Wrestlers are the top-selling action figures

While merchandise associated with Marvel’s and DC’s superheroes and films like “Transformers” command major attention in toy aisles each year, the top-selling action figures are not movie characters but WWE’s wrestlers.

Since taking over the license from JAKKS Pacific last year, Mattel has reinvigorated WWE’s toy biz, introducing new lines of figures and playsets that more closely resemble WWE’s stars and replicate the in-the-ring action seen on TV each week.

The efforts have quickly paid off for WWE: The company collected close to $52 million in coin from toys and other related merchandise last year, up from nearly $44.7 million.

In the first half of 2011, WWE’s action figures top the category, beating “Batman,” “Iron Man,” “Spider-Man,” G.I. Joe and “Ben 10″ figures, according to NPD.

Mattel’s clout as the top toymaker enabled it to take over entire aisles of valuable shelf space in Walmart, Target, Toys R Us and Kmart stores for WWE product that launched with more than 76 figures last year.

When it took over the license, Mattel found previous WWE figures were purchased by collectors but not kids.

“Kids were into the brand, but the toys available to them weren’t exciting,” said Doug Wadleigh, Mattel senior VP of global entertainment and franchise development. “They wanted to re-create the over-the-top action they see in the ring.”

In the past, figures featured generic body parts that limited movements. To give kids more dynamic play, Mattel redesigned each figure with new articulating joints to replicate the wrestlers’ signature moves and poses.

Mattel also redesigned the figures to more accurately reflect individual athletes’ body shape, height, facial features and tattoos. Rey Mysterio is 5 foot 5, while the Big Show towers at 7 feet, for example. Their toy versions are now proportional.

“Now the action figures represent true scale,” Wadleigh said. “It’s something that seems like a no-brainer but hadn’t been done before.”

A new shade of white was also developed to match the light skin tone of Sheamus for his figure.

The company also had to figure out a way to keep all that lucrative shelves stocked with new product throughout the year given that WWE doesn’t take breaks with its TV shows or pay-per-view events like this Sunday’s “SummerSlam,” at Los Angeles’ Staples Center, and “WrestleMania” in April.

Changes in an athlete’s outfit or new plotlines gave Mattel something to use to freshen the line at intervals.

“WWE is a brand that’s fueled by freshness in storylines and character and we wanted to make sure we delivered fresh new toys when they go to retail,” Wadleigh said.

To that end, Mattel sped up its design and production time from the typical six to eight months to three to four months.

“We wanted to make sure that by the time we see a change in a storyline or a change in a superstar’s outfit or roster, we could react immediately and get the figure on the shelf sooner,” Wadleigh said.

While it is a licensee, Mattel said it doesn’t get tipped off as to WWE’s character plans. “We find out the same time the fan finds out,” Wadleigh noted.

Mattel is planning to launch new toys around Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s “WrestleMania” match against John Cena in Miami next April. The event was announced a year in advance — an unusual move for WWE, but beneficial to licensees who need more lead time to prep tie-ins.

To increase sales, Mattel has also courted WWE’s fanbase by promoting its new toys through commercials that air during the company’s TV shows, including “Monday Night Raw” on USA Network and Syfy’s “Friday Night SmackDown,” as well as during kids programming on Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Cartoon Network. It has also spent heavily on ads on WWE’s websites and magazines, and set up booths at its live events. It attended Comic-Con in July to present the toyline at a panel that was interrupted by WWE talent in a publicity stunt.

“We’ve got to generate excitement through marketing,” Wadleigh said. “We are blessed to have a very passionate fanbase who loves everything WWE. They watch the shows, they watch pay-per-views and go to the events. Marketing to that consumer is relatively easy because we know where they are and know what they’re doing.”

Mattel, not surprisingly, sees its sales spike upward when TV ads air.

“It’s still the most effective form of marketing to drive immediate consumption,” Wadleigh said.

The toy deal is one license WWE has been eager to revamp in recent years to boost sales for its consumer products division. It is also working with THQ to overhaul its videogames. The games group has sold more than 55 million units since 1999, generating more than $1.6 billion in revenues, with “WWE SmackDown vs. Raw 2011″ selling nearly three million units since its release last October, and “WWE All Stars” moving nearly one million units since March.

Given WWE’s viewership, toys have always been popular for the company, with Hasbro producing figures from 1990-94 and LIN before that.

The toymaker, which also makes lines for Disney, Pixar, Warner Bros., DreamWorks, Nickelodeon and HIT, still has room to grow the WWE line. It wants to expand its presence at retail, said Wadleigh, to “make a bigger branded statement,” in part by installing diorama displays that show off the figures out of their boxes and bring each character’s “personality to life.”

Doing so should help the company grab more of what NPD pegged as nearly $22 billion in toy sales in the U.S. last year.

Globally, the tally was $83 billion, up 5%. And while sales have grown for WWE, the action figure category for the overall toy biz domestically was down 15% last year, according to NPD.

WWE wasn’t in the top five licensed toy brands last year, dominated by Barbie, Disney Princess, “Dora The Explorer,” “Star Wars” and “Toy Story.”

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