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Published on March 8th, 2016 | by press-room

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The New York Times: In This Crowd, It’s O.K. to Stare

By Zach Schonbrun

NYT Big Heads
Indiana fans waving big heads at a home game against Iowa last month. Fans try to distract free-throw shooters with the heads. Credit Darron Cummings/Associated Press

With college basketball’s postseason in full swing, casual television viewers soon will see famous faces popping up at games across the country: Kim Kardashian. Donald Trump. Miss Universe. Not their actual faces, but rather their attention-grabbing likenesses: oversized cutouts of their heads, waved around by fans looking to draw the eye of both opposing shooters and network cameras.

Forget heckling and Thunderstix. The new crowd staple is Taylor Swift. Or Tom Brady. Or Bert and Ernie.

For better or worse, giant heads have become ubiquitous, nosing into college games and World Cup viewing parties, Davis Cup matches and N.F.L. victory parades. This year they even have become staples at political rallies, rising above cheering crowds to reflect the wide smiles of the candidates right back at them.

“It’s amazing to see how the phenomenon has grown,” said Nathan Partington, vice president for licensing at Fathead, now one of the leading suppliers of items of the sort once fashioned at home from pizza boxes and glue sticks.

Few places have embraced the fad quite like college basketball, and few programs with as much variety as Marquette University. The Golden Eagles got into the big-head game in 2005 after Craig Pintens, a former associate athletic director, found inspiration in something that caught his eye in crowd photographs from another team’s gym: giant cutouts depicting the face of the singer Michael Jackson.

“I thought, Why can’t we do this?” Pintens said.

Pintens reacted like any good marketing man. He drove to a hardware store and bought a jigsaw. Then, in the basement of Marquette’s athletics building, he got to work hand-crafting sheets of plastic into the shapes of other famous visages. Beyoncé. Chuck Norris. Jay Leno. Mr. Potato Head.

NYT Big Heads - Trump
Donald Trump was enlisted as a distraction tactic by a Texas fan in a game in January. Credit Eric Gay/Associated Press

The initial 20 or so creations, first distributed to students at halftime of a Marquette-Connecticut game in January 2006, became so popular that Marquette eventually put a page on its website where fans could submit ideas, vote for favorites and “retire” the classics.

Of course, jigsaws are no longer necessary. Several companies allow fans to order big heads on demand, fueling a bespoke industry that reaches well beyond the sports arena.

Fathead, known for giant wall decals, has more than doubled its big-head production since it started offering signs in 2012 — thanks, in part, to its success with music acts like One Direction and Luke Bryan and interest (and orders) for heads related to Marvel comics characters and World Wrestling Entertainment stars, and more recently to all six of the remaining United States major-party presidential candidates. The party supplier Shindigz offers customizable three-foot-tall big heads specifically for graduations, birthday celebrations or retirement parties.

And then there is Build-A-Head, a six-year-old company based in Phoenix that bills itself as the largest big-head supplier in the world. Build-A-Head said it took in more than $1.5 million in revenue in 2015, when it produced about 150,000 heads. That works out to about $10 per head; Fathead charges about $30 each, while prices at Shindigz generally fall between those extremes.

“People see it in use, and their wheels get turning,” said Bryan Price, who founded Build-A-Head with a friend in his garage and now has 10 people on his staff. “We’re an open book for their creativity.”

With companies offering big heads in sizes ranging from two feet to frighteningly supersize, and priced in the neighborhood of a couple of extra-large pizzas, the business may have room to grow. Indeed, the zaniness that seemed to ignite the trend has continued to fuel it. Fathead said that about 6 percent of its noncustom big-head sales since November had been images of political figures. The company says it will not print images of celebrities or characters it does not have licensing deals for. Build-A-Head does not have any licensing deals, although it has promotional arrangements with some teams.

NYT Big Heads - Kim K
Kim Kardashian’s face made an appearance at a Southern California game last month. Credit Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

Big heads seem to pop up just about everywhere: Nascar tracks, beauty pageants, the Coachella music festival. Among Build-A-Head’s most frequent clients today are bachelorette parties. “We’re dealing with anyone from a soccer mom to Rihanna’s foundation event,” Price said.

But to most, including Pintens, now a senior associate athletic director at Oregon, the big heads remain “quintessentially college basketball.”

They were created to be agents of distraction, the same way fans once held pinwheels or foam noodles. Except this time, it is a giant visage of Pope Francis. Or a panda. Or Gumby. College students were more than capable of outdoing themselves with increasingly outrageous and obscure material, and basketball — in part because of the often minimal distance between the fans in the stands and the players on the court — seemed like an ideal gallery.

“In college basketball, the crowd can affect the game more than any other sport,” Pintens said. “Behind the basket, there’s always been something going on.”

Many trace the origins of the big heads to a few mischievous San Diego State students in the early 2000s, but the lineage could reach back even further than that. Poster-size cutouts of Adam Sandler’s head, for instance, appear sprinkled through the golf crowds in Sandler’s 1996 film “Happy Gilmore.”

After San Diego State fans brought the big heads courtside, Marquette took the idea a few steps further. From 2006 to 2013, the Golden Eagles produced at least 150 heads for use during games, according to totals on the heads’ official web page, which lists those that have been retired, stolen or traded, and even the win-loss records of each big head. (Most wins? The “Family Guy” character Stewie Griffin, with 35, trailed closely by Charles Barkley and Dick Vitale.) Marquette refers to its big heads as Big Noggins, after the university signed a sponsorship deal with a local job board, JobNoggin.com, to put ads on the backs of its heads.

The production process at Marquette — which still relies on marketing assistants to cut out each Big Noggin by hand — is now supported by Spirit Shop, a campus retail store. Rather than encouraging students to bring their own signs to games, Marquette prefers to maintain control over the production and distribution (up to around 40 signs per game), but it allows students to suggest ideas.

“It gives kids an opportunity to get engaged in a game,” said Mike Broeker, a deputy athletic director. “That’s what everybody is trying to figure out: How do you raise the fan engagement?”

Marquette has learned some lessons over the years. For one, it now uses vinyl for the printing material, after spilled drinks ruined some early models that had been printed on foam core.

Another problem was theft. Students would take the big heads home, unaware that Marquette intended to reuse them. Pintens once spotted one of his Mike Tyson creations hanging on the wall of a student’s dorm room.

“Tyson was staring at me through the window,” Pintens said. “I remember thinking, Man, we’ve got to fix this.”

Marquette now holds student identification cards as collateral.

Ten years on, the big heads’ popularity remains strong. Partington said Fathead’s 2015 sales of big heads had outdone sales from the previous year, and he sees no signs of a slowdown. Neither does Marquette, which plans to bring some of its signs to Madison Square Garden for this week’s Big East tournament.

“We drew our Big Noggin ideas from the news and, well, the news keeps cycling,” Broeker said. “As long as people keep making news, I guess Big Noggins will still be a popular fan amenity for us.”


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