THE SPECIALISTS COLLECTIBLES COLUMN: Exclusive Interview with Leaf CEO Brian Gray on New 2014 Leaf Originals Trading Cards
Jan 11, 2015 - 7:59:02 PM
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In Brief: Leaf CEO Brian Gray talks about which autographs he expects to grab collectors’s attention, surprises for 2014 Leaf Originals Wrestling and what’s ahead for 2015.
By Michael Moore, PWTorch Collectibles specialist
Collectors have been waiting more than two years for another wrestling product from Leaf Trading Cards.
The wait is finally over.
2014 Leaf Originals Wrestling released this weekend with a deep checklist of autographs of main event wrestlers, territorial stars, and a lot of first-time signers. This set includes the first certified autographed trading cards of Dynamite Kid, Blue Meanie, Demolition, Francine, Gangrel, Gerald Brisco, J.J. Dillon, Ken Patera, Kevin Von Erich, Lance Storm, Ole Anderson, Ricky Morton, Robert Gibson, Rikishi, Samu, the Warlord, and others.
It also includes signatures from infrequent signers like Raven, 2 Cold Scorpio, Adam Bomb, Balls Mahoney, Maryse, Goldberg, and Scott Hall, along with frequent signers and top stars like Sting, Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Kevin Nash, and Roddy Piper.
“Our goal is to get guys who have never signed, or can’t sign or won’t sign or what have you,” Leaf CEO Brian Gray said in an exclusive interview with PWTorch.com. “I think we did a pretty good job of bringing in some names that had not signed in forever, or never, and some guys from other organizations besides the very mainstream.”
Each box of 2014 Leaf Originals Wrestling delivers just five cards, all of which are on-card autographs. Boxes are currently selling online for $100-115. There are 12 boxes in a master case, with only 299 total cases made.
Base auto cards feature a white border and are not serial numbered. There are four additional serial numbered parallel sets: yellow (numbered to 99 and lower), blue (25 and lower), red (10 and lower), and black (1/1). In addition, there are also short printed Alternate Art cards, which also have the same parallel structure, but with lower serial numbers.
“It costs a lot of money to do an additional 60 pieces of original art,” Gray said. “It isn’t cheap, but it’s worth it.”
Just like the 2012 set, 2014 Leaf Originals Wrestling is built around the classic design of the historic 1948 Leaf trading card set. Leaf uses artwork instead of photography for the its wrestling line. The 2012 set featured artwork from Brian Kong (@bckongart), while the 2014 product uses art from Steve Stanley (@SteveStanleyArt).
“For the first set, I wanted it to have a really specific feel,” Gray said. “In my head I was thinking of a 1948 sideshow, how the art would’ve looked for that sideshow, because that’s kind of the feeling I get when I look at 48 Leaf. (Cong) achieved that.
“But some collectors told us they wanted more realistic artwork. We listened to our customers. Steve Stanley is one of the best wrestling artists out there. If you know Steve Stanley’s work, he’s phenomenal. This was a good chance to try photo realism, and people overwhelmingly have been pumped. The artwork is at a different level in the collectors’ eyes who have spoken to us so far.”
Collectors can pull randomly inserted redemption cards for a piece of original artwork from Stanley that was used to create 2014 Leaf Originals Wrestling.
Working on the Leaf product was “a nice reunion of sorts” for Stanley, a freelance artist who had done work for WCW.
“It’s been 14 years since my freelance tenure ended with WCW, and I was more than ready to resume doing full color wrestling art,” Stanley told PWTorch.com. “Being able to illustrate these bigger-than-life characters like Sting, Hogan (and) Flair again was all very familiar and a great deal of fun. Lots of drawing board time and some long hours, but that's the way you want it if you're a freelancer."
Each 12-box case includes one marked hot box, which sells for a premium and includes all serial numbered parallel autographs. There are also unmarked hot boxes randomly inserted.
“The dealers told us they liked having that hot box option for customers who were willing to pay a premium price for all parallels,” Gray said. “But there were also some collectors who said to us, ‘Why do you do that? Because the dealer charges more, we never have a shot at it.’ So let’s do it both ways.”
Wrestling Cards, Wrestling Fan
Gray’s knowledge of wrestling’s past is apparent. Both sets of Leaf Originals Wrestling have included an eclectic mix of stars from different territories, promotions, and eras.
“As a kid growing up, clearly I watched wrestling,” Gray said. “I think all young boys in our era did. Here in Dallas we had the Von Erichs and the Freebirds. I’d go to the Sportatorium every weekend, and occasionally to Will Rogers (Coliseum). Friday night at the Sportatorium was a big deal. We’d go down there every Friday night when I was like 12 or 13 years old. The guys put on a great show. It’s obviously changed a lot, but it’s hard to forget those things from when you were a kid.”
Certified autographs have been a part of wrestling cards since 1994, when Action Packed included signatures of Randy Savage and the Undertaker. In 1998 and 1999 Topps produced two sets of WCW trading cards that featured an amazing checklist of certified autographs. Since 2005, when Topps took over the WWE license, autographs have been the driving force behind wrestling cards.
But even with all of the cards by Topps (WWE) and TRISTAR (TNA) over the last several years, Gray noticed there was something missing. He quickly identified a niche.
“I looked at the products that were in the marketplace, especially the Topps stuff, because that’s the primary stuff out there,” Gray said. “This is cool for the WWE stuff, the WWF stuff; for the current guys this is cool, and they incorporate some legends, but what’s really missing here is depth when it comes to those legends. (Topps’s) limitation -- and this is not a knock against them -- their license with WWE has limitations who they can and can’t include. It’s not all their fault.
“When we did this in 2012 for the first time, we said, ‘Let’s get those names that these other guys can’t get, and let’s deliver this stuff in a classic format.’ It caught everybody off guard because nobody expected it to be great. Wrestling products, they’re okay, but they never really got hot. They never really became impossible to find because Topps wasn’t really short printing the stuff.”
2012 Leaf Originals Wrestling was an immediate success with collectors because of the variety of names used in the set. The product had a lot of big names to satisfy casual collectors, such as Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, and Roddy Piper. But what really made the product appealing to hardcore collectors were autographs from wrestlers like Scott Hall, Jake Roberts, Ken Shamrock, “Superstar” Billy Graham, Paul Orndorff, and Jimmy Garvin – wrestlers who had previously signed infrequently or not at all.
“We saw a number of guys early on who were bringing premiums, and we were intrigued by that,” Gray said. “That’s where we realized it’s not always Hogan, Flair, Goldberg, Sting, these big names, that interest people. They’re great, but we need to find guys who are affordable who deliver a punch.”
The autograph checklist for 2014 Leaf Originals Wrestling may be even deeper than that of its predecessor. Names like Hogan, Sting and Flair will appeal to collectors of wrestling and other sports cards, as will signatures from stars like Mike Tyson and Dennis Rodman.
But, hardcore wrestling collectors are already watching eBay for the first Leaf autographs of Dynamite Kid, Kevin Von Erich, Ole Anderson, and J.J. Dillon, among others.
“Dynamite Kid – phenomenal name,” Gray said. “A lot of non-hardcore fans may not appreciate the rarity of that autograph. Couple with that the fact that he lives in England and is not doing well, and it was not easy to pull off. I see him as one of the jackpots of the set. To me, Dynamite Kid is one of those names that people are gonna look back and say, ‘How did they get him?’”
The set features signatures from a number of tag team wrestlers, such as Ax and Smash (Demolition), Warlord and Barbarian (Powers of Pain), Ricky Morton and Robert Gibson (Rock and Roll Express), and Brian Knobbs and Jerry Saggs (Nasty Boys).
In addition, 2014 Leaf Originals also features a four-card subset called “Flair’s Epic Battles,” which features dual signature cards of Flair/Hart, Flair/Hogan, Flair/Morton, and Flair/Piper.
“When you get Flair-Hogan, double signed, on-card, that’s phenomenal,” Gray said.
The 2014 Leaf Originals set was originally planned for 2013, but isn’t seeing the light of day until January 9, 2015. There were several reasons for the delay, such as tracking down some wrestlers to secure their autographs, using on-card autographs instead of stickers, and altering the checklist when big names became available.
“If we would’ve stuck with my original checklist only, we would’ve missed some exciting names,” Gray said. “We would’ve missed Sting. He had that window where he was available, so we took advantage of that window.”
Leaf primarily has avoided using redemptions other than for bonus items like original artwork, but did have to resort to a redemption card when Goldberg’s autograph was not available in time.
“It was worth it to add him at the last second,” Gray explained. “What people don’t like is when you pull lesser names and they’re redemptions. People hate that. If you you’re going to pull a lesser name, that’s one thing, but making you mail in or log in for it is even worse.”
Leaf has added a surprise for collectors in its 2014 Originals Wrestling set: a signed card of Bobby Heenan that includes a swatch of a ring jacket that was obtained directly from “the Brain.” That card was originally planned for Leaf Q, a high end multi-sport product that released earlier this week.
“We said, ‘You know what, we’ve got enough cards for Q. Why don’t we take Bobby Heenan and spice up (Leaf Originals) Wrestling and put something extra cool in there,’” Gray said.
Plans for 2015
Gray said Leaf plans to release its Originals Wrestling product annually, with the 2015 version scheduled for the end of the year. Leaf has already secured some autographed cards for that set, including Chris Jericho, Rob Van Dam, and Booker T. Booker was originally planned for 2014, but his autograph was not returned in time.
“We didn’t want to use a redemption, because we didn’t feel like he was Goldberg level,” Gray said. “But he’s an interesting name that some people will want, so let’s get him for next year.”
Gray understands the value of mixing up the wrestlers in each year’s set. While big names like Hogan and Flair drive sales, using the same wrestlers over and over could damage interest in the product. An abundance of autographs could also hurt the collectability and secondary market value of wrestlers’s autographs.
“I can’t imagine we’re not going to use Flair, Hogan, and Piper,” Gray said. “But, you might see Iron Sheik take the next set off. Maybe not. But we’re going to start taking a break on some of the mainstay guys to have a year off to breathe. If you keep making cards of the same guys every year, it will get old.”
There are plenty of wrestlers Gray would like to see in an upcoming Leaf product, but there are always roadblocks.
“I wish all the Von Erichs were around,” Gray said. “That was my crew. We loved them here. We’d love to see The Rock sign some cards, but I don’t think it’s gonna happen. He wants so much money it’s staggering. The cards could never sell for what he wants. I’d love to have Jesse Ventura. There are a lot of guys I’d love to have.”
Gray is also brainstorming ideas for a second wrestling set each year that would be different from Leaf Originals Wrestling. That could be a more affordable retail product that uses sticker autographs, or a high end wrestling product of cut signatures.
“I think in the first half of the year, you’re going to see a cut signature wrestling release come out of Leaf,” Gray said. “We bought some major accumulations of cuts of deceased and some living-but-rare autographs.”
Leaf will also continue to include wrestlers’s autographs in multi-sport and celebrity-driven products. Pop Century has been arguably Leaf’s most well-known set for several years, featuring autographs of actors and actresses, singers, wrestlers, and other athletes.
“We’re in the process of looking for who our next big name will be (for 2015 Pop Century),” Gray said. “We have a crazy habit of pulling huge names: Harrison Ford, Britney Spears, Al Paccino, Jennifer Lopez, Sarah Palin, Lindsay Lohan. We have an amazing track record of getting people to sign that no one ever thought possible.”
Like wrestling, Pop Century is driven not just by superstar autographs, but by a variety of autographs from all segments of pop culture that appeal to a wide audience. The 2014 Pop Century product included autographs of everyone from Disney starlet Bella Thorne to 80s rocker Lita Ford, from “Austin Powers’” Verne Troyer to “The Walking Dead’s” Norman Reedus.
“That’s what Pop Century is really all about. It’s very similar to wrestling, in that it’s about emotions from the past,” Gray said. “We just signed Tiffani Amber Thiessen. Every guy in the world watched ‘Saved by the Bell’ and thought Kelly Kapowski was a hottie. We just got Vanessa Marcil. The hot girls always sell.
“You come out with a card of Weird Al Yankovic and you think, ‘Ah, that’s a common autograph,’ but it’s not. People like him. People want the weird, quirky and memorable. They want what they grew up with. For some people in our hobby it’s Lindsay Lohan and that era. For me it’s a touch older, it’s more of a Nicole Eggert, ‘Charles in Charge’ kind of thing. Everyone has their own thing, the guys they like and the girls they like.”
[ FYI: More information on 2014 Leaf Originals Wrestling, including a full checklist, can be found at LeafTradingCards.com. Follow the brand on Twitter @Leaf_Cards.
PWTorch Collectibles Specialist Michael Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MMooreWriter.
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