Last December, Brian Killingsworth was digging through a box of his childhood things at his mother's house when he came across a couple of his old Starting Lineup figures. Like any sports-loving kid in the late 80s and 90s, Killingsworth had loved the figures, so he took them out and gave them to his sons, ages 6 and 3, to play with. His kids, it turned out, loved them, too, and as they played with them, they even asked their dad to tell them more about the players depicted, Ozzie Smith and Brian Downing.
It was something of an "aha" moment for Killingsworth, the chief marketing officer of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Always on the lookout for a potential stadium promotion, Killingsworth realized that giving away a Starting Lineup figure of a modern-day Bucs player could appeal not just to kids, but to the adults nostalgic for their own childhoods. And now one year later, thanks to Killingsworth, the figures are primed for a second life.
The brainchild of former NFL punter Pat McInally, the plastic, four-inch-tall Starting Lineup figures were first introduced by a toy company called Kenner in 1988. Capitalizing on the action-figure craze of the time -- Kenner also had the rights to make the popular "Star Wars" toys -- that first year the company produced 346 different figures of MLB, NFL, and NBA players. Later, they'd add NHLers, NASCAR drivers and Olympians before parent company Hasbro shut down the company in 2000. Hasbro briefly kept the brand going, but the figures were discontinued altogether the following year.
These days, many of the figures are virtually worthless: As of this writing, there are no fewer than seven figures for sale on eBay with bidding under a dime. But for awhile, they were all the rage with kids and collectors alike. Starting Lineup conventions were held around the country, and Kenner formed a Starting Lineup Collectors Club for hardcore fans that offered limited-edition figures and a quarterly newsletter. They even pushed their way into pop culture: In the movie "Home Alone," when Kevin takes target practice with Buzz's BB gun, he's shooting Starting Lineups down the laundry chute.
And so Killingsworth began to look into how to make a modern-day Starting Lineup figure happen. He reached out to Jeff Collins, the vice president of sales for Match-Up, a Florida promotions company that makes various stadium and arena giveaways, whom he'd worked with previously. (During a stint with the Tampa Bay Rays, Killingsworth collaborated with Match-Up on giveaways like the Don Zimmer "Zim Bear.")
Collins learned that Hasbro had let its trademark lapse, and that a different entity now owned the rights to the brand, even though it had been dormant for years. And so Collins struck a deal with the trademark-holder that gave Match-Up the right to produce Starting Lineup figures for stadium giveaways.
Meanwhile, Killingsworth and his colleagues got to work, as well. Killingsworth decided that the Bucs' giveaway would be a Jameis Winston figure, so they took a 360-degree image of his head, to help make it as realistic as possible. They also bought up a bunch of vintage Starting Lineup figures -- not just members of the Bucs, but also of other NFL players (including one of Jeff George in which he's wearing short practice shorts and a cut-off jersey).
Licensing issues prevented Match-Up from including a trading card with the Winston figure. But Killingsworth and Collins otherwise tried to be true to the original design of the figures and their classic cardboard-and-plastic packaging. They say that improved technology allows for more realistic player likenesses than the ones fans may remember, but perhaps more noticeable is that complex uniform designs can now be better recreated. On the originals, a feature as simple as jersey pinstripes couldn't be reproduced, Yankees players wore plain white home uniforms with a logo on the chest. Now, the number on the front of the Winston figure's jersey alone could use four different colors, just like the elaborate design on the Bucs' actual uniform.
"Everybody loves things they had when they were growing up," says Killingsworth. "There's a special affinity for those things. And it's great, because it's really that age range that we're trying to target--that 35-to-45-year-old, that has kids. And so for those of us that grew up in the 80s, we had these, and now we can pass it along to our kids."
The Bucs gave away the figures on Oct. 30, but even before the NFL season began, word of the promotion began to spread. The Houston Rockets, who hadn't worked with Match-Up in years, reached out about doing a Starting Lineup promotion. (They'll give out Ralph Samson figures on Jan. 18.) Meanwhile, as teams contacted Match-Up, the company's reps also began reaching out to teams, suggesting the figures for upcoming giveaways. Already, the San Jose Sharks have given away a Joe Pavelski figure -- complete with a trading card, just like the original line -- and a bunch of other teams have promotions planned. The Charlotte Hornets are doing three figures this season. On Jan. 11, the Islanders will give out John Tavares figures at a game at Barclays Center. And next season, the Mets, Rays and A's all have plans for Starting Lineup promotions.
For now, the only new Starting Lineups being produced are the ones that Match-Up is making for a growing list of teams to give away. But according to Collins, the current trademark owner has plans to bring the figures back to retail within the next two-to-four years, though it's still in the very early stages of planning.
(An entity called Legacy One, Inc. now owns the trademark, and a previous report describes the trademark owner as a Nashville businessman, though Collins declined to give any further details. A lawyer listed as having represented Legacy One in trademark paperwork didn't respond to a request for comment, nor did an employee at a Nashville CPA firm that shares an address with the one listed for Legacy One.)
Collins says the success of the promotions so far bodes well for the possibility that the trademark holder would produce them for retail one day. "They were curious to see what the interest level would be on the giveaway side, which has done very well," says Collins. "But that's their game plan going forward in the future." Score another one for nostalgia.