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For Topps, Success Is in the Cards : Promotion: In fighting increased competition, the company will include valuable specimens from its past in the packs it distributes this year.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Did your mother throw away all your baseball cards? Would you like to get some of them back?

You may get the chance next year. Topps Chewing Gum Inc. is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its first card by giving away 300,000 vintage cards--including the 1952 Mickey Mantle worth $8,000--with its regular 1991 packs that sell for 50 cents.

The promotion is a marketing coup for the leader in the sports card business, at a time when the competition has never been so hot. Half a dozen companies are after a share of the multimillion-dollar industry, which no longer caters just to kids but also to adult investors reliving those days when they bought cards to flip on the playground or stick in the spokes of their bicycles.

“It’s ferocious--fierce,” said Ed Deke, a part-time collector who runs a sports card show in Fairfield, Conn. “A lot of people have gotten into it.”

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Baseball cards still make up 80% to 90% of the companies’ business. But some of them have expanded to--or deal exclusively in--football, basketball and hockey cards, as well as non-sport cards featuring heroes real and imaginary.

The industry is so lucrative that the NBA has its own line of cards this season. Pro Set Inc., Dallas maker of football and hockey cards, will add a line of golf cards in mid-December. Upper Deck Co. is adding hockey cards.

Next year’s baseball cards from Score of Westport, Conn., will feature 13 “Dream Team” players in various stages of dress, from a bare-chested Jose Canseco to Will Clark in a double-breasted suit.

And more companies are expanding into non-sport products, like Pro Set’s Music Superstar cards and Upper Deck’s Comic Ball cards--Looney Tunes characters in baseball garb.

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Topps makes cards with Batman, the Simpsons and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Among other competitors in the card business are Fleer Corp. of Philadelphia; Donruss, a division of the Bannockburn, Ill., candy maker Leaf Inc., and the Canadian firm O-Pee-Chee.

Opinions are split on whether all these companies can survive, with the glut of products on the shelf. While analysts think the industry will thrive in the 1990s, the same may not be true for individual companies.

“The me-toos, the ones that don’t really have a strong franchise and a very big base of customers, are going to find it extremely difficult to exist,” said Stanley Lanzet, an analyst with Arnhold and S. Bleichroeder Inc. in New York.

Topps began in 1951 with a deck of baseball cards that could be used to play a game. It made its first individual cards in 1952, such as the Mantle card, the Roy Campanella card, now worth $1,300, and the Eddie Matthews card, worth $1,750.

Fleer and Donruss entered the scene in 1981; Upper Deck joined in 1989. But Topps is still the big kid on the block, with $246 million in revenue in its latest fiscal year, up from $198 million the year before.

The other companies are private except Fleer, which went public in June and reported $119 million in sales in the first nine months of 1990.

Topps’ customers could make some bucks of their own with the 1991 promotion, in which Topps will give away at least one of every card it ever made.

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Most of the cards will go directly into the 1991 packs, although the company will insert redemption certificates for the more valuable cards, like the 1952 Mantle, the 1953 Willy Mays worth $1,600, the 1954 Ted Williams worth $2,800 and the 1955 Roberto Clemente worth $1,050.

Even a common player card from 1967 is worth up to $16.

Topps will also give away one complete set from 1952.

Spokesman Ken Liss said the company approached collectors for some of the giveaway cards, but found quite a few collecting dust around its Brooklyn, N.Y., headquarters.

“I think it’s a great promotion,” said Richard O. Rieger, an analyst with Ladenburg, Thalmann & Co. Inc. “It’s like they found old cards in a warehouse and held an auction.”

In addition to special promotions, Topps is using television advertising to hype its cards, as is Upper Deck.

Upper Deck also is leasing space on the boards at three NHL arenas and using players like Wayne Gretzky to hawk its upscale cards, which cost twice as much as Topps’ and are printed with an anti-counterfeiting hologram.

“We have our niche in the marketplace,” said Jay McCracken, Upper Deck vice president of sales. “We’ve seen a lot of the competition come at us this year with new ideas, and that means we’ll just have to work that much harder.”

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That may be the companies’ key to success. Sports cards are cheap enough to make the industry more or less recession-proof--a pack of 15 Topps cards costs 50 cents--and the number of hobbyists is growing. But analysts still question whether there’s room for all the products.

“We do hear stories the product isn’t selling through as fast as a year ago--not necessarily our stuff, but the product in general. And there’s a tremendous proliferation of (card) shows these days. I think yesterday we had four within 20 miles in this area,” McCracken said from Upper Deck headquarters in Yorba Linda, Calif.

“When you spread yourself so thin, obviously not everyone is going to do well. There are so many products and so many dealers. But we are still seeing a lot of people come into the hobby.”


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