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Flashback: Manufacturers of Football Cards in 1992

by Paul Angilly
September 5, 2005

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The Donruss/Playoff trading card company might seem to be existing on a thin lifeline now that it's limited to producing just NFL cards, but that's actually how the company got its start - emerging from an overcrowded marketplace in the early 1990s and surviving after more than a dozen of its competitors have since perished.

When the company was born as the Playoff Corporation in 1992, it was one of 14 different companies producing nationally-distributed, NFL-licensed cards. That intense competition was a result of two factors: the surge in popularity for football cards at the time (just four years before, Topps had been the only fully-licensed NFL card maker) and a blossoming feud between the NFL and its licensing arm, NFL Properties, and the NFL Players' Association.

An anticipated strike or lockout was averted, but 1992 proved to be a tumultuous season for NFL card manufacturers.

Established companies were prevented from making cards of some top players after those players broke away from the NFLPA and joined NFL Properties for licensing purposes. Those players were only included (at first) in new brands licensed by NFL Properties. The feud was eventually resolved in time for those players to be included in late-season series from companies like Topps and Upper Deck.

Playoff's initial offering in 1992 was a 150-card set with no inserts. The company set itself apart from the crowd by printing the cards on thick, 22-point stock with borderless photos on the fronts and backs.

The fronts were printed with a unique "tekchrome" process, which showed the featured player in full color while the rest of the photo is in black & white. While the cards might not stand out from many 21st century offerings, collectors 13 years ago were impressed.

Here's a look back at the other NFL-licensed companies active in 1992.

Action Packed: In its third year of producing full sets, the company known for its embossed cards released a 288-card set and an 84-card update. The company was bought by Pinnacle Brands in 1995 and Action Packed sets continued through 1997. Donruss/Playoff, which acquired the rights to the brand when it bought the remnants of bankrupt Pinnacle in 1998, resurrected the name and embossed design as a one-time insert with its 2002 Leaf Rookies and Stars set.

All World: This was an under-appreciated set 13 years ago and remains so today. Though not rare by any means, these cards are not easy to find today. All World was the only new brand from 1992 that didn't survive to see 1993.

Collector's Edge: This first-year issue is noteworthy for two reasons - the cards were made of plastic and each one was serially-numbered out of 100,000 copies. The company survived until 2000.

Dog Tags: Like Collector's Edge, this issue featured pictures on plastic, roughly the size and thickness of a credit card. The top of each card had a hole in it so it could be placed on a chain (like military dog tags). A second set was issued in 1993, but that was it.

Fleer: In its third year of making NFLPA-licensed sets, Fleer issued both an attractive 480-card base brand and a 450-card Ultra set. The company issued NFL cards through 2004 before recently going out of business.

NFL Properties: As if 13 other NFL-licensed companies weren't enough, NFL Properties got into the act by producing two sets of its own: GameDay and Pro Line. GameDay was a 500-card oversized issue (2-1/2 x 4-11/16 inches) which, like the first Playoff set, had pictures showing the featured player in color and the rest of the photo in black & white.

Fleer acquired the GameDay brand name for sets in 1993 and 1994. The second-year Pro Line offering included 167 Portraits cards and 495 Profiles cards. The Pro Line name was acquired by Classic, which continued to issue sets until going out of business in 1998.

Pacific: As a second-year company, Pacific released a 660-card 1992 set in two series and a 28-card Triple Folders set, issued separately.

Pacific made NFL cards through 2002 before losing its license, then made CFL sets in 2003 and 2004 before going out of business.

Pro Set: The company which helped break Topps' NFL monopoly in 1989 nearly went bankrupt in 1992. It issued a 400-card first series and a differently-designed, shorter-printed 300-card second series, plus a premium-brand 330-card Power set. The company closed its doors for good after producing a few 1994 promo cards.

Score: The fourth-year company produced a 550-card set in 1992, along with its second premium-brand Pinnacle set (360 cards). The Score brand now exists under the Donruss/Playoff umbrella, and was issued for the 17th consecutive year this season.

Skybox: The first-year NFL card maker (which had been making NBA cards for two years) entered the market with a 350-card Impact set and a 360-card Prime Time set. Skybox eventually merged with Fleer, with the Skybox brand name used for sets through 2000.

Topps: The veteran company produced two 330-card series and a 99-card third series for its base brand set, plus two premium brands: the 573-card Bowman set and a 700-card Stadium Club set (in three series).

The third-series Topps and Stadium Club offerings were short-printed compared to the earlier series and featured players that couldn't be included earlier in the season.

Upper Deck: The company is expected to produce 15-20 different brands this season, but in its second year as a NFL manufacturer it released just one major set - 620 cards in two series. A 50-card Gold set was included in first series boxes, including NFL Properties players that couldn't be part of the regular first series set. The late-season second series also included those players.

Wild Card: The second annual NFL issue from the company known for its numbered stripe parallels (cards with a 100 stripe across the front could be redeemed for 100 regular cards of the same player, or vice-versa) included 460 cards in two series. The company went out of business in early 1994, reportedly losing its license after releasing a Superchrome version of its regular 1993 set without NFLPA approval.

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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