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Movies, Niche Cards Give Athletes a Run For Trading Card $$

LAST year, Richard Matthews's trading card company sold L11 million fire-engine trading cards. Next year, he hopes to sell cards with photos of tractor trailers to the United States' 10 million truck drivers. ``It's a niche-type product'' that has a built-in audience, Mr. Matthews says. When he ran an ad in Firehouse Magazine, it generated ``thousands'' in sales, he adds.

Smaller companies that cannot afford expensive licensing agreements with sports leagues are finding other niches. Bon Air Collectibles, Matthews's company in Richmond, Va., paid the Fire Equipment Manufacturers Association $180,000 for a licensing agreement and 6 percent in royalties - peanuts compared with licensing agreements with professional sports leagues.

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The number of trading card manufacturers has grown steadily in recent years, although it is difficult to estimate how many there are. ``Anyone with a printing press can make cards,'' says Camron Bussard, spokesman for cardmaker Upper Deck.

``There's something for everybody,'' says Hector Gomez, owner of the American Hobby Store in Boston. The shelves in his small store are loaded with hundreds of different trading cards. From the movie ``Star Wars'' to Norman Rockwell paintings to the British royal family, few areas have been left untapped.

Interest in entertainment cards has been growing. Three years ago, Roxanne Toser began publishing Non-Sport Update, a quarterly magazine for trading card enthusiasts. Subscriptions have jumped from 5,000 to 20,000, Ms. Toser says.

Best known for its baseball cards, the Topps Company in Brooklyn has been making non-sport cards since 1948. Last year, it sold almost $14 million in non-sport, or ``entertainment'' cards. This represented 15 percent of card sales, a number which has steadily increased, according to Topps spokesman Timm Boyle. But cards based on movie or TV fads can also be risky: ``You really have to strike when the iron is hot,'' Mr. Boyle says, ``Sports cards have a longer shelf life.'' The emphasis, even with traditional sports trading cards, is now on entertainment. Today's cards can stick to walls, change color with heat, and glow in the dark. Paper packages and chewing gum are definitely out.

The Topps Company is no longer No. 1 among trading card companies. Last year, Upper Deck moved to the top spot with $263 million in sales.

Many collectors limit themselves to only one interest, such as a particular movie or sport. Hockey card collector Bob Bourgault says he spends as much as $150 each month. He buys boxes of cards and stores them unopened. If a series has a card featuring a rookie who later becomes famous, collectors will buy the unopened box hoping it contains the valuable card, he explains.

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