The Not-So-Trivial Pursuits of Scott Abbott

As an old-school former sportswriter, Scott Abbott (’78) likes to tell stories. With his conspiratorial smile, speaking from the side of his mouth in quick, clipped sentences, Abbott gives you the feeling that he’s letting you in on a secret—which he often is. During a recent visit to UT, he regaled students with stories about his racehorses, his golf courses, his hockey teams, and the biggie—how he and a friend invented the legendary board game Trivial Pursuit.

From McGill to UT

Abbott was born in Montreal and grew up in the suburb of Hudson Heights, Quebec.   Like any good Canadian, young Abbott loved hockey and figured out a way to be a part of it. “I wanted to be a sportswriter from the age of eight,” he says.

While he was a student at the McGill University, he would sneak into Canadiens’ practices to watch. After he graduated in 1970 with a BA in psychology, he went to work for the Sherbrooke Record, a small newspaper a hundred miles east of Montreal. Along with other reporting and editing duties, he covered the Sherbrooke Beavers of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. By 1971, Abbott had become the paper’s managing editor.

“I wanted to get a journalism degree,” he says. “I looked at a number of programs. I knew I wanted someplace warm. It came down to Texas and Tennessee, and I chose Tennessee.”

Abbott was in Knoxville in 1972 and ’73, and like many UT journalism students throughout the years, he found a special mentor in the late Kelly Leiter. “He was my all-time favorite and was my thesis advisor,” says Abbott. “I had to take five undergraduate courses. One was Introduction to Reporting. After the first class or two, Dr. Leiter said, ‘You don’t have to come any more.’ Heck, I’d been a working reporter for two years,” Abbott says.

Abbott signs a Trivial Pursuit box.

Abbott signs a Trivial Pursuit box.

Abbott returned to Canada without completing his thesis. His journalistic career included a stint at a weekly “driving around in the owner’s Cadillac delivering papers,” until he landed a job at the Canadian Press Wire Service, where he worked at the news desk as a rewrite man and filing editor. In 1975 he moved to the sports desk.

“Around that time I was looking at the University of Tennessee rules and regulations and saw that you had to complete your master’s inside of six years, so I thought I’d better get on it. I called Dr. Leiter and asked if I could do a thesis in absentia.”

Abbott sent out questionnaires to members of the NHL, NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball, and wrote his thesis, titled “The Attitude of Professional Athletes Toward Sports Journalists.” He earned his master’s degree from UT in 1978.

The Birth of Trivial Pursuit

Just a year later, in December 1979, Abbott and his friend Chris Haney, a photo editor at the Montreal Gazette, stumbled upon an idea that would secure their spot in board game history.

At the time, Abbott was sharing rent on a house in Montreal with Haney and his wife and son.

“We were always bragging about playing Scrabble. We decided to have a best-of-seven series to determine the best Scrabble player of all time.” But there was no Scrabble game in the house, so on their next shopping trip Chris bought one.

As they unloaded the groceries, they complained about the money they’d spent on Scrabble games over the years, and figured there must be good money in making board games. Haney asked, “Why don’t we invent a game?” and “What could it be about?” in rapid-fire succession.

Abbott replied, “Trivia.”

Scott Alverson at the College of Communication and Information

Scott Abbott at the College of Communication and Information

Abbott continues, “We sat down at the kitchen table with some gray construction paper and started doodling. In a forty-five-minute brainstorm, we hashed it out. The big question was what to call the roll-again spaces, how to do the scoring system, what to use for playing pieces. Then we started on questions—where do you get the questions? When we got the cards done, we had 1,000 cards in two boxes.

“We trotted it around and did the marketing ourselves to mom and pop stores. Bowring’s, a Toronto chain, was the only one that took it. For Christmas 1981 we put together 1,200 games. They sold out in three weeks.”

Abbott and Haney then issued stock—forty shares of $1,000 issued to a total of thirty-two people. An eighteen-year-old artist created the game’s final artwork in exchange for five shares.

“We went to a trade show in New York,” says Abbott. “A jobber from Chicago put in an order for 50,000. We got back to Canada, and he backed out. He couldn’t get the bank loan he needed. That was a blow.

“In May 1982, 20,000 games were delivered. We had six accounts from the States—places like Sacramento, California; Austin, Texas; Greensboro, North Carolina; Florida. All 20,000 were sold by September.”

A vice president of Chieftain Products, the Canadian distributor of Scrabble and other board games, learned about Trivial Pursuit from his daughter, who had played it all weekend in a country cabin. “For the seventy-two hours they were there, they did nothing but play the game,” Abbott says.

In 1982, Trivial Pursuit was licensed to Selchow & Righter, the New York–based publisher of Scrabble and Parcheesi. From that point, Trivial Pursuit sales were calculated in the millions. The game became a craze, peaking in 1984 with 20 million games sold. In 1998, Hasbro licensed Trivial Pursuit for royalty payments and in 2008, bought it outright for $80 million.

Life After Trivial Pursuit

After the big payday, Abbott recalls talking with Chris Haney’s brother, John, about their finances. “He said, ‘We’re going to be OK, as long as we don’t do anything stupid like invest in racehorses.’”

In fact, Abbott did just that, and in 1987 had the rare good fortune to spend $50,000 on a yearling named Charlie Barley, a son of Triple Crown winner Affirmed, who became Canada’s champion turf horse of 1989 and had more than $900,000 in earnings. As a stud, his offspring earned more than $5.6 million.

In Charlie Barley’s big year, Abbott also started construction on a golf course in the southern Ontario town of Caledon. Named the Devil’s Pulpit (after a rock formation visible from the seventh tee), it was successful enough that Abbott opened a sister course, Devil’s Paintbrush (named for a local wild flower) in 1992.

That same year, Abbott started the Caledon Canadians as an expansion team. “That’s with an a, not like the Canadiens in Montreal,” says Abbott, who owned the team for six years.

He liked team owning enough that in 1996 he bought an Ontario Hockey League expansion team, the Brampton Battalion. For his role in building the team, Abbott was inducted into the Brampton Sports Hall of Fame in 2005.

Facing declining attendance in a crowded market, Abbott eventually moved the Battalion four hours north, to the lakeside town of North Bay, Ontario, but he remains a hands-on owner. “I talk to my coach every day,” he says.

When Abbott visited Knoxville in September, and was honored with an Accomplished Alumni Award, he reflected on the impact that his time at Tennessee had on his success as an entrepreneur.

“In the process of creating Trivial Pursuit,” he said, “it was important that I went to an American university and that Chris and I had been in the news business, not just in coming up with the questions but also being sensitive to the American market and the kind of enterprise that could work there. From the very beginning, we were definitely aiming for the American market.

“Still, it all started with an idea we hashed out over a few beers, talking back and forth the way we did in the tavern across from our office in Montreal.”

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