 2005 fair. “The difference between upstairs and downstairs is success and failure. I don't want to oversimplify things, but if you go downstairs, you'll see hundreds and hundreds of games and toys, and I'd guess 90% won't see light of day.”

Irwin knows a thing or two about toys. After all, the 54-year-old's family dominated the Canadian industry for decades, before an internal feud led to the decline and eventual fall of Irwin Toy Ltd. a few years ago. As a former vice-president of the family empire, Irwin developed a saying: if he sees something promising he says, “There's a chance.” It's not a phrase he utters freely, especially at trade shows, where he is often hounded by eager toy inventors who all seem to think they could have the next Christmas hit if someone with the right connections gave them the time of day. And it is not what Irwin said when he bumped into SBG vice-president of marketing Jeff Colthorpe at a 2001 trade show. “He was struggling,” Irwin admits. “He was in a rep showroom, just standing there, hoping a buyer might come by. It's tough and it happens to a lot of people. They'd been through the mill. They knew they were doing it the wrong way, and they wanted someone to help them do it the right way.”

Colthorpe, 50, had landed his SBG gig after his wife hit a tree with her car in 2000. That was just another headache for a man who had grown tired of the backstabbing corporate world. The former vice-president of manufacturing sales with Browning-Ferris Industries took the vehicle to a Barrie body shop, where he killed time by complaining about his job and expressing a desire for change. Sutcliffe had a car in the same shop. “I was about three-quarters the way through the trivia game on Quebec, and I didn't have enough stuff,” Sutcliffe recalls. “I was on my way to put an ad in the local paper because I needed someone who speaks French and knows sports and who could help with marketing.” That's what Sutcliffe told the shop owner, who introduced Customer A to Customer B, and a dead-even golf game later Sutcliffe had a new partner. “Mark told me he'd pay expenses, but not for lunch because you have to eat at home,” recalls Colthorpe, who saw SBG as a chance to enjoy work again.

His enthusiasm, however, started to run out after months of spinning the wheels. He was tired of sharing seedy hotel rooms with Sutcliffe to conserve cash. He was tired of manning cubbyhole booths better suited to a phone than a shelf display of trivia games. And he was tired of pulling stunts to try to get noticed in the U.S. market, like trying to crash the Today show in Santa suits.

In other words, prior to meeting Irwin, Colthorpe was near the end of his rope. “I was really upset,” he says. “I was used to doing large deals with multimillion-dollar corporations. Here I was standing around and nobody wanted to talk to me. I basically stood there like a mannequin. The best I could do was about $20,000 worth of business. That's $20,000 gross. And it probably cost us $10,000 to be at the show. I got on the phone to Mark. I said, 'We've got to do something different.'” He then started to pack up. That's when Irwin walked by his booth, and Colthorpe shot out his hand. Time passed; Irwin kept his distance. But Colthorpe stayed in touch and developed enough of a relationship to land the odd piece of advice. Then, in 2003, after SBG scored a shot at the CSI licence, Sutcliffe and Colthorpe found themselves greeted as guests at Irwin's farm in Collingwood, north of Toronto. “We talked,” Sutcliffe says. “And Scott just said, 'OK. That's it. I'm gonna represent you guys.'” With Irwin's help, SBG soon had a worldwide distribution network. It's now selling its CSI game in six languages and 30 countries. With celebrity spokespeople, and 70% of sales coming from mass market retailers like Wal-Mart, getting noticed at trade shows is a non-issue.

Meeting Irwin was luck. So was being asked to pitch a game for a show developed by a Canadian-loving industry heavyweight. And if Sutcliffe has his way, SBG's good fortune will continue. The sales target for next year is US$50 million. Is there a chance? “If there wasn't,” Irwin says. “I wouldn't be involved.”