The Economics of Bobbleheads

Grant Balfour: A Wood Sprite? - Ezra Shaw

Bobblehead dolls, you love ‘em! You want ‘em! If you'd like to read more about 'em, just nod your head up and down.

I swear, the title does not refer to Ben Bernanke or Federal Reserve policy. A cheap joke like that would be beyond the scope of this website and beneath the dignity of this article. No, the bobbleheads in this piece are those wobbly, cheap, plastic trinkets so cherished by the first 10,000 collectors in attendance at an A’s game.

(Word is, when he’s finished buying U. S. Treasury bonds, Bernanke is going to quantitatively ease the Fed into bobbleheads.)

These things are big business, folks. How do I know that? I recently witnessed bobblehead magic. My wife and I were standing in line at the Plaza level entrance to the Coliseum. Just ahead of us were two women, one of whom was wearing the gold Cespedes souvenir jersey she had claimed the day before. The ladies, and their kids, were back for the Coco Crisp cereal bowls. (A brief digression: I am still laughing at baseballgirl’s recap headline from that game, “White Sox Fall Victim to Cereal Killer.”)

In line, the two ladies were discussing their strategy for the upcoming Grant Balfour Raging Gnome bobblehead giveaway. They sounded like options traders debating long call butterfly spreads. They were intense, technically precise, and completely committed. They gave me a glimpse of a world I never knew existed.

Naturally, I had to know more about bobbleheads. After all, if it involves business and the Athletics, I’m on the case!

I spoke to Troy Smith, the A’s Senior Director of Marketing, a man with the courage to return the phone call of a complete stranger asking odd questions about wiggly, plastic dolls. Of course, Troy has probably dealt with a lot of weirder things during his two decades with the A’s. Prior to holding his current position, he was in charge of the in-stadium promotions and broadcasts. Thus, in a single career, he has borne the responsibility for both Dot Racing and Bobbleheads. Think about that.

(Okay, Troy does a lot more than wrangle bobbleheads, but the joke was too good to pass up.)

How are the candidates for bobblehead immortality chosen? Troy says bobblehead subjects are selected according to a number of factors: fan appeal, the game schedule, special commemorations (such as this year’s salute to Reggie Jackson and the 1973 World Championship team.) and the best guess of the marketing people. Smith creates a list of candidates and circulates it internally for a vote.

The development cycle for a bobblehead doll is surprisingly long. The A’s start kicking around ideas in July or August for the following season. After the selection and design is completed, it still takes four to five months to manufacture and ship the dolls. The decision deadline on the 2013 Reggie Jackson doll was September, 2012.

That lead time can create some difficulties. In 2009, ten thousand Jason Giambi bobbleheads were scheduled for game distribution on August 21. Unfortunately, Giambi was cut August 7. No one on the A’s staff had a garage big enough to store thousands of the now out-of-date bobbleheads, so the dolls were distributed, anyway.

The A’s use certain metrics, including historical sales figures, to determine order quantities. Most of the time the order is 10,000, but the quantity can escalate if circumstances change. The order for the upcoming Coco Crisp Bernie Lean doll was increased from 10,000 to 15,000, in anticipation of increased interest. What do the A’s do with dolls that do not get distributed? Troy cannot recall there ever being any extra bobbleheads left over.

Maybe that’s because the A’s try to design each bobblehead to be unique. The A’s sent photos and video of Reggie Jackson’s swing to BDA, their vendor in Seattle, in order to accurately depict details like the angle of the bat and Reggie’s wristbands. Bobblehead design can be controversial, too. The Grant Balfour Raging Gnome bobblehead created an arm-flailing mini-furor among the A’s staffers.

“Do you make the Balfour bobblehead look like a gnome, a wood sprite, or like Balfour himself?” Troy says, summarizing the dispute. “Believe it or not, that was a big issue and a lively debate around here.”

Over such issues, the tide of History flows.

Bobbleheads originated in China centuries ago. Figures with nodding heads were used in religious ceremonies to represent deities. (Maybe that’s why Reggie Jackson agreed to be a bobblehead.) In the 1700’s, the Europeans got hold of the idea and created porcelain toys with bobbing heads known as “nodders.” Victorian-era toymakers extended the head-bobbing technique to include the mouths, arms, and even tails of the figurines. The popularity and craftsmanship of nodders reached a zenith in Germany of the 1920’s and 30’s. World War Two put a damper on the fun, however.

Nodders regained popularity in America in the 1950’s and 60’s as bobbleheads. Disney characters, the Beatles, and sports figures led the resurgence. Bobblehead popularity nodded off for a while but, by the 1990’s, it was back! Now the dolls are everywhere, in every shape and form, promoting everything. You know things have gotten out of control when a website for custom-made bobbleheads advertises grandly, “Hand Crafted by Master Artists.” I’m trying to envision Michelangelo knocking out a David bobblehead.

For about$150, you can get a single bobblehead custom-sculpted in your likeness, if self-deification happens to be your thing. But don’t think those Raging Gnome dolls cost the A’s $150 apiece. Only the Dodgers can afford to drop that kind of money. (Of course, bobbleheads might be more productive than some of those players they acquired last season.) I asked Troy how much the A’s pay for their dolls. He was very polite, but very circumspect. He couldn’t say because of a vendor confidentiality agreement. Let me interpret: The A’s get their dolls a lot cheaper than you can, unless you are willing to buy bobbleheads by the boatload.

Is there collector’s gold in bobbleheads? A couple years ago, one of the experts on “Antiques Roadshow” appraised five nodders, made in Germany around 1910, at $50 apiece, or $250 total. A 1962 Mickey Mantle bobblehead was sold for $700. On Ebay, one guy is selling the Reggie Jackson bobblehead the A’s gave away in April. As I write this, there are seven bids topping out at $32.

Maybe those ladies in line are on to something.

The most important question for me is, how do the A’s make money off bobbleheads? I get tired just thinking about handling 10,000 bobbleheads. Are they worth the effort? Troy estimates that bobbleheads add about 5,000 to a single-game’s attendance. I’m not sure how they quantify it but, if that number is reasonably accurate, I am impressed. If the live gate is, say, 25,000, that means bobbleheads have boosted attendance by 25% (from 20,000 to 25,000). Even if all the additional tickets were on the low end of the price scale (say, $12) that’s $60,000 extra in the till. Sixty grand buys a lot of bobbleheads. Since they are distributed to the first 10,000 attendees, bobbleheads probably bring people to the Coliseum earlier. That boosts concession sales. And, parking revenue probably gets a bump, unless all 5,000 of those extra attendees travel to the Coliseum in a single clown car.

Indirect revenue from corporate sponsorship must also be considered, though it is very difficult to assess. The visibility sponsors get from promotional stunts like bobblehead giveaways is another deliverable for which the A’s can charge. I’m sure there are a couple more revenue enhancements I haven’t thought of.

Still, I must confess I am skeptical of the lovable little nodders. I may be short-sighted but I retain an old-school promoter’s prejudice against any effort that does not lead directly, and demonstrably, to season ticket sales. (Or, “advance multiple-game ticket purchases,” as I define season tickets.) Who are those extra 5,000, bobblehead-induced attendees? Kids? Parents of kids? Adult bobblehead speculators? How many of those folks end up buying multiple-game packages? Are the A’s rewarding the wrong people, namely, the first 10,000 people who show up rather than the first 10,000 people who buy multi-game packages? There are many more considerations and conundrums, but those mysteries must wait for future articles. Right now, I have to get my tickets for Sunday’s game.

I want to get there before Ben Bernanke nabs all the Balfour bobbleheads.

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