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An industry reshuffles to recapture its youth

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Summertime is when baseball's pennant races heat up. Too bad the same can't be said for interest in baseball cards. Fleer, the New Jersey company responsible for breaking the long-running Topps baseball-card monopoly in 1981, went out of business in May, citing sluggish sales and debts approaching $40 million. It was sold at auction last month to rival Upper Deck for $6.1 million. In addition, the Major League Baseball Players Association decided not to renew next season's card license for cardmaker Donruss - a major blow.

"This is huge news because in the last six weeks we've reached a real turning point in the card industry," says Rocky Landsverk, editor of Tuff Stuff, a monthly collectibles magazine. "For the past 10 years, we had too many cards out there. This should help clean some of that up."

The baseball-card industry, once an innocent childhood realm and then a speculative hotbed for collectors in the 1990s, is now scrambling to regain relevance. Executives and veteran observers say the recent shakeup may help stanch the bleeding after years of saturation and soaring prices. At the same time, all agree that the demographic responsible for making baseball cards a flourishing enterprise - kids - must be courted in earnest.

"Everything got too complicated," says Alan Narz, owner of Big League Cards in Orlando, Fla. "There was just too much of everything. No one could keep up with it and there was no commonality for collectors. It needs to be simple again so people will want to build [complete] sets and stay excited about it."

Baseball-card sales have plunged 15 percent annually during the past five years, analysts say. Sports card revenues as a whole peaked at $1.2 billion in 1991; this year, says Scott Kelnhofer of industry publication Card Trade, sales will drop to $260 million. Baseball accounts for 45 percent of all sports-card sales, well ahead of football, basketball, and hockey.

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