Ownership of the brand has changed through the years but 40 years after its first entry into the sports card world, Donruss is still a big part of the hobby’s brand landscape and this fall marks another milestone anniversary: the 25th anniversary of Donruss football cards.
In April of 1996, Pinnacle Brands Inc. purchased Donruss-Leaf from Huhtamäki Oyj, a confectionary company from Finland, for more than $40 million. With the sale came the Donruss and Leaf brands, along with the company’s NHL and Major League Baseball licenses. While there was a Donruss Red Zone football product released in 1995, the first Donruss NFL football card set was released by Dallas-based Pinnacle in time for the 1996 season.
Pinnacle and Donruss were both operated out of the same office in Woodall Rogers Tower in downtown Dallas. The company, however, kept a façade that Donruss operated out of a separate building in the Dallas suburb of Grand Prairie, TX. The company had a separate product development team, with Doug Goddard conceptualizing most of their products at that time. In 1997, Tim Franz joined the Donruss team and would eventually end up at Fleer after Pinnacle’s 1998 bankruptcy. Donruss also had a separate media relations manager, Shawn Heilbron.
Other than those employees, Pinnacle employees worked on all Donruss and Pinnacle products. Although they were technically separate, the brand management and product development teams also worked together on most projects and bounced concepts and product ideas off each other by design.
Whenever there were meetings involving the Donruss team and an outside entity, such as staff members at Beckett, the Donruss team would head to Grand Prairie to give the impression that the entire Donruss operation was there. Several of the Beckett employees from that time now work for Panini, which own the Donruss brands.
Donruss Football is a typical 1996 NFL product. It came in an era where there were too many brands, production numbers were too high, and the product lacked the elements that drive today’s market. There were no low numbered parallels. In fact, the big selling point of 1996 Donruss Football was the Press Proof parallel set.
The first 2,000 copies of each card became the Press Proof parallel and received special stamping and foil treatment. The cards were not serial-numbered though, as they were just stamped that they were one of 2,000. When you do the math, they are hardly rare by today’s standards. There are 240 cards in the base set, and if there are 2,500 of each, that’s 500,000 Press Proof cards.
The base set has a clean, full-bleed design consistent with the Donruss look in other sports.
The insert sets were also heavy with serial-numbers, something that was still relatively new in 1996.
The insert sets featured the NFL debut of Donruss Elite, which was a 20-card insert set in 1996 Donruss Football. The Donruss Elite cards featured the NFL’s top stars and were numbered to 10,000.
There was also a Donruss Elite Gold variation, numbered to 2,000. They’re great looking cards with a terrific checklist full of Hall of Famers and yet most all are cheap.
Other insert sets included Hit List, numbered to 10,000; Stop Action, numbered to 4,000; What If…, numbered to 5,000; Will to Win, numbered to 5,000; and an unnumbered Rated Rookies insert set.
While the long term value is not there because of high production, the star value is there. The 1996 Donruss Football set features some of the best photography of any set from that year. The clean design only adds to the clarity of the photos and helps to make them pop. The set is loaded with superstars and Hall of Famers – Dan Marino, Brett Favre, John Elway, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Jim Kelly, Troy Aikman, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Terrell Davis, Cris Carter, Herschel Walker, Andre Reed, Deion Sanders, Junior Seau – too many to mention.
The one thing about the 1996 sets that has held back their values is that the rookie class lacks that one big superstar quarterback to drive demand. There are some good rookies in the set. Terrell Owens and Marvin Harrison are probably the biggest names. Today, limited demand means you can buy a complete set for $20-25, sometimes less
The 1996 Donruss set is not an investment by any means, but it is a good looking set filled with superstars and outstanding photography that looks great in a binder. Unopened boxes can be had today for $30-$35 on eBay. What makes this set special, however, is its place in history. It will never be worth a lot of money by today’s standards, but it is a football card set that led to some great products in the hobby.