For those of us who were around in the hobby’s product proliferation era of the 1990s, it’s hard to believe that a quarter century has passed since the great Peyton Manning-Ryan Leaf debate.
Last year, I wrote a piece detailing how Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf saved the football card market in 1998. And while it’s hard to believe now that Leaf played any role in saving the football card market, he absolutely did.
The wow moment that opened my eyes to the importance of Manning and Leaf happened at the annual Kit Young Show and hobby conference in Hawaii in February, 1998. For me, and for other people that worked on the manufacturing end, that show was all about pitching your product in-person to the hobby and retail distributors, as well as to the major hobby shops that were represented at the show.
The football card market had been declining throughout the 1990s. If there was one professional sport that went overboard with the number of licenses it issued in that ‘decade of too much’, it was football. Topps, Fleer, Upper Deck, Pro Set, Action Packed, Collector’s Edge, Score/Pinnacle, Donruss-Leaf, Pacific, Playoff, Pro Line, SkyBox, All-World – all of them had NFL and Player’s Inc. licenses during the decade.
The proliferation was happening in all sports, but in football, it was out of control.
Talking to the various hobby distributors at shows and conferences was always invaluable. I always loved to listen to guys like Dave Bronson, Red Barnes, Dave Yeates and Any Rapozza, as well as hobby shop owners like Adam Martin and Rob Veres. I was still a collector at heart when I worked with manufacturers so I had a pretty good hunch about some trends, but those guys were in the trenches and knew exactly what was happening in the hobby and what was driving the trends. Listening to them was essential for me in my role developing products at that time.
Which takes us to the 1998 draft.
We had never seen so much excitement for pre-sales of NFL football cards in years. Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf were discussed like they would be two Hall of Famers. It was like Elway and Marino both in the 1983 NFL Draft all over again, except Elway and Marino weren’t picked one-two.
Pre-orders for all 1998 NFL cards saw a big spike that year. The first products would be coming out in May, though there were some draft pick products that would be out a little bit earlier.
One of the products I was brand manager for at Pinnacle was Mint Collection. That was the set that had the cards with a hole, and you were supposed to fit a coin of the player into the card.
At the time, I didn’t really like the concept and it was too gimmicky for me. In fact, it’s my least favorite product I ever worked on. But looking back, it has grown on me. I have always been a purist. But at the same time, I understood the concept and why there was a market for it. Pinnacle’s Mint Collection Manning cards and coins have held their own in the market.
As popular as Leaf and Manning were at the time, the increase in sales and orders were not enough to save Pinnacle. Score had already been released, as was Mint Collection. But as far as hobby products go, to use a medical metaphor, there were a lot of products that died on the operating table that summer and fall.
Unsigned promo cards had been released for a Pinnacle Inscriptions dual Manning-Leaf signed rookie card. That card was going to be the sickest card of the year for us. The joke made here is the only thing sick about it was Pinnacle itself.
There was also a promo card for Pinnacle Inside. That was the card set that was released in collectible cans. Jeff Harrell came up with an insert concept called Stand-Up Guys. The cards had slots, and you had to match two cards together to create a four-sided stand-up figure. The 1998 Stand-Up Guys promo had Manning, Leaf, Brian Griese, and Thad Busby.
As for the cans, well, let’s just say they took up a lot of space.
What About Moss?
I remember having a lot of discussions about the football card market that summer. I specifically remember a conversation I had with an executive from EA Sports. I was being considered for a position there at their Vancouver campus, but at the time, I really wanted to stay in the United States rather than move back to Canada.
I was asked who I thought the best rookie in the draft was going to be, as the conversation had been around how Manning and Leaf were going to be driving their NFL video game sales. I told him without hesitation that I thought Randy Moss would be the best rookie of the class, and that by the time he was finished, he and Jerry Rice would be in a class by themselves.
The EA guy was kind of surprised, but I really believed that. Was I Nostradamus? No. I just thought Moss was that good. And like everyone, I was wrong far more than I was right. If you read the story about the first Tom Brady card, you will find out that I included him in the first Collector’s Edge release of the year in 2000 because I thought he was going to be an all-star – with the Montreal Expos.
Don West And Ken Goldin Drive The Manning Train
Just before the 1998 NFL season began, my escape from Pinnacle was complete. It was complicated. I couldn’t just switch jobs. I am Canadian, so there had to be immigration lawyers and visas involved, as well as a trip home with my family and a re-entry into the United States.
I accepted a position with Collector’s Edge, which was by this time re-incorporated as Collector’s Edge of Tennessee, which I thought was odd seeing as they were based in Denver. The reason for the new name was that Collector’s Edge had been bought by Shop At Home TV, which was based in Nashville.
That was a huge factor for me as I sorted out opportunities. I thought working with Shop At Home would be an incredible learning experience. And it was.
After a week there, I made my first trip to Nashville. I fell in love with the city, the food, the music, the culture. I grew up listening to John Denver, BJ Thomas, Johnny Cash and Conway Twitty.
After a tour and a break, I had to go back to Shop At Home for midnight. We were on the air from 12 AM to 5 AM. I got to meet Don West for the first time in person. He was exactly the same in real life as he was on TV. Don was pitching our Collector’s Edge products while ‘Kenny from New Jersey’ was on the phone with him.
I don’t remember exactly what the product offering that blew up the phone lines was that night. It included 1998 Supreme Football, another box that was likely a close out, and a Peyton Manning autographed card. The price point that always maximized our sales was $99, which was far different than the $19.99 price point that QVC liked to be in. We made quite a few cards at Collector’s Edge that were exclusive to Shop At Home, including the Manning and Leaf autographs.
Ken Goldin had a relationship with Peyton Manning by that time. He secured the Manning and Leaf autographs for us for $12 each. It was the perfect “value-added item.” The card had a low cost for the signature, it was sold as something thrown in for free, and it had a high value.
Manning became synonymous with Collector’s Edge. He was the player on our packaging. When we created a TV commercial that got air play all over the United States, the cards featured in the graphics were all Peyton Manning cards.
Because of their ability to capitalize on Manning’s popularity, Don and Ken drove the hype train several nights a week from coast to coast. Because of them, Manning was the biggest thing to hit the hobby since the rookie QB class of 1984.
As the year went on, we continued to build products around Manning. I travelled from Denver to Nashville every other week, and I always had meetings with Don to go over products in our pipeline to make sure we had the right selling points for him. It always began and ended with Manning that year.
Peyton Manning makes 1998 the greatest football collecting year of that decade. Sure, there was also Moss and Hines Ward, and Ryan Leaf actually did drive sales that year before he imploded in the hobby. It’s almost comical that the hobby gets so juiced about first round quarterbacks. Manning, Drew Bledsoe, Kerry Collins and Donavan McNabb became collectible. But Leaf was far from the only first round QB to be a hobby bust in the 1990s.
His rookie cards probably ended up in bins with rookie cards of Andre Ware, Dan McGwire, Todd Marinovich, David Klingler, Tommy Maddox, Heath Shuler, Jim Druckenmiller, Tim Couch and Akili Smith.