According to the wall street journal," It's going to be a blue christmas in toyland. With no "megabits" on the market this year—toy sensations that can be counted on to produce $100 million or more, such as the Cabbage Patch Kids—the toy industry, which does 60% of its business at Christmastime, will have to settle for a measly $13 billion in annual sales, an increase of only 4% or 5% over last year.
But the news isn't all bad. Scattered here and there on the list of the 20 top-selling toys, as compiled by Toy & Hobby World, are a few minihits that promise to dispel the Yuletide blahs for their makers. One of these is a series of five-inch-high action figures, selling for about $4 each, called Starting Lineup. The figures made their debut last summer and are now ranked ninth in sales nationwide. Sculpted and painted to resemble specific professional baseball and football players (260 different individuals so far), the plastic figures are being marketed by Kenner Products of Cincinnati as collectibles—three-dimensional baseball cards, if you will—which appeal to a broad audience. "By far the most frequent request we get is 'Can I buy the whole line?' " says Bruce Stein, Kenner's senior vice-president of marketing.
The idea for Starting Lineup came from Pat McInally, a Harvard man who retired as the punter for the Cincinnati Bengals in 1986 after a 10-year career. When McInally was preparing to leave Cincinnati for good, he sold his condominium there to Stein, and when the two were finished talking real estate, their conversation turned to toys. Stein invited McInally—who writes a syndicated newspaper column called "Pat Answers for Kids"—to come up with some toy ideas.
To that end, McInally's wife, Leslie, took her husband on a tour of a large toy store across the Ohio River in Florence, Ky. "There were toys called He-Men. GI Joe, all these make-believe characters," says McInally. "We looked at each other and said, 'Why are people spending money on these imaginary heroes when real heroes like Walter Payton and Marcus Allen are out there playing football every weekend?' "
The rest is toy biz history. After Christmas, Kenner's basketball lineup will hit the shelves, raising the total number of figurines to 360, and plans are in the works to expand into individual sports such as tennis. "It's neat to see my friends get a little piece of immortality," says McInally, who works for Kenner as an adviser on Starting Lineup and receives a royalty for each figure sold. "The downside is that the line features only active players, and next year it will expand to include Hall of Famers, which means I'll never have a figure done of me."