At an autograph event prior to this year’s Super Bowl in Detroit, Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson watched with interest as fans came up to Todd McFarlane and asked McFarlane to sign various examples of the sports figures McFarlane manufactures.
Johnson, seated near McFarlane, asked, “Hey, where’s my figure?”
Top pro athletes often see themselves mirrored on ego-boosting products such as trading cards or bobblehead dolls. But there is something special about being chosen for McFarlane’s Sports Picks line, where an athlete is immortalized in six or so inches of stunningly detailed plastic.
“Not too many guys have an opportunity to have something like that,” Diamondbacks outfielder Luis Gonzalez said. “(For them) to choose you as a player is pretty satisfying.”
McFarlane, an artist and businessman whose Tempe-based companies are only partly built on toys, estimates that when he first started making the sports figures in 2000, they represented about 12 percent of his toy business. That number has grown to a little more than 50 percent.
Many of the figures are on display at McFarlane’s store in Tempe, a place that serves as a showcase as much as a spot to purchase McFarlane’s toys (figures can also be seen on the Web site spawn.com). “I always dreamed of having one,” Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson told a San Diego TV station when his first figure was released in 2002. “It’s a feeling you can’t really explain. You see it and think, ‘That’s me.’ ”
McFarlane only produces about 25 of its main six-inch figures per sport per year, making inclusion special.
“I don’t like to throw it in (my teammates’) faces,” said Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin, whose figure came out in the fall of 2005. “But a couple of them have seen it when fans have brought it to the (team’s Tempe) facility to get me to autograph them.”
When Johnson asked McFarlane about his status, McFarlane wasn’t completely sure when a figure of Johnson — who gained a stunning 1,750 yards rushing in 2005 in only nine starts — would be made.
But McFarlane told the Pro Bowler, “We’ll have you out this fall. I can’t ignore a season like yours.”
It turned out a Johnson figure was indeed set for release in November.
ALL ABOUT DETAILS
McFarlane is a self-described “sports geek” whose forays into the professional athletic world include paying $3 million for Mark McGwire’s 70th home run ball and owning a small part of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers. When he first started his toy company in 1994, producing sports figures was always part of the plan.
The first fully-licensed NHL and NFL figures came out in August, 2001. The NBA and Major League Baseball followed the next year.
The most popular sports figures prior to McFarlane’s arrival were Kenner’s Starting Lineup collection. Those figures, smaller in size, bore little resemblance to the players they portrayed other than the uniforms and the name on the back of the jersey.
That drove McFarlane the sports fan nuts.
The equipment should be correct, McFarlane thought. So too should the tattoos, the hair style, the face and the build of the athlete.
“I find it amusing on some level that I get so much credit for doing what should have been done from the very get-go,” McFarlane said.
The details go beyond the right uniform equipment. McFarlane ran into NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott at the Super Bowl in Detroit, and happened to have a rough clay sculpture of the Lott figure due out in August with an NFL Legends line.
The first thing checked out by Lott, who had the tip of his left little finger amputated in the middle of his career, was the left hand on the clay Lott figurine. The pinky finger was properly shortened.
It isn’t perfect — “They’ll say, ‘You didn’t make my legs thick enough, Todd,’ or ‘I have more muscles than that,’ ” McFarlane said — but that’s McFarlane’s ultimate goal.
McFarlane said he doesn’t have one favorite figure, but instead enjoys the moments when a single detail crosses into realism. The jersey wrinkles on a turning torso. The likeness of a face. The bend of a knee.
“I don’t think,” McFarlane said, “we have built the Holy Grail yet.”
WHO’S IN, WHO’S OUT
Choosing who will make it in the new lines is relatively simple. McFarlane, sports brand manager Mark Weber and McFarlane Design Group president Ed Frank bat around ideas based on who has already been made, what teams should be represented and what players are hot at the time.
“I don’t think my way is any different than the guys sitting around the bar talking about who the top guys are in the league,” McFarlane said.
The ability to sell a player nationally makes a difference. A New York Yankee is going to sell well. So will a Chicago Bear. And a Wayne Gretzky, whose seventh variant of a figure is about to hit the market. The recent Boldin figure was a “surprise,” meaning his inclusion in the line went unannounced and there were fewer figures made of him. In the end, it makes the Boldin figure better for collectors, but in reality McFarlane couldn’t see a Cardinal doing well across the country.
“Anquan is awesome, and when he’s healthy the stats he puts up are phenomenal,” McFarlane said. “But I just can’t see people in Brooklyn or people in New Hampshire (buying it), and it’s sad, because he’s working in a little bit of obscurity here.”
Weber said athletes seem to either embrace the decision to re-create them or not care at all. On one end of that spectrum is Suns guard Steve Nash, who acknowledged “I’m a take-it-or-leave-it guy” when asked about the newest figure of him in a Phoenix jersey.
But teammate Shawn Marion, who said “I think I’ve earned” inclusion into the McFarlane line, admitted he’d like to get his hands on a couple of figures to give to family members.
It wouldn’t be the first such request. McFarlane recalled showing Roger Clemens his figure before a game and Clemens asking McFarlane to send him a case so he could pass them out to relatives.
Another local player who wouldn’t mind getting one is Diamondbacks outfield Shawn Green, who had a figure made of himself when he played with the Dodgers.
“Kids grow up in an era (today) where there are a lot of action figures,” Green said. “To have one of myself is pretty cool.”