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Fleer Stops Trading Card Operations - Out of Business?

by Paul Angilly
May 24, 2005

Fleer Trading Cards has suspended its operations and will not release any more trading card products in the immediate future, or possibly ever.

The Beckett.com website first reported last Wednesday that a source at Fleer said the company has suspended its trading card operations indefinitely until its future can be mapped out. The report said the company has laid off the majority of its work force, although a few employees still remain.

"The trading card operation is suspended and we're not releasing anything new going forward until ownership determines the course of action it wants to take," the source, who requested anonymity, was quoted as saying.

The website for card dealer Georgetown Card Exchange (www.gcxonline.com), which includes sell sheets for upcoming products, is now listing all future Fleer products as "cancelled." Fleer's website - which said nothing about the suspended operations as of this past Friday - still includes a calendar of upcoming product releases, but the company's last actual release appears to have been its 2004-05 Genuine NBA set on April 27. Two baseball sets, Patchworks and Autographics, were due out earlier this month, but have not been released.

Other previously-scheduled Fleer releases that are now listed as cancelled include: Ultra football, Tradition series two baseball, Premium baseball, Tradition football, Sweet Sigs baseball, Showcase football and Greats of the Game basketball.

According to the Beckett.com report, the source said Fleer's decision to suspend operations came as a surprise to most of the employees, although the company was apparently shopped around to potential buyers late last year.

Collectors waiting for redemption cards to be fulfilled from the company will apparently have to keep on waiting, at least for the foreseeable future, as the source quoted by Beckett.com indicated that redemption fulfillment has been suspended along with other trading card operations.

With its long history and valued brand name, it seems likely that Fleer will eventually either be sold to a new group of investors and resume operations on its own or be sold to one of the other existing card companies. The Beckett.com report indicated there have been rumors of Press Pass potentially buying Fleer to secure the NBA license and the Fleer Collectibles die-cast operation. The other most likely purchaser would be Donruss/Playoff, which recently bought the remnants of Pacific Trading Cards and previously absorbed such companies as Pinnacle and Action Packed.

The Beckett.com report stated that Fleer - purchased by Alex Grass and son Roger in 1999 for $26 million from Marvel Enterprises, Inc. - was shopped around twice in the last two years, most recently late last year, according to an unnamed executive with one of the card manufacturers that met with the company.

"The debt we would have had to assume was just too great," the executive was quoted as saying. "It wasn't so much debt from the sports card line, but more when they tried to expand the gaming line. There were some pretty serious royalties (that hurt them)."

According to the company's website, the history of Fleer Trading Cards dates back to 1849, when Frank H. Fleer began his bubble gum business. In 1923, Fleer created 120 "famous pictures" (referred to as the W515 set) packed with every 5-cent pack of Fleer's Bobs & Fruit Hearts. Babe Ruth's picture was among the stars, but because the set is so scarce, the complete checklist is not known.

Fleer's first major entry into the baseball card hobby was the popular 80-card 1959 Ted Williams set, followed by Baseball Greats sets from 1960 to 1962 and an abbreviated set of current players in 1963. Fleer first entered the football card market with sets featuring the newly-formed AFL in 1960-63. The company's first professional basketball card set came during the 1961-62 season.

Fleer is perhaps best known among long-time collectors as the company that battled Topps for many years through the court system before being granted the right to issue a set of current baseball players with bubble gum in 1981. The ruling also enabled Donruss to issue its first baseball card set that year. Although the court ruling was later reversed, both companies continued to issue card sets without the gum, opening the door for the baseball card boom of the mid-'80s.

Fleer is also well known as the company that helped bring basketball cards back into the mainstream of the hobby, beginning with its 1986-87 set that featured Michael Jordan's rookie card. Topps had abandoned the NBA card market after the 1981-82 season and only the Star company, which issued team sets directly through hobby shops, produced major NBA card sets in the years between Topps' last issue and the 1986-87 Fleer set.

From 1976 to 1988, Fleer produced an annual series of "Team Action" sets for the NFL, then became a full-scale NFL card maker with its first set of individual players in 1990. The company also made cards of current NHL players from the 1993-94 season through 1996-97, then returned to make cards of retired NHL players during the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons.

Fleer had also been the lone manufacturer of WNBA trading cards from 1999 through last season. Rittenhouse Archives has picked up the WNBA license for this season.

In 1995, Fleer acquired SkyBox International Inc., a trading card company located in North Carolina best known for its NBA and entertainment card products. The new company was called Fleer/SkyBox International Inc.

In January 2001, Fleer expanded its umbrella with the purchase of White Rose Collectibles, one of the most successful die-cast manufacturers in the country, which was renamed Fleer Collectibles.

About the author
Paul Angilly is a sports reporter for The Bristol Press in Connecticut, and has been collecting sports cards and memorabilia for 30 years. He is not a dealer, nor does he make a profit from buying and selling cards. His weekly sports card and memorabilia collecting column appears each week in The Bristol Press and several other daily newspapers in Connecticut.

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