The “Real Behind the Scenes of Raptors Culture” focuses on sharing the stories of individuals or brands who impact the Toronto Raptors community by working on projects that provide meaningful moments for Raptors fans like us.
Although these people may not be on a first-name basis with the community, their contributions are invaluable to enriching our experiences as fans. Today, we had a chance to speak with Matt Katz and Anthony Davino of FOCO. FOCO is a leading manufacturer of sports and entertainment merchandise, with a product line that includes apparel, accessories, toys, collectibles, novelty items, and more. After last season’s title, they created a collector’s list of bobbleheads to commemorate the Raptors winning their first NBA championship. Here is their story…
Adam: Hi Matt and Anthony! Thanks again for speaking with Raptors Republic today. To kick things off, introduce yourselves and tell us a little bit about about FOCO…
Anthony: Hi, I’m Anthony Davino, the Marketing Co-Ordinator at FOCO. I’ve been with the company for a year and a half. A lot of what I do is organic social media, reaching out to guys like you (Raptors Republic) to generate awareness about FOCO or join our affiliate partner program. I just try to get as much people to talk about FOCO as possible.
Matt: I’m Matt Katz (Licensing Director at FOCO), been with the company since 2002 and have spent my whole career with FOCO, moving up the ranks from entry level to my role now. I handle everything from licensing agreements with the different leagues and properties along with leading social media and marketing.
FOCO originally started in 1999. The company was originally called Team Beans because the product line that we introduced was a line of plush bears with team logos on them basically at the height of the beanie baby craze. After a year and half of selling the plush bears, the company was at the MLB all-star game and we noticed a line around the building for the Fan Fest. We went to check out what the person was selling, and it was bobblehead dolls. At the time, there were 3-4 companies making bobbleheads dolls for the MLB. This was in 2002; they had that resurgence with the [gameday] giveaways that created that collectors’ market.
Our ownership said we that could do something better, more fun, more creative and build a retail program out of this. We are one of the only remaining retail bobblehead companies on the sports side of the business. FOCO has licenses with all the major leagues, the player associations and some retired associations so we work with some retired guys. We also have several hundreds colleges and we’re able to use those logos in conjunction with the players as well.
So, we went from plush bears to bobblehead dolls and just started evolving through the course of 20 years. A lot of our introductions to products has been because of trends. In 2004-05, Lance Armstrong introduced his bracelet and we ended up doing a team version of it and selling several million dollars of it. In 2008, we noticed a trend with garden gnomes, selling gnomes every year since. It was kind of a natural extension as we had the resin making bobbleheads and it’s all the same process, molds, painting and everything. We just continued to expand from there.
In 2010, generic silly bands was the hot product and we brought that to team licenses. We sold about $65m worth of rubber bracelets in a matter of 6 months. In 2014, we did ugly sweaters as we initially had a scarf business that we were doing. We saw the trend with ugly sweater parties, and we thought we could do this with team logos on it as nobody was doing it in a fun way or right way.
As we’ve gotten into these new mediums, we just continued to expand the product line. Bobbleheads made of resin led to ornaments. The bears were plush and that led to slippers. Slippers led to flip-flops. Essentially something leads to another and we try to expand the business, try to be creative with the products that we put out and take a different approach to what everyone else is doing. That’s been our recipe for success.
A couple of years ago, we launched our own e-commerce business (FOCO.com). We knew that brick and mortar was dying and if we were going to continue to do meaningful business, we would have to supplement it in some way, shape or form. Going our own path with our e-commerce store was the direction we decided.
We acquired Sport Fan Island which was a customer of ours in 2018 and that has really led us to where FOCO is today.
Adam: That’s an amazing story to hear, Matt. Thanks for sharing! Anthony – one of your best product categories are bobbleheads. Why do you feel bobbleheads have become so popular of late?
Anthony: Before I even started here, I didn’t even realize there was a bobblehead market. I worked with the New York Mets prior to joining FOCO and knew about the stadium giveaways. On certain days like the “Star Wars Day”, there would be a line up off the subway to pick up a limited edition bobblehead and when I interviewed with Matt, we were talking about the bobbleheads and I asked, “Oh, like the stadium giveaways?” and he said, “No, it’s completely different.”
To be in the office and see how they actually make the bobbleheads, it’s not just a cheap piece of plastic. The base is sturdy, the details are absolutely insane. I remember one of my first events where we did Comic Con in New York City and there was this glass case with this batman bobblehead with Bane breaking Batman over his knee and Batman’s head bobbled at the knee. I remember the detail on Bane’s biceps, the colours on his cape – it was such a different level of detail.
Being in the FOCO office and seeing how bobbleheads are made, seeing designers going back and forth with the factory and making adjustments to make the bobblehead closely resemble the players.
With our bobblehead business growing, we’re able to offer fair price points and that has helped us out a lot. A lot of people are used to the stadium giveaways, but with FOCO, the details that you’ll get in a bobblehead are insane.
Once people actually get their first bobblehead and see how good it is, they definitely come back for more. A part of my job is to get that first bobblehead in their hands and they’ll keep coming back to add more to their collection.
Matt: I think there’s this perception of the in-stadium giveaway promotional bobbleheads of being small, cheap with the painting and being a little sloppy. With FOCO bobbleheads, although we’re not perfect, there’s definitely a difference in quality between what you’ll get in comparison to the giveaway. The giveaways typically produce 20,000-30,000 pieces whereas our bobblehead are limited edition runs of 2,000 or less.
Our bobbleheads are hand carved out of clay, with designers overseas that interpret our flat 2-D artwork into 3-D pieces of art, little statues and figurines. Like Anthony said, we go back and forth and try to get the bobblehead as close as possible. Certain people are definitely critics and super particular.
One of the things we do well is our speed. The moment something happens, we want to memorialize it. We’re looking to get that bobblehead completed in a matter of days or weeks.
Anthony: Just with the power of social media. We put up the Siakam bobblehead and his agent actually saw that and contacted us. If the athlete thinks it’s cool and the athlete gets behind it, it definitely increases the attractiveness of the bobblehead in the market now.
Matt: A lot of the players are set on getting their shoe [endorsement] deal but that’s typically only for the best players. With our bobbleheads, we go pretty deep in the roster, so I think it’s exciting for guys to get their bobblehead made, especially if they’re not a superstar but in their local markets, they’ll have a nice fan base. We’ve noticed that collectors really like being able to show the whole team as opposed to just the superstars. That’s one of the things we’ve been able to do really well.
Adam: The championship bobblehead series was such a hit with our Raptors fanbase. What was the inspiration behind making different bobbleheads like the Pascal Siakam Cameroon piece?
Matt: The NBA in general is a pretty diverse league with a lot of international players and over the years, we’ve created bobbleheads that have paid tribute to their home country. I know we did a Giannis bobblehead with the Greece flag, we did a Dirk Nowitzki with the German flag, so we knew that theme did work in the world of bobbleheads. Then obviously when Pascal did the celebration after the raptors won the championship, we had to capture it in a bobblehead. FOCO looks for those moments that we can immortalize into bobbleheads and those are the ones that really do the best. I think fans connect with them the most and the players connect with them.
Like Anthony mentioned with social media, Pascal saw our ads on social media and got his agent to reach out to us. We worked with them and provided a bunch of those bobbleheads to Pascal and he brought them over to Africa to the kids that were a part of his camp as a prize that he handed out to some of the top players. Pascal specifically asked for that bobblehead because it had a connection with him.
Adam: I couldn’t agree more with you, Matt. Why do you guys think that the NBA is so progressive in comparison to other leagues?
Anthony: I think with the NBA and just their fanbase and coverages of the game. We typically meet twice a week with the NBA and our conversations are always around what’s trending, especially on social media. The NBA is really BIG on social media, especially their players. Even their owners and GMs are on social media. There is just so much information out there about the NBA and it really helps us be successful in that business.
Matt: I think the NBA is more progressive compared to the other leagues I really due to the size of their roster. You have a lot more individuals whose personalities rise to the top and are more vocal. The NBA is really a superstar-driven league that can have 1-2 guys on a team be the voice and the leader. I think the NBA has done a really good job of showcasing the individual players’ personalities while other leagues just have not done that, whether they’re strict about their rules, what you can say, or what you can do. The NBA has always been at the forefront and leading the charge with the fashion, the social issues and I think it goes all the way back to David Stern and what he did. The NBA also has such a large international presence (mainly due to the success of the dream team in ’92) in comparison to the other leagues that are just so far behind.
Adam: You guys said it best with Commissioner Adam Silver and previous Commissioner David Stern being enablers. They provide a platform that doesn’t censor their athletes or their personalities like the NFL does for instance. I believe that’s fuelled the growth because it gives players like LeBron or any player in the league the opportunity to speak up and say what they want to say when they want to say it without worrying about being penalized or blacklisted afterwards. The fans are really able to build that trust with the players and through building the trust with the players are able to build that trust with the league.
Out of the entire Raptors team, who would you say is your favourite player?
Matt: I just spent 10 minutes last night watching a bleacher report clip of Vince Carter. Obviously, he was one of the original superstars of the Raptors. We’re based in New Jersey, so I sort of a New Jersey Nets fan. I’ve always been a VC fan – he’s always been an exciting guy to watch.
Anthony: As a kid playing videos games and doing the dunk contest, you’d want to do the “Vince Carter” dunk with your arm to elbow in the net. To this day on YouTube, I still watch highlights of Tracy McGrady on the Raptors when he had braces.
Nowadays, I’d say my favourite player is Siakam just because I had a chance to work with him.
Adam: If you look at Vince’s career with the Raptors, his impact during that time was invaluable. I actually believe that if he didn’t play for the Raptors, we would have probably lost the team just like the Vancouver Grizzlies did. His impact was just incredible for our entire franchise.
Anthony: Even when you say Vince’s name, you think of the throwback jerseys!
Adam: What can Raptors fans expect from FOCO this year and moving forward?
Matt: As you know, we’ve asked Raptors Republic for some thoughts and concepts on the Raptors and how we can incorporate more of the players’ personalities into the bobbleheads that will connect better with the fanbase.
We’re going to work on expanding our products for Raptors fans. When the Raptors won the championship, it was definitely a boost for us for Raptors customers. Now that we have a base of Raptors customers and understand how strong and passionate the fanbase is, we’re certainly going to increase what we offer to the fanbase.
On the bobblehead front, we’ll be working with you guys to make sure we’re giving the fans what they want. I think we have a lot of cool concepts on the table such as the throwback Vince one – I’m pretty excited about that one.
Now that the season is back starting at the end of July, I think everyone is going to be excited to see what’s out there, so hopefully we’ll be ready to launch some new products.
Adam: I love it and am pretty excited to share our collaboration with the community. Matt and Anthony – thanks again for being a part of this – really appreciate it!