No Letters Left: Game Ends for Scrabble Association

The National Scrabble Association, which helped shepherd the game's public image for decades, closed its doors after game owner Hasbro pulled its funding.

In the popular board game Scrabble, playing the word “closure” won’t win you many points. Just nine.

It might be especially tough to swallow for the National Scrabble Association, which shut its doors this month after more than 25 years serving the Scrabble-playing community.

The association ceased operations when Hasbro, the owners of Scrabble, decided to cut much of its funding, according to The New York Times. Hasbro has spent millions of dollars over the years financing the independent organization, but now says it will perform the association’s tasks in-house.

The National Scrabble Association  was started in 1978 by the game’s then-owner, Selchow & Righter. However, John D. Williams Jr. and  partner Jane Ratsey Williams have run the association since 1982.  They tackled the myriad activities that supporting Scrabble entails, including public relations, working with Merriam-Webster to develop The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary, and maintaining a list of Scrabble clubs around the country.

Watch John Williams talk about Scrabble here:

But its primary function has been organizing and refereeing Scrabble tournaments. Scrabble, like crossword puzzles, inspires fierce competition. Top-ranked players will compete this weekend for $10,000 at the National Scrabble Championship in Las Vegas. The National Scrabble Association typically books the winners on morning talk shows. But since its demise, this year’s heroes may go unsung (play that word and you’ll get seven points).

One particularly contentious point is the future of the association’s National School Scrabble Program, which promotes literacy by encouraging Scrabble play among  students. The National Scrabble Association provided a guide to starting school Scrabble clubs and hosted an annual National School Scrabble Championship. It’s unclear if Hasbro will continue the tournament, but company execs say they are committed.

In a press release announcing the closure, Jane Ratsey Williams said, “The Scrabble brand has taken us all over the world and introduced us to so many amazing people who have touched our hearts. All of us at the National Scrabble Association want you to sincerely know what a special journey it has been for us.”

With or without Hasbro’s support, Scrabble tournaments will go on. In 2008, competitive Scrabble players formed their own governing body, the North American Scrabble Players Association. Dues and participation fees, rather than Hasbro dollars, keep the tournaments running. Seems like a reasonable judgment (19 points, plus another 50 if you used all seven of your tiles to make it—nice).

Scrabble is unique in that it is proprietary, unlike chess or checkers. It may be better compared to Coca-Cola or Ford, brands that remain an enduring part of American culture. New York architect Alfred Butts created Scrabble in 1938 and spent many years and painstaking calculations perfecting it. When Macy’s department stores began carrying the game in the early 1950s, Scrabble became a national treasure. Everyone had to have it. Hasbro acquired the rights  in 1989.

Does such a unique game with a competitive circuit and rich cultural heritage need an association to champion it? Or can its corporate owners carry the torch? We’ll find out, but for now the National Scrabble Association has played its last tile.

(photo by DavidMartynHunt/Flickr)

Chris Brandon

By Chris Brandon

Christopher Brandon is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

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