Football cards have long played second fiddle to their baseball counterparts, but it appears as if times are changing. As football has exploded in popularity to surpass baseball as America's Pastime, football cards have begun to follow suit.
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The History of Football Cards
The Early Years
As with all sports cards, football cards trace their roots to the days of fierce competition within the tobacco market. The earliest known cards depicting football players are the 1894 Mayo cards produced by the P.H. Mayo & Brother tobacco company. The set consists of 35 cards made up exclusively of players from collegiate Ivy League teams. Fast forward 27 years and the sport's rapid growth spawned the formation of the country's first professional football organization, the National Football League. Sporting goods magnate Albert Spalding, looking to capitalize on the sport's continuing popularity, released a multi-sport set in 1926. The release of the Sports Company set marked the first time that sports cards were used to market products other than tobacco. Featuring just 30 cards, mostly of west coast players, this obscure set continues to fly under the collecting radar and is virtually unknown to most football card collectors.
It was not until 1933 that the American public would have access to additional football cards. These coming in the form of the incredibly popular Sport Kings set issued by gum and candy manufacturer Goudy. Another multi-sport product, this set depicts just three football players. However, they are three of the most iconic players in the sports' long and tradition rich history; Red Grange, Knute Rockne and Jim Thorpe. Two years later, in 1935, the National Chicle Gum Company released the first nationally distributed football card set. Containing a total of 36 cards the set is highlighted by the inclusion of legendary Hall of Fame player, Bronko Nagurski.
The era of the Great Depression and World War II saw a multi-year hiatus from the production of most sports cards. Shortly after the war's conclusion, in 1948, two gum and candy manufacturers saw the potential in producing football cards to capitalize once again on the sports explosive popularity. The Bowman Gum and Leaf Candy Company each produced their first respective football card sets. Each set consisted of about 100 cards and depicted current players from the National Football League. While the Leaf brand only went on to produce one more set, a skip-numbered set in 1949, Bowman continued producing sets, from 1950 through 1955. The Topps Chewing Gum Company bought out Bowman Gum in 1956 and while Topps had produced sets of historic college players in 1950, 1951, and 1955, the year 1956 marked the first of an annual release of football cards by the company that continues to this day.
During the 1960's Topps faced its first licensed competition in the football card marketplace in the form of the Fleer and Philadelphia Gum Companies. Fleer produced some colorful sets from 1960 through 1963 that included key rookie cards of legendary players like Jack Kemp and Don Meredith who were inexcusably left off the Topps' checklists. From 1964 to 1967 the Philadelphia Gum Company secured the rights to produce National Football League (NFL) cards while rival Topps was left to produce cards for the start-up American Football League (AFL). The 1966 Philadelphia set was particularly iconic producing rookie cards of Chicago Bear's greats and future Hall of Famers, Dick Butkus and Gayle Sayers.
Shortly after the leagues merged in 1966, Topps was once again the sole manufacturer of licensed trading cards, starting in 1968 and running until 1989 when a flurry of new manufactures entered the market.
Issued in multiple series until 1973, Topps unintentionally created the first short-prints by reducing the print run of issues released later in the season. The thought process being that as kids attention's turned to other sports, the company didn't want to be left with cases of unsold product. Still seen as a way to simply sell kids gum, the hobby of collecting football cards, as well as other sports cards, started to gain momentum in the late '70's with the formation of cards shows, the establishment of early price guides, and the creation of mail-order businesses.
The Modern Era
It would be several years later, in the early 1980's, that a phenomenon, that would eventually be referred to as "the rookie card craze" caused the collecting of football cards to explode in popularity. As the price for vintage cards from the '50's and 60's began to escalate exponentially, collectors across all sports began to speculate that as time passed a subsequent increase in price of today's rookie cards would occur. What resulted was a buying frenzy that caused Topps to print as much product that they could sell, and more. Dealers, setting up tables at hotels all over America were buying and selling rookie cards by the brick of anywhere from 100 to 500 cards. Seen as the boom era for the hobby, the over saturation of cards on the market morphed into another phenomenon now referred to as the junk wax era. With supply eventually exceeding demand, prices for cards from this time period plummeted leaving many "collectors" disgruntled leading to a mass exodus from the hobby. Manufacturers like Topps were left scratching their heads, as they quickly needed to remedy the notion that while they in fact produced a commodity, the consumer viewed the small pieces of cardboard as potential collectibles.
As previously alluded to, what followed were new entrants to the market that spawned competition and an era in the 1990's now known as the insert era. The creation of limited edition insert sets, randomly inserted in packs was thought to have built in collectible value and the manufacturers were right. For several years '90's inserts were all the rage creating quite the chase for collectors.
Then in the late '90's an event took place that changed the sports card landscape forever. The inclusion of game used memorabilia and autographs into packs of trading cards that have fueled the hobby ever since. With the advent of the online marketplace, card grading and the pursuit of each manufacturer trying to out do the other, the hobby changed from child's play to big business and saw an escalation in pack prices with some reaching hundreds of dollars per pack.
Today the sports card market continues to be driven by the gambling mentality of finding the next big "hit" and football cards are no exception. With highly anticipated draft picks making an NFL impact right out of college, premier rookie cards of the game's top newcommers command huge dollars. While manufactures have tried to address the concerns of those who say that children have been pushed out of the marketplace, it is clear that what was once purely a child's pursuit is now a predominently adult hobby/
For the most part, the collecting base is divided between vintage cards, which are generally considered to be anything produced prior to 1980, and modern cards. While most vintage collectors focus on set completion, many modern collectors are driven by the pursuit of rookie cards and autographed "hits". While vintage cards carry the assurance that in near mint or better condition, they will almost always increase in value, modern collectors speculate on the future value of rookie cards being tied to a players' potential rise to stardom.
The advent of game used memorabilia and autographed cards have added a whole new chase element to the football card genre. High-value insert cards, which are seeded in packs of contemporary trading card products, often carry a tremendous and immediate value on the secondary market. Regardless of which direction your collection takes, there are numerous resources available to aid in your efforts.
Football Card Manufacturers
There are several companies that actively manufacture football cards. Topps and Panini are the only companies with the official NFL trading card license. Upper Deck owns the rights to produce NCAA football cards. Rounding out the pack are Press Pass and SAGE. Neither of these two companies produce licensed football card products (and thus no team logos are visible on their card photography), instead opting to sign various incoming rookies to individual trading card contracts.