LABOR WOES FOUL SPORTS CARDS

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The Major League Baseball strike is forcing some sports card marketers to rethink their pitches.

Donruss Trading Cards, Bannockburn, Ill., has already shipped its first 1995 series of baseball cards, but is considering cutting back shipments of its premium brand cards.

"We may cut back [production] by as much as 50%," said Vince Nauss, marketing director. "Every card company has to be looking at expenditures across the board. The longer the strike goes on, the more critical it becomes. We have a lot on the drawing board and will determine when it's best to move forward." N.W. Ayer & Partners, Chicago, handles print ads as well as promotions.

No. 1 trading card marketer Fleer Corp., Mount Laurel, N.J., is also cutting back. This year's production will be reduced 10%, a company spokesman said. Fleer accounted for about 26% of trading card sales in 1994, according to Capital City Distribution, a Madison, Wis., hobby shop distributor that tracks results from 3,500 retailers.

The baseball strike began Aug. 12, canceling the rest of the 1994 season, the World Series and threatening 1995. For the $2 billion trading card industry, an early season National Hockey League lockout exacerbated the situation.

Cameron Bruzzard, group manager-marketing services, Upper Deck, Carlsbad, Calif., said there may be a residual effect on other sports. In 1994, the company offset sluggish baseball card sales with a banner football and basketball card year.

The company hopes to rekindle baseball fan interest with a special edition Collector's Choice set created for the traditional collector. Officials expect to market 15 to 20 new products under an advertising budget expected to be around $10 million. Louis London, St. Louis, is Upper Deck's agency.

"If the strike ended quickly and all parties were happy, collectors would begin picking them up again. The card companies have already printed their first [1995] series of cards. The value will hold. If the strike continues, those will stagnate," said Tom Mortenson, editor, Sports Collectors Digest.

"Baseball still accounts for 50% of the revenue of the industry and also accounts for the bulk of the collectors," said Frank J. O'Connell, CEO of SkyBox International, Durham, N.C. SkyBox is No. 2 with about 14% of the market.

SkyBox is bolstering marketing of its premium football and basketball card lines, and recently signed NBA rookie Grant Hill as its spokesman. Rockett, Burkhead, Lewis & Winslow, Raleigh, is SkyBox's agency.

"They'll probably advertise less, hunker down and wait until it's over," said Alan Silverman, a VP and analyst with Shields & Co., a New York investment brokerage.

At No. 3 Topps Co., New York, with about 11% of the market, "We produced fewer cards than any time in 30 years because of demand and the labor stuff," said a company spokesman. Grey Advertising is Topps' agency.

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