When we think back to something that happened 25 years ago, we all interpret the timeline differently.
If you’re a seasoned collector who’s been on the hobby rollercoaster ride from the 1980s to the present day, 25 years seems like a long time. If you’re a newer collector and got into the hobby in the last decade or even earlier, it’s an old time.
For collectors, junk wax defines the 1990s like disco defines the 1970s. We’ve been through that era and enjoyed it, but the world could only take part of it.
But when you look beyond the overproduction and proliferation that has overshadowed some incredible products and the companies that made them, you find forgotten stories that novice collectors find hard to believe.
To illustrate our point, consider the unimaginable event that occurred in the winter of 1996-1997. Marvel Entertainment has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in a U.S. bankruptcy court in Wilmington, Delaware.
Marvel Entertainment Group explained at the time that the Chapter 11 filing was voluntary. The move, he said, was to allow shareholders Ronald Perelman and Chase Manhattan Bank to inject $525 million into the company.
AOL reported at the time that the move was necessitated by the inability of holders of bonds issued by Marvel’s holding companies to reach an agreement regarding any alternative plans for the company’s future.
Obviously, despite the success of Batman movies and animated programs throughout the decade, some people around the table didn’t know that maybe Spider-Man and maybe Iron Man and the Hulk and, well, all of the Avengers could make great movie characters. .
Marvel CEO and President Scott Sassa outlined the situation in AOL’s report.
“We would have preferred to recapitalize Marvel without having to seek court assistance, but the bondholders’ actions prevented that approach,” Sassa said. “The key to putting Marvel on the right track for a vibrant and profitable future is a quick resolution to this situation, and we want to continue that.”
Sassa said the company was taking actions that were “not typical in this situation.” They intended to pay all their bills and continue doing business as usual. They also owned Toy Biz, and Marvel was excited about the market for making toys featuring their characters.
Marvel officials stressed that the bankruptcy protection was not a “Pro Set type scare,” referring to the Dallas-based sports card maker that disappeared from the recreation landscape a few years earlier.
Interestingly, Panini was not included in the bankruptcy. Marvel Entertainment acquired the Italian company then known for its European soccer stickers and sticker albums in 1994, when the United States hosted the FIFA World Cup.
Marvel and the Hobby
The relationship between the hobby of sports collecting and the world of comic books was special in the 1980s and 1990s. Many sports card shows, big or small, had a comic book crossover. Many sports card stores had sections of their retail space devoted to comic books. Many comic book stores sold boxes of unopened wax sports cards, had a display case or two with vintage cards, inserts and rookies and card supplies.
The reason for the marriage was that both product lines had the same distribution pipelines. However, there was not much crossover between collectors. Some sports collectors dabbled in comic book collecting, but comic book collectors were generally not sports collectors.
Marvel tried to cross that line and bring the two universes together.
In 1992, Marvel purchased Fleer, the Philadelphia-based supplier of Double Bubble, which was the first American brand of bubble gum produced and successfully marketed in 1928. Fleer also produced sports cards, beginning with a game of baseball cards in 1923. They got into football. card market in 1960, and as we all know they produced basketball cards starting in 1986. The Fleer Michael Jordan rookie card from that year remains the most coveted basketball card in the hobby. Marvel spent $540 million on Fleer.
As Marvel tried to branch out and open up new divisions, an entry into the red sports card market was inevitable. However, the 1994 Major League Baseball strike and loss of the World Series crippled sports card makers. Baseball card sales plummeted and the market never rebounded to where it was in the early 1990s.
The same year as the baseball strike, the NHL experienced a lockout that lost half a season. The NBA was also going through its various work stoppages. Sales of sports cards declined, but the high royalties established at the start of the decade prevented manufacturers from succeeding.
While manufacturers were still paying leagues and players’ associations exorbitant royalties that had been negotiated when sports card sales were much higher than they were in the mid-1990s, the corporate upheaval began. In 1995, Fleer acquired SkyBox International for $150 million, meaning Marvel now owned a bigger company called Fleer/SkyBox International. However, while card sales were weak, the comic book market was also down sharply.
Panini, meanwhile, did well with its sticker books. Marvel had acquired licenses for Panini to produce Disney sticker books. However, two factors were working against Panini. Although football stickers and albums continued to do well in Europe, a combination of Disney characters being at a low point and the US market’s failure to embrace sticker books worked against Panini and Marvel.
Marvel had shut down the Fleer factory after acquiring SkyBox. In 1998, Double Bubble was sold to Concordia Confections, a Canadian company. Six years later, Chicago’s Tootsie Roll bought the brand.
The grass isn’t always greener
In 1998, Marvel put Fleer up for sale for the price of $30 million. Alex and Roger Grass, a father-son team, purchased Fleer and based the business out of the Philadelphia area. Alex Grass was the founder of the Rite Aid pharmacy chain.
With Roger Grass running the company, Fleer had a six-year run that included acquiring a WWE license.
Upper Deck reportedly offered to buy the company for $25 million in 2004. The deal was turned down. A year later, the company ceased producing trading cards and filed an assignment for the benefit of creditors, akin to Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Upper Deck stepped in and purchased the Fleer and SkyBox brands for 6 .1 million.
The scenario that no one could imagine in 1997 is that within a decade Panini had become one of the strongest sports card companies in the industry. The company had acquired Donruss, which included the Playoff, Pinnacle, and Action Packed brand families. Along with several former Playoff and Pinnacle employees, as well as several former Beckett employees, Panini took over the NBA market and remained strong throughout the 21st Century.
Today, the idea of Marvel going bankrupt is inconceivable. After all, Iron Man is an Avenger, and look at all the money Tony Stark has.
And if Marvel wants to get back into card gaming, Stark Industries may be the only company in the world that can outbid Fanatics for the sports card licenses it just acquired.