Rookies fueling football card sales

With the NFL season barely past its halfway point, it would be premature to make any declarations about how things will wind up on the field. But with more than two months worth of football card products still to come, it’s not too early to declare this to be a championship season for football card sales.

“The numbers versus last year are up significantly,” said Richard Seidlitz, director of licensing for NFL Properties. “The fact that our products are performing well in the secondary market is a sign that the companies are managing their products well. While the rookie crop has been a substanial driver for sales early on, I just think the interest in football overall is driving this business. The NFL has never been bigger. We’re seeing substantial increases in card sales at retail, which is not indicative of a hard-core collector but more of the casual fan. So I believe the business is moving in the right direction, from a category standpoint.”

Few in the industry are surprised by the fact that football card sales are doing well this year, but they’re still impressed by the steady demand.

“It’s been on par with what we had expected, and we were expecting a big year,” said Topps’ Clay Luraschi. He pointed out two unique aspects of this year’s rookie class – it’s not only deep, but it’s also one that had been attracting the interest of NFL fans since early last season. “In the past, you might get two or three marquee players coming out of college, but if they aren’t playing well after a month or so, the market decides if it’s pass or fail for the whole season,” Luraschi said. “This was so deep that it left room for any number of players to emerge.”

Ben Ecklar, senior football brand manager for Donruss/Playoff, agreed.

“There have been more than 20 rookies who’ve put the ball in the end zone, with five of those players either coming from the late rounds of the draft (Bruce Gradkowski, Wali Lundy and Marques Colston) or weren’t drafted at all (Mike Bell and Hank Baskett). We were able to include their rookie cards and even autographed rookie cards into our early releases.”

Knowing that card sales would be higher this season, card makers had some challenges in being prepared with enough autographs and memorabilia items to put into products.

“We made sure we had plenty of autographs, more than we’ve had in the past,” said Gregg Kohn, football product manager for Upper Deck. “Especially since every product, from the low-end offerings to the high-end stuff, has been in demand. So we didn’t want to leave anything short.”

The increase in football card revenues comes despite the fact the three licensed NFL card makers are limited to 12 brands in 2006, down from 13 brands each a year ago. Seidlitz believes the increase in card revenues for this year will help football gain overall market share for the trading card category. And while the league welcomes the revenue increases that come along with a highly anticipated rookie class, Seidlitz hopes for more consistent returns in the future.

“Certainly, we want to keep the momentum from a season like this,” Seidlitz said. “Whereas other licensed products do well when the league or specific teams are doing well, cards are a real player-driven category that is dependent on strong rookies. For the long term, in order to have a healthy industry, we don’t want these peaks and valleys. What’s happening at the mass retail level is encouraging, as is what the companies are doing from a merchandising standpoint. That’s setting the foundation for bigger years to come.”

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