From The Salt Lake Tribune -
When Patrick Klinger arrived at Minneapolis' Metrodome last Aug. 13, he couldn't believe what he saw. Thousands of people, many of whom had camped out overnight, were waiting in a line that encircled the huge stadium.
"It was a pretty magnificent sight," said Klinger, and no wonder: As the last-place Minnesota Twins' vice president for marketing, his promotion had made Twins baseball, which lately has had all the sex appeal of a chess tournament, into one of sports' hottest tickets.
And here's the craziest thing of all. The treasure that compelled these otherwise level-headed Midwesterners to sleep on the sidewalk was a goofy-looking, 6-inch tall, 2 1/2-pound ceramic doll with its head on a spring, painted to look like retired ballplayer Kirby Puckett.
Thus was bobblehead mania born.
Tonight, the Utah Jazz get their first glimpse of a fad that has spawned a new industry, sparked a few near-riots and slowly begun replacing Beanie Babies as America's kitschiest collectible. The first 5,000 fans to enter the Delta Center for the Jazz's game with Charlotte (doors open at 6 p.m.) will be handed a Bryon Russell bobblehead, the most valuable mass-market freebie the team has given away.
The figurines are a throwback to the 1950s, when the cutesy dolls first became popular, but they have been updated for the 21st century, with facial features so detailed and accurate, they make rational people enthusiastic, even passionate, about a child's toy.
"We don't expect people to sleep outside to get them, but I wouldn't be surprised if there's quite a bit of excitement," said Ryan Slobodian, the Jazz's promotions director. "We can't wait to see what the fans think."
Here's what Russell thinks: The teeth are too big and the butt is too flat. Other than that, though, "It's cool. Not bad. It's like Mini Me. It's Teethy-B," Russell laughed as his teammates made jokes about the doll. "It's a fun thing. I'm sure I'll get some for my kids to knock around."
Others will treat theirs more carefully. "They're not really toys, though kids certainly love them. But watch how people handle them at the game; they don't play with them, they carefully put them away so they don't get damaged," said Malcolm Alexander, president of Alexander Global Promotions, a Seattle firm that manufactures the bobbleheads. "Then they take them home and display them on desks and shelves. They have a shelf life of five to 10 years, which is a tremendous value for sponsors."
Qwest, the communications company whose logo is at Russell's feet, will no doubt appreciate it. That's important, the Jazz say, because sponsors pay for the giveaways -- and at a little more than $2.50 apiece, the bobbleheads' tab is more than triple that of a normal promotion.
The dolls also represent a change in marketing philosophy for Salt Lake City's NBA team. Jazz attendance is down about 2 percent this year, so the team is experimenting with a more aggressive promotions strategy. It worked for the Twins: Their average attendance was just under 14,000 last season, but close to 25,000 on their bobblehead nights.
The Jazz have noticed the numbers. "In the past, our giveaway items were more to advertise a sponsor, not to drive ticket sales," said Grant Harrison, the team's vice president for game operations. "This year, we're putting some nicer, more expensive items on the less-popular games to see if that affects how you choose what games to come to. We know the Laker game will sell out, so what can we do to sell the Clipper game?"
Marketing Scheme: The Jazz gave away Bear and Karl Malone Beanie Babies earlier this season, and have John Stockton Beanie Babies planned for March 30. They also have shorts, jerseys and banks on the schedule.
But the bobbleheads -- Russell was picked because the Stockton and Malone Beanies already were ordered -- are clearly the centerpiece of the Jazz's strategy, so the team will be gauging fans' response closely tonight. They hope they don't have any brawls like the ones that broke out when the Twins ran out of their 10,000 Puckett dolls within 15 minutes (meaning some of those campers were shut out), but they understand that 14,000 or so Jazz fans will go away empty- handed tonight.
Situations like that caused the Twins' crosstown neighbors, the NBA's Timberwolves, to use a lottery system to distribute their bobbleheads. Fans entering the arena were handed coupons numbered one, two, three, or four, and the Minnesota Lottery held a random drawing at halftime, complete with lotto ping-pong balls, to determine who got a doll. News reports said some bobblehead speculators were paying fans $20 for their coupons -- before the drawing.
"That's a real tightrope, because you don't want disappointed customers," Harrison fretted. "On the other hand, these items are not cheap, and if sponsors won't pick up the extra price, it's money out of our pockets. They're not like posters or some inexpensive handout. We're giving something with a much higher perceived value."
Oh, it's more than perceived. Those Puckett bobbleheads, for instance? Eleven of them were for sale on eBay's auction Web site Tuesday, each fetching between $57 and $145. And a Kevin Garnett, one of five bobbleheads handed out by the Timberwolves this year, routinely sells for $100 to $150. A Harmon Killebrew, the Twins' first giveaway last season and the one that started the clamor that built into the collectors' frenzy of today, has sold for $350.
"People love them because they seem like a high-quality, valuable item, and you can recognize the players. This isn't some generic doll with different [uniform] numbers painted on it. The Kevin Garnett really looks like Kevin Garnett," said Dennis Kuchenmeister. "Their scarcity helps, too. You can't buy them in a store. You have to go to the games to get them. They are really beginning to take off with collectors."
Kuchenmeister should know. The Twin Cities memorabilia dealer may be the nation's premier bobblemaster, with dozens of eBay bobblehead auctions providing a growing percentage of his income. He was one of the first to recognize the collectible value of the Twins' four- piece set -- featuring Harmon Killebrew, Kent Hrbek, Tony Oliva and Puckett -- and quickly snapped up as many dolls as he could find.
Travelin' Man: Now Kuchenmeister travels to big-league cities to acquire inventory, heading to Chicago for B.J. Armstrong bobblehead night, and to Dallas to pick up some Dirk Nowitzkis. As of last week, he was also considering visiting the Delta Center tonight to buy up a suitcase of Russells.
He's not the only bobble mogul cashing in. Two years ago, Alexander's company had never created abobblehead. Now he owns a factory in China that ships 260,000 dolls a month.
When word of the Twins' success spread around the pro sports industry, business mushroomed so fast, the dolls now represent 15 percent of his company's revenues. Twelve NBA teams have bought dolls this season, and 21 baseball teams are signed up for this summer. Dolls of Tom Seaver, Willie Mays, Bill Mazeroski and Barry Bonds were given away last year (plus Rafael Palmeiros and Cal Ripkens, created by Alexander's competitor), and there will be dozens more this year as the fad spreads.
It keeps his eight bobblehead sculptors busy. Working from photos, the Chinese artists create a prototype of each player, complete with cartoonishly stumpy torso, which the teams must approve. Russell, for instance, wanted his doll's light dusting of hair removed -- the final figurine is completely bald -- and the shoes changed from black to white. "What makes them unique is how closely we can capture the face," Alexander said. "We really focus on each player's idiosyncracies."
Once a final design is settled upon, the dolls are cast in a mixture of ceramic and synthetics, then individually hand-painted, down to minute details. Then they are shipped via freighter from Hong Kong -- it takes about two months, including the time to clear U.S. Customs -- and finally, handed out to lucky ticket-holders.
"This is going to balloon, it's going to mushroom," said the Jazz's Harrison. "This is becoming a national phenomenon, and it's kind of neat the Jazz could be one of the first to take part."
Caption: Move over Beanie Babies: Bobbleheads, such as the Bryon Russell doll, center, which will be given away at tonight's Jazz game, are taking over.