Plush sports-doll maker Bleacher Creatures files for bankruptcy

Matthew Hoffman, founder and president of Bleacher Creatures, with some of his creations — stuffed likenesses of professional sports personalities (these are NFL players) in their Plymouth Meeting offices Dec. 1, 2014. ( CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer )

Matthew Hoffman had an unusual thought while in the stands at a Phillies game in the summer of 2010: “What would Chase Utley look like if he were a Muppet?”

From that musing about the team’s former second baseman, now with the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Plymouth Meeting father of three would launch Bleacher Creatures LLC six months later, its 10-inch plush dolls and other collectibles becoming popular among fans of professional sports teams, action heroes, singers, politicians, and even Pope Francis. His Holiness was tickled to see his likeness when a young girl handed it to him upon his arrival at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York in September 2015, days before his U.S. visit brought him to Philadelphia.

Although the pontiff kept the doll, his influence was no match for the challenges of today’s retail environment. On May 2, Bleacher Creatures filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, citing $1.5 million in assets as of the end of March and $1.8 million in liabilities.

“It’s humbling and it’s disappointing,” Hoffman, 45, said Monday, adding that his Plymouth Meeting-based company, which had 12 employees at its peak, now had six as it continues to accept orders, design new products, and prepare for a sale. He hopes to be part of the leadership of the reorganized company, but it is not yet clear how many bidders there will be. He says he expects the process to take about nine weeks.

Bleacher Creatures creations of Philadelphia Flyers fan favorites Claude Giroux (left) and Wayne Simmonds. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

Hoffman, who spent 15 years in sports licensing before starting Bleacher Creatures, is focused on seeing that orders to www.bleachercreatures.com are fulfilled and “selling as much as I can to recover as much as I can for my creditors.”

Despite record sales in 2016 — nearly $5 million — two things “really hurt us over the last year,” Hoffman said, citing a “significant number” of customers going out of business, including Sports Authority, and a change in distribution policy by some of Bleacher Creatures’ key licensors that either prohibited or seriously restricted “what we could sell to Amazon.” Hoffman likened having limited exposure with a sales powerhouse like Amazon to one team in a basketball game’s being told it can only put four players on the court while the other team gets five.

“We built an infrastructure to support a bigger business,” Hoffman said. “We expected to have those other customers and sell to Amazon.”

Another “major financial drain” was kiosks Bleacher Creatures opened at King of Prussia, Willow Grove Park, and Cherry Hill malls in the fall of 2014 to build brand awareness and capitalize on holiday shopping. “Those did not work out well at all,” he said, blaming construction at King of Prussia and the unfortunate timing of introducing kiosks to the other two malls just as they were recalculating a formula for success amid a national slump in mall shopping.

He also acknowledged a mistake made by many start-ups: not staying focused enough. “I think we probably went too deep on second- and third-tier athletes. The big names draw the business.” Among the consistent top sellers: Cleveland Cavaliers phenom LeBron James with 10,000 dolls a year, every year, Hoffman said.

A little more than a year ago, company officials, giddy over having sold more than 65,000 Francis dolls at $19.99 a piece and looking to capitalize on the frenzy over a crowded presidential primary field, announced their first line of political figures, featuring Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Bernie Sanders. Considered more celebrity than public figure at the time, Donald Trump needed to sign off on licensing rights for any doll in his likeness. He would not.

With Trump now president, reproducing him in doll form is fair game. Bleacher Creatures has sold about 10,000 Trump dolls and has plans to soon release an updated one. A Barack Obama doll also will be debuting.

“Bleacher Creatures is not going away,” Hoffman said. “It’s just going to be different.”