Bleacher Creatures enjoying plush life with mini-versions of athletes

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Matthew Hoffman, founder and president of Bleacher Creatures, with some of his creations -- stuffed likenesses of professional sports personalities in his Plymouth Meeting offices. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

Getting that first win of the season last week, after 17 losses, certainly was a point of pride for the beleaguered 76ers.

But what about Sixers point guard Michael Carter Williams? What did it mean to him?

Not the 6-foot-6 MCW. The 10-inch plush version that retails for $19.99.

At the Plymouth Meeting office of Bleacher Creatures, the doll made in Williams' likeness was a point of interest the morning after Wednesday's game.

"Does two dolls make a run?" joked Matthew Hoffman, president and founder of the nine-employee company that opened in February 2011.

Maybe not, but Bleacher Creatures itself has been on an incredible run. While the privately held company does not disclose financials, Hoffman said, "We did seven figures in our first year." Sales have nearly doubled each year since, he added.

Out of economic necessity, manufacturing is done in China, he said.

Bleacher Creatures (www.bleachercreatures.com) has partnerships with the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer, as well as international soccer clubs and national federation teams. With more than 1,000 player dolls on the market - and plenty more planned - the company is expanding into entertainment.

A licensing deal with DC Comics and Warner Bros. led to the release last month of the "Man of Steel" and "Batman '66" series of plush figures.

The company is also the exclusive plush licensee for Warner Bros.' much-anticipated The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

"If you have a vision, you can accomplish anything," said a seemingly astonished Hoffman, 43, who spent 15 years in sports licensing before he got the idea for Bleacher Creatures.

It came as a rather bizarre pondering in August 2010, while he was at a Phillies game: "What would Chase Utley look like if he were a Muppet?" Hoffman wondered.

Such are the musings of a father of three who visited many ballparks as vice president of merchandising and brand management for sports-apparel provider Majestic Athletic. He found few high-quality toys for his children that had a connection to players.

Within a week of that fateful Phillies game, Hoffman had a sketch of an Utley doll. By the company's opening, he had secured licenses from the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA. Utley was the first doll, quickly joined by another infield phenom, now-retired New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter.

Hoffman calls 2012 "our evolution year." Sales were decent, but feedback wasn't: " 'It really doesn't look like the players. It looks like a Muppet version of the players,' " he recalled.

Significant R&D spending yielded amazingly lifelike current versions, such as the doll - especially its prodigious red beard - of Brett Keisel, a Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end.

Another is that of Eagles linebacker Connor Barwin, who tweeted a picture of himself last week studying film on Sunday's opponent, the Seattle Seahawks. His Bleacher Creature twin was perched on his left shoulder - the arch of the eyebrows, the sparsity of the beard, the lift of hair on top all dead-on accurate.

"It brings out the little kid in the player," said Steve Scebelo, vice president of licensing and business development for NFL Players Inc., which represents group licensing rights for all 1,800 to 2,000 active players. Its licensing agreement with Bleacher Creatures is in its third year.

"I've never seen a product in this category that captures the realistic likeness so well," said Scebelo, who lives in West Chester.

As the figures become better known, player requests increase for dolls modeled after them.

When Hoffman first heard from an agent for Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, Hoffman didn't know who that was. He sure does now: "He's in our top five sellers."

Not that the business is all fun and games. A player trade could become a sales and inventory headache. Hoffman avoided one by resisting a reorder urge earlier this year, when the plush of LeBron James as a Miami Heat player was nearly sold out.

When the vaunted forward announced his return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Bleacher Creatures had only six Heat dolls left.

"I'm not always right, but in this case I was," Hoffman said.

Bleacher Creatures opened kiosks at King of Prussia, Willow Grove Park and Cherry Hill Malls in October to build brand awareness.

Another goal is landing licensing partnerships in new areas, said Daniel Erlbaum, CEO of Finch Brands advertising agency and one of Bleacher Creatures' primary investors.

What might those be?

"Actors and musicians," Erlbaum said.

"The top of our list is Taylor Swift," Hoffman said. "To have her part of the Bleacher Creatures universe would be amazing."

 


Matthew Hoffman talks about his plush action figures. It all started while he was watching a Phillies game. www.philly.com/bleachercreatures


dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466 @dmastrull