There are two qualities that most sports fans in the U.S. lack: indifference and fear of the camera. From Syracuse, N.Y. to Tuscaloosa, Ala., fans can be seen thrusting their index fingers in front of TV cameras after each basket, touchdown, goal, etc. and proclaiming, "We're Number One!" These fans want to belong. They want everyone else to know where their loyalties lie and just what they think of their beloved team. Nowadays the finger appears not only in the flesh but also in a larger-than-life, foam form, thanks to Geral Fauss, a 34-year-old resident of Houston.
Fauss's brainstorm has spawned Spirit Hand Novelties, Inc., of which he is president. The company's main product is a polyurethane-foam hand—examples of which were displayed at virtually every NCAA basketball game last season. Fauss's hands are sold to fans on the high school, collegiate and professional levels. They now are also waved during business and political conventions and are even shipped to purchasers as far away as Saudi Arabia.
Fauss didn't plan any of this. Thirteen years ago he began teaching industrial arts at Cypress-Fairbanks High, outside of Houston. In 1977 the school's football team was to play for the district championship. In preparation for that great occasion, Fauss made 400 Masonite hands, index finger extended, proclaiming the school No. 1. Three days later all 400 were sold. Next, Fauss decided to test-market his product at the 1978 Cotton Bowl between Texas and Notre Dame. He made, by hand, hundreds of heavy Masonite Texas-#1 hands and lugged them to the game. Twenty minutes after he got there, they were all sold.
Fauss knew his goods were marketable. The catch was that the weight of the hands prevented large-volume sales. First he tried Styrofoam—lighter but too fragile. It's hard to claim to be the best while waving half a finger. He finally chose polyurethane, a form of man-made sponge that's also used for NERF products. Operating out of his father's abandoned sheet-metal factory, Fauss and a handful of employees began slapping out hands. Spirit Hand Novelties, Inc. was born.
The company contracted with 22 stores along Bourbon Street in New Orleans to sell Penn State and 'Bama hands before the two teams' showdown in the 1979 Sugar Bowl. By kick-off, all of the stores had sold out. The game gave Spirit Hand necessary exposure. Many fans then and since have wanted to locate the company so they could get hands for their team, but Spirit Hand doesn't advertise much, which makes it hard to find. But as Fauss says, "With a little research, customers can finally put the finger on us."
Though he now consults marketing people, Fauss runs his company the old-fashioned way. Spirit Hand is small; along with Fauss, four other people work in the office, while seven employees staff the factory. Originally, Spirit Hand made only 150 to 300 hands a day; now it produces 1,800 to 3,000 on a normal day, and as many as 5,000 when it's geared up to meet the demand during the weeks of football and basketball playoffs. Spirit Hand is independent of any large corporation. Several big companies have expressed an interest in buying it, but Fauss says he has no interest in selling. A hands-off policy, so to speak.
Asked why his hands are so popular, Fauss says, "Fans like to wave things during games. It's just another thing to wave." Being a fan is an active pastime, and it seems likely that the hand has evolved from the more familiar pennant and pompon.
Democracy has a role in all this, too. With fewer sports dynasties around, every team gets a shot at the glory. Parity is here to stay, and its creation has allowed fans to shun second place as good enough. No. 2 be damned; "We're Number One!" rooters everywhere are yelling, and they're forsaking the rest of their digits to raise index fingers on high. The gesture has caught on, and Fauss's invention may have made it a permanent part of sports.
It would be a shocking turn, however, if all spectators came out to the stadium for a game sporting Fauss hands. If they did, one of civilized man's traditional modes of expression would be lost for a day. After all, what is the sound of one hand clapping?