The 1990s were the visual equivalent of a junk food binge. This was the era of sports fandom that gave rise to additive colors like teal and purple in uniforms, hydraulics in sneakers and Christian Laettner hair. The paragons of actual human performance were Michael Jordan and Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mia Hamm and Mike Tyson, athletes who combined an unheard of level of speed, strength and grace. But their rise was marketed with a never-seen-before design language best described as the neon fantasy version of an MC Hammer concert.
We were eating bubble gum by the foot and playing with Gak and both adolescents and adults alike were hoarding Beanie Babies and Troll dolls and Pokemon cards because trickle down economics didn’t work and the only safe economic bet of any age is that overconsumption is an intrinsic American right. Naturally what was happening in pop culture crossed over to sports marketing. Nowhere was that exchange more apparent than in the trading card market. Just ahead of the recession, Time Magazine published article in 1987 speculating that trading cards were a safer bet than the stock market, given that the industry’s sales had doubled to $100 million in the previous two years. By 1992, trading cards were a $1.5 billion industry.
Driving that growth were companies who’d benefited from the Fleer company's monopoly-busting antitrust lawsuit against Topps in 1980, which opened up the market to competitors. Topps still had exclusive rights to MLB and staked their share of the field to the historical archives they could mine and repackage. Upper Deck took advantage of image-treating technology (think the very early iteration of Photoshop) to set the market standard in photography, saturating the color of the outfield grass or sharpening an athlete’s features in an up-close action shot.
Angling to stand out among a crowd that was essentially selling the same athletes on the same 3.5 by 2.5 slices of cardboard, Fleer made a bet that would set them as the standard bearer of 1990s era sports design. The company had just been purchased from its founding family (who invented Chiclets gum and later Double Bubble) and in 1990 brought in as vice president of marketing Jeff Massien, a veteran of Donruss trading cards who’d most recently done a stint in the stationary industry. Massien quickly sussed out the particulars of the booming market.
"I almost got stripped of my hide for saying this at a corporate meeting but the trading card category during those boom years was very much like a ponzi scheme or a pyramid game. It was all driven by potential future resale value," Massien says. "If I can sell a card I bought for $1 to you for $2, that’s okay if you can sell it to somebody else for $4 and it’s okay for the person who paid $4 because they can sell it for $6. But eventually, the poor schmo at the end who paid $10 for this piece of cardboard looks around and he can’t find anybody who’ll pay more, just like with a chain letter. I would like to think that my puny contribution to the trading card category was the realization that if you took standard consumer packaged goods marketing techniques and applied it to a pyramid scam, you could make that pyramid a helluva lot bigger and the scam would last a helluva lot longer."
Massien realized that trading card manufacturers were all selling the same athletes to the same consumers but figured that he could convince both the 12-year-old fan and the 40-year-old speculator to buy Fleer's Michael Jordan card over its competitors based what the company did to the card itself to assure additional value. That meant out-designing the rest of the field.
"What we had to do as Fleer was design. That’s the turf we staked out, that became our differentiator in the trading card marketplace. One year our slogan was 'Different by Design,' but that was our intent every year. We had the hot graphics. We had the stuff that sizzled."
Massien quickly hired creative director Jean MacLeod, who’d caught his eye with the extravagant die-cut and foil stamped invitations she’d created working for a marketing agency for Atlantic City casinos looking to attract high rollers. Their standard practice was that Massien and the marketing team figured out which athletes to feature in specially designed sets that would be peppered among standard packs of cards and then Massien, MacLeod and her band of designers would come up with an idea that removed those athletes from the familiar backgrounds of ballparks and basketball courts. Based on the title and the theme, MacLeod and her team of freelance designers would pitch Massien on innovative ways to chop and screw the cards.
"They were expensive to do but at the time, what they said to me was, 'throw money at it,'" MacLeod remembers. When she first started at Fleer, MacLeod had just come from a design conference where she'd met a guy who manufactured specialty CD jewel boxes for record labels, one of which was molded in the shape of a baby doll head. From there, she realized that if Fleer was going to push the envelope in card production, the in-house cardboard cutting machinery at Fleer's bubblegum factory wasn't going to cut it. So she enlisted a new chain of manufacturers to carry out the next level wave of trading cards she imagined.
For the popular EX Century set, each card required a seven-step process, first printing on paper, then foil stamping and die-cutting the primary image. After that, another layer was printed on plastic for the front, a different layer printed on plastic for the back, the whole thing glued together and then cut with a separate machine. The setup was so cumbersome that printers set up jigs to make sure that the paper landed precisely on the plastic.
"The hardest ones we ever did was when we did Metal," MacLeod says. "We always had a line of cards called Metal but then we actually did them on metal one year and die-cut the metal so it was rounded edges. That set, every time they laid down an ink they had to run it through an oven to have it adhere. Each layer between each color had to be run through an oven so it could dry before they put the next one on. It turned out so nice." The line was a runaway hit at the time and prized cards from that era, like the 1997-98 Kobe Bryant that sold for $37,665 in 2012, still resonate with collectors as iconic examples of the style.
"Consumers liked foil. They liked shiny. They liked glitter. Just like animals," Massien says. "If you could take a design and make it pop by doing physical applications to the cardboard, that’s what really drove a set, from a design quality standpoint. The more bells and whistles, you couldn’t overdesign a card as long as the player remained in the foreground. You can’t overglitz it. So that’s what we did."
Flush with consumer demand and given the okay to spend on production, there were few design concepts that Massien would shoot down. His lone deal-breaker was that for all the bells and whistles on the final product, the athlete had to remain in the hero of every card. That directive to the Fleer team came just as computer technology made it easier to digitally manipulate images. Previously, designers had to rent time on massive Sci-Tek computers at an hourly rate in order to color treat or correct a sheet of negatives. It was costly, slow and only allowed one tweak for an entire slate of cards. If the reds on a particular negative were amped up, for instance, they were altered for the entire set.
When the Mac IIci hit the market at the end of 1989 it made design tools more readily available. The PC's memory could be expanded to 80 MB and allowed graphic designers to layer images, creating larger files. One such designer who took advantange was MacLeod's husband, Earl Arena, who Massien brought in as a freelancer to design Fleer's Desert Storm pack in 1993. Arena was soon a permanent contractor whose design philosophy ran louder and more vivid than MacLeod's, the perfect compliment to his wife's expertise in physical manufacturing.
New tech meant that MacLeod and Arena could isolate athletes and remove them from the court or field and drop them into various backgrounds, in front of lightning fields or illustrated cityscapes, which soon became a Fleer trademark. Together, they came up with the idea of creating collages of an athlete's image to use as background behind a primary image, a hallmark of Fleer's ultrapremium line called Flair. The classed up design sold for $5 per pack, rather than the normal $1 or $2, and MacLeod designed special hard display boxes for collectors that added an air of prestige (and an added must-have accessory) to the line.
The bigger files and access to different font styles via computer led Arena to one of the most well-known insets in collecting, the Jambalaya set. Foil coated and oval-shaped, the set featured an A-list checklist of NBA players (including Jordan and Kobe Bryant), intensely saturated background colors and an instantly recognizable scripted font.
"I don’t even remember how I came up with that," Arena says. "At the time you see a lot of people doing free hand type, we were looking at a lot of fonts that had a free hand look but that could save us time. I think they were house fonts at the time. We were taking the fonts and using them as backgrounds and then colorizing them." Jambalaya cards still routinely fetch between $3,000-$5,000 on the resale market, with even marginal players going for over $1,000.
By the mid-90s, with most companies hitched to MLB and an impending strike, Fleer concentrated its design and production attention on NBA inserts. "Compared to other trading card companies," Massien says, "basketball was far more important to Fleer than any other company and baseball was less important to Fleer than any other company. I put my money on the NBA." Four years in and Massien had been promoted to President and COO of Fleer and its corporate offices had moved from the old bubble gum factory at 10th and Somerville in a run down section of North Philadelphia to a corporate park in Mount Laurel. Over that stretch the company had been sold to Marvel, which merged Fleer with SkyBox, creating a juggernaut which relied heavily on the freedom and accessibility the NBA granted in design.
"I liked Michael Jordan a lot and Dennis Rodman," Arena says. "Rodman had that feeling that we were trying to get across in some of the basketball sets, that hip-hop feeling. So I would research a lot of hip hop stuff in New York and what t-shirts people were wearing, albums, things that were influenced by this culture that I was trying to, I guess, push in basketball. Basketball is just another game but to people that were playing it and to people that liked to go to games, they were a little more adventuresome than baseball. Their attitude about everything seemed more free and that’s basically what allowed us to get a little more creative. It was hard sometimes to bring that into ice hockey because that just doesn’t have the same feeling."
By that point, though, the collectibles bubble was already on its way to bursting. The SkyBox merger and the flooded marketplace led to more and more extreme design one-upmanship that exploited 90s buzzwords rather than boundary pushing artwork. In 1995 Topps’ rolled out Stadium Club "super premium" cards followed that included "virtual reality" cards in every pack. Massien left Fleer after the 1995 sets hit the market. By 1998, the New York Times Magazine covered Fleer/Skybox's redesign:
This fall, Fleer/Skybox -- the venerable company that makes collector cards for sports fans -- is giving its line of basketball cards (''N.B.A. Hoops'') an overhaul designed to appeal to inner-city kids and the suburban youth who love to emulate their style. What this means is that in addition to the traditional stats and gutsy team history, the players are presented in hip-hop style. Patrick Ewing of the New York Knicks is transformed into ''Ew the Man.'' (''This Beast of the East has more heart than 20 brothers in a Land Cruiser.'') Shaquille O'Neal is ''Shaq Fu, large and in charge.'' Even the whitebread Keith Van Horn gets funked up. Sort of. ''You're from the W.A.C.,'' his card informs, ''but your game's anything but.''
With the category collapsing through the end of the decade, the industry moved to memorabilia-driven marketing. Card companies chopped up everything from game-worn jerseys, to bits of sneaker to shards of bats. MacLeod's emphasis went creating cool packaging to designing packs so that buyers couldn't figure out which packs included the weightier add-ins. "Once they got into memorabilia all of that stopped because all of the money went into memorabilia. That was like '97, '98. All the fun stuff kinda stopped," she says.
Massien ran two other companies before getting a law degree and practicing for several years. MacLeod and Arena still run a design firm in Medford, N.J., which primarily deals in packaging. But those seven-layer, foil stamped, neon colored, UV coated trading cards they created won't ever fade away.