An Accidental Best-Seller: Plush Pope Francis

There's a place in the Philly suburbs where Pope Francis hangs out with superheroes and sports stars.

It's a one-story building in an office park in Plymouth Meeting, Montgomery County. That's where I met the guy who brought them together, Matt Hoffman.

We shook hands in the entranceway to the building where a plush doll of Pope Francis sits between two similarly stuffed versions of Ant-Man and basketball star Kobe Bryant. It's not the company the humble pontiff normally keeps, but this union is pretty typical for Bleacher Creatures, Hoffman's company known best for making plush toys that look like athletes. He describes them as "a cross between an action figure and a soft toy" that, unlike other plushes that flop over, can stand on their own.

Profiting from Philadelphia's upcoming papal visit has practically become a competitive sport. Enterprising businesses are selling everything from Pope Francis bobbleheads to pints of "Papal Pleasure" beer.

While the plush has become one of the most popular pope tchotchkes on the market, Hoffman did not start out looking to cash in on the papal visit.

The idea for Bleacher Creatures came to him five years ago during a Phillies game on a sweltering August night. Citizens Bank Park was packed and Hoffman was sitting in the stands with a group of friends when he started looking at second baseman Chase Utley and asking himself a bizarre question: "What would Chase Utley look like if he was a Muppet?"

At the time, Hoffman worked for Majestic Athletic. The company from the Easton, Pa. makes uniforms for Major League Baseball and sports clothing for fans. When he traveled to stadiums on business, he had trouble finding good presents to bring home to his three young daughters.

One year after that Phillies game, Hoffman founded Bleacher Creatures. The company has grown to include characters from Marvel and DC comics, the Hobbit and Rocky Balboa.

The dolls are manufactured in China, but the process starts in the Plymouth Meeting office where a small team of illustrators and graphic designers spend hours turning well-known figures into cuddly caricatures.

In 2013, Hoffman was on the phone with some distributors from France. They were working on a plush version of former French President Nicolas Sarkozy when one of the distributors asked: what about a plush pope?

Hoffman had no idea that a year later, Pope Francis would announce his first trip to the U.S.

"I literally had a Pope Francis Bleacher Creature prototype on my desk when we found out," he said.

That's when the e-mails and phone calls from his customers and partners started coming in.

Maybe it's because "plush pope" is just so fun to say. Or maybe it's how uncanny the doll's resemblance is to the real live pontiff from its warm, friendly smile down to the pectoral cross around its neck. But since hitting the market in late June, plush Pope Francis has become the company's number one seller with more than 50,000 snapped up across the country.

Hoffman says they'll be sold out by the end of this week.

"Somebody said to me, what's your next pope? I said, well, there's no one out there who has as many fans or followers, so I think when you do the math how many Catholics are out there and how they've been connected to the pope, it makes sense it would be our best seller," he said.

The plush is one of many pieces of papal merchandise being sold in the World Meeting of Families' online store, which organizers said will help defray the $45 million cost of welcoming Pope Francis and an estimated 1.5 million visitors to Philadelphia. Bleacher Creature's own web ads for the doll encourage clickers to "shop the pope."

It's a message that, like so much of the merchandising around the papal visit, is in stark contrast to the message of Pope Francis, a staunch advocate for the poor who has criticized unfettered capitalism and the "idolatry of money."

Hoffman, who identifies as "spiritual," knows that's what makes Pope Francis and his plush likeness so popular, even among non-Catholics like him. He says he is inspired by the pope's message of tolerance and embodiment of the "Golden Rule."

"To live in a world where people are tolerant makes it a better world for me, my family and everyone else," he said.

While he waits to see whether there will still be a market for the dolls after the real pontiff has left Philadelphia, Hoffman's working on a plan to give some of his own windfall back to those whose lives are less plush.

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