Action figures used to be the prime toy that "Little Johnny" (Little Jimmy is someone else...) could talk mom or dad into buying on a whim. There were tons to choose from, beginning in the mid-1970's nearly every property had them, and they were relatively cheap.
There are still tons to choose from and every property be it cartoon, movie, or comic book character still have them, but action figures really aren't cheap anymore. Like trading cards and comic books, figures are no longer the cheap item that will quiet a kid during a trip to the department store.
Although the prices no longer favor kids, in 2011 there are still several different wrestling action figure brand representing the current wrestling organizations. What are they doing right and what are they doing wrong?
Jakks Pacific is a toy company that truly built its name thanks to pro wrestling. Joining up with the WWF in 1996, Jakks still holds the record for the longest company to hold that toy license. Evolving as the product did, Jakks produced countless memorable figures over their decade and a half with the WWF/WWE. Although they had their faults (including countless repaints and releases of top stars) they cemented their legacy with the creation of what is perhaps the greatest wrestling figure collection of all-time, the WWE Classic Superstars.
Starting in 2010, toy giant Mattel took over the WWE toy line. Known for Barbie, Hot Wheels, and Masters of the Universe, Mattel is a well-known toy juggernaut going back decades. Around the same time that Mattel announced their new partnership, WWE's former toy producer Jakks announced that they would be assuming the TNA Wrestling toy line.
TNA Wrestling had previously struck a deal with Marvel Comics-owned ToyBiz for production of action figures and accessories. While that line had a large following and produced many nice pieces, inconsistency with releases and distribution plagued the line eventually resulting in an early demise.
Nearly two years into the current licensees runs for both companies we've seen a mixed bag of results. Both companies have brought figures to the table that have been desired by collectors for many years. Both companies have also failed in ways that have once again alienated some collectors.
One victory that the WWE Classic Superstars line brought to the table was the return of collectors long gone. Fans who were no longer interested in the current product were suddenly able to obtain quality action figures of stars from years gone by. I've touted this fact before, but these gains to the genre have largely been ignored by both of the current companies. Jakks, who should know of this fact already, was the first to drop their "Legends of the Ring" TNA subset after the first series. While figures are still being released under this banner in other forms, series releases are no longer being produced. This all but guarantees that middle and under card names from wrestling's past will no longer be made into figures. This was a key factor in the popularity of the Classic Superstars line.
Mattel recently followed suit with their WWE Legends line by announcing that future figures will only be available on their collectors store website. Although other stars of the past will be featured elsewhere in their offerings, it is not the same as being able to obtain these figures at brick and mortar retail stores.
I fully understand that numbers both monetary and logistically are main factors, but it's crucial for the companies to know that there is a market for these figures. Mattel is currently basing their numbers on the failure of the WWE Legends Series 3 and Tag Team figure collections. These figures were clearly overproduced and, in the case of the tag teams, overpriced. Not to mention that most of the figures in both of these series were produced by Jakks a short time long ago. There is a reason that figures of Randy Savage and Ricky Steamboat have sold as well as they have. Neither man had a figure in years. This is also the reason that the Classic Superstars figures of such men as Lanny "The Genius" Poffo, Ron Bass, and The Barbarian sold briskly and are popular to this day. Fans want new characters...not rehashes of figures that didn't sell very well in the first place.
One complaint of many fans that Jakks seems to be handling better than Mattel at this time is the inclusion of female figures. Fans have requested female figures in toy lines going back decades. The excuse the companies gave has always been the same--female figures "don't sell" in "boys" toy lines. I've never known this to be the case and have always viewed it as a very flimsy excuse.
In the past twelve months Jakks has released their first three Knockout figures with several more planned. The likenesses on all three (Velvet Sky, Daffney, and Angelina Love) have been nothing short of amazing and are true highlights of the Jakks TNA, now Impact Wrestling, figure line.
Mattel, while releasing Diva figures, have taken more of the traditional approach and hesitated to release females. Although several have been released, they are short packed in the shipping cases. The company has cited both the "female figures don't sell" myth and the failure of their first Diva offering, Mickie James, as reasons to shortchange the ladies. The Mickie James figure was not only released after her departure from the company, but it also barely resembled the ladies champion.
On the positive side we have seen some very nice releases on both sides. Mattel is steadily introducing new characters into the line. Figures of the original Nexus, Internet sensation Zack Ryder, and continual new figures of Randy Savage have all graced collections. Alberto Del Rio already has several releases and Sin Cara is said to be fast on the horizon for 2012. Heavy hinting and rumors of a long awaited Miss Elizabeth figure may also be available from Mattel within the next twelve months.
Jakks has also delivered some nice TNA/Impact product, but the continuous production and distribution problems which I've chronicled before are still an issue. Series release dates continue to be pushed back as the list of vendors carrying the product dwindles. Figures such as the aforementioned Knockouts, Sting figures of various designs, and online retailer exclusives have kept fans happy but not exactly satisfied. With the amazing crop of talent under contract to the company, Jakks is not even scratching the surface of what they could do with the license. This company knows how to utilize it as they showed for nearly fifteen years with WWE. They can't let us down now.
What would you like to see these companies do with the WWE and TNA licenses? I know that you all have ideas and I'm sure that Jakks and Mattel would love feedback from the most intelligent wrestling collectors on the planet. Feel free to share your thoughts either here or on our Facebook Fanpage and I will pass them along! You, the consumer, should be their most important decision maker.