Sports-figure ornaments are stars of Hallmark’s Keepsake collection

The Kansas City Star

Would you like to have Tony Gonzalez hanging out under your Christmas tree?

This year, you can make that happen, thanks to Hallmark Cards’ Keepsake Ornament collection. Gonzalez, the Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end who later played for the Atlanta Falcons, is one of nine NFL football players to become a keepsake ornament in the 2014 sports collection.

And he’s the only player this year available in two versions — one for each team he played for.

Like Gonzalez, the Keepsake Ornament line has had a stellar career. The line started in 1973 with just six decorations. This year, there are more than 400 items, including the sports figures.

The decorations are true collector’s items as they only appear for one year through Hallmark. Past ornaments can be found through outside vendors who collect them for resale.

Many ornaments are interactive, including sound and light elements. Hallmark has a Keepsake Ornament Club with 60,000 members across the country. Members pay $25, which gives them special access to these designer ornaments, regular newsletters and events.

“We have such a broad range of ornaments, and it’s a great way for customers to keep memories,” said Beth Dorr, Keepsake product developer and associate merchandise manager.

According to Hallmark research, among the top reasons for buying and displaying Christmas ornaments are commemorating a milestone such as the birth of a child or grandchild, to pass along as an heirloom, and to express their own personality and interests.

Adding the sports lineup to the ornament collection in 1995 seemed a natural.

“It’s a great way to capture those special sports memories,” Dorr said. “Players are iconic and have a big following.”

NFL roster

Gonzalez, now retired, this year is joined by a roster of active NFL Players: Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos, Frank Gore of the San Francisco 49ers; Tom Brady of the New England Patriots; Earl Thomas of the Seattle Seahawks; Joe Flacco of the Baltimore Ravens; and Aaron Rodgers of the Green Packers. Other retired players this are Michael Strahan of the New York Giants and Franco Harris of the Pittsburg Steelers.

The sports line has athletes from other sports including baseball, basketball and hockey. The 2014 line includes former New York Yankees Reggie Jackson and the National Hockey League’s Claude Giroux of the Philadelphia Flyers.

Half of the sports line was released in July and the rest in October.

How is Gonzalez performing in sales?

“At this point … there are more fans nationwide of Tony Gonzalez in his Kansas City Chiefs uniform than in his Atlanta Falcons gear,” said Dorr. “Kansas City Chiefs fans are definitely passionate about their team and showing their allegiances.”

The sports figures retail for $17.95 each and are available at some Hallmark stores as well as on line.

Over the years, the line has included NBA, MLB and NHL players as well as those from the NFL. The line features both current and “legendary” players, those that have had an impact on their sport over time.

To date three Chiefs players have appeared in uniform as Keepsake Ornaments: Joe Montana, Marcus Allen and Gonzalez. For the Royals, Hall of Famer George Brett made his debut as a 1992 ornament.

Among the players that appeared in earlier years was Montana, who played most of his career and collected his Super Bowl rings with the San Francisco 49ers. He played later for Kansas City, and re-appeared as an ornament in Chiefs uniform in 1995. Montana returned again in 1998, this time commemorating his college days in his Notre Dame uniform.

Just last year, Marcus Allen appeared twice — as both a Kansas City Chief and an Oakland Raider.

“I was honored to be included,” Allen said in a recent interview from his home in California. “Whether it was as a Raider or a Chief, it was great to be under someone’s tree.… I love both and I loved my teammates.”

Gonzalez declined to comment on his appearance as an ornament.

When the sports line began, Hallmark worked directly with particular players and their agents to work out agreements to use their image for the ornaments. In recent years, the process switched over to NFL Players, the licensing and marketing arm of the NFL Players Association, the players union. Hallmark now has a licensing agreement with the organization.

“We represent players’ rights — intellectual property, their name, their number, their likeness and their signature,” said Steve Scebelo, vice president of marketing, licensing and business development. “We strike license agreements with Hallmark on behalf of all the players. Then we distribute the royalties to the players.… The player (on the ornament) will receive a greater portion of the sales but it goes into a pool that all share.”

Extensive research goes into selecting which players to make into Keepsake Ornaments. About 18 months out, Dorr and two other members of the Hallmark team — Charles Young, art director of the sports line and product development manager of the Keepsake Ornaments, and Brenda Gfeller, lead licensing account executive — begin discussions.

“We really watch the season and see who goes to the Pro Bowl or Super Bowl,” Young said. “We want to give as much variety and authenticity” as possible.

Scebelo of NFL Players also works closely with the Hallmark team on the project.

“You want players that resonate nationally,” he said. “Fantasy football has had a big impact on merchandise sales.”

The list of players to appear in the 2015 line is under wraps until the April release of the Keepsake Ornament Dream Book.

Making the ornaments

So how do you capture a large-than-life professional athlete like Gonzalez – who stands 6 feet 5 inches — into a 6-inch, Styrene figurine suitable for Christmas tree hanging? That falls to the artistic talents of Young, who studies each player looking for signature moves and stances.

“For Tony Gonzalez, he’s known for his leaping ability and his reliable hands,” Young said. “I look for a pose that I want and a facial expression I want.”

Young incorporated those characteristics into Gonzalez’s ornament design. He also examines many photos and videos of his subject.

“Based on those photo references, I’ll work with internal and external sculptors to create a model,” Young said. “After that, we’ll send to the NFL and the players for approval.”

Once the design is approved, a steel mold is built to create the ornament.

“It can take up to three months to make the mold,” Young said. The actual ornaments are manufactured in China. A limited number are produced and sent back to the United States for distribution. The annual line is introduced in July with half of the ornaments available on store shelves; the rest is released in October, closer to the holiday season. The ornaments come in a package that often includes information about the player, but they do not include a hook for actually hanging them on the tree.

The sports line within Hallmark’s Keepsake Ornaments continues to grow.

“The NFL does very well for us, and that’s why we broadened our base,” Dorr said.

The group has pondered adding even more sports to the lineup, such as Olympic athletes or World Cup players.

Currently, there are no collegiate players featured in the line, and with good reason, Gfeller said.

“We don’t have collegiate licenses; we have investigated it,” she said. “Where we are is where we want to focus our resources.

“We’re in a good place in terms of the number of players we do,” Young added.

Because of the timing of the World Series in October, there wasn’t time to incorporate anything Royals in the Keepsake Ornament line. But the company didn’t strike out in commemorating the baseball team’s amazing run.

Hallmark is offering a blue glass ornament complete with “2014” etched on it, along with additional silver charms that can be personalized to say “Royals.”