The year 1989 marked the beginning of the modern era for pro football cards. From 1968-1988, Topps had that card market all to themselves. In 1989, Score, who had entered the card market the year before in baseball, debuted in football. Topps's other new competitor that year was Pro Set, a Dallas-based company founded by Ludwell Denny. Denny had gained a card license that year after making and selling other NFL memorabilia in previous years. Denny not only got Pro Set cards into the stores, but he flooded the market with Pro Set product. In fact, some existing card stores that were in business in 1989 still have unopened packs in their shops. Denny, however, managed to produce football sets through 1993, though many remain unopened and unsold to collectors. In 1994, Pro Set folded, a casualty of Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
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Pro Set did, however, generate excitement when they arrived. Unlike Topps had been doing, Pro Set made rookie cards of actual rookies (The emergence of Pro Set and Score led to Topps changing their practices that season). They offered more color and action shots than Topps did. Further, Denny was said to have state-of-the-art printing presses for his product, which could make and issue cards very quickly. For their first card offering, Pro Set released their cards in three series. The 1989 rookies were found primarily in the second series. One of the key rookies of the set is Barry Sanders, a running back who was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall Of Fame in 2004. The Sanders rookie card is #494 in the 561-card inaugural offering from Pro Set.
Unlike Topps and Score, though, Pro Set did not feature a shot of Sanders as a Lion on the front. The shot Pro Set used was from Sanders's time at Oklahoma State, where he won the Heisman Trophy as a junior in 1988 (He was given permission to enter the NFL Draft after his school was cited for NCAA violations). Normally, I'd criticize a company for using a college shot on an NFL card. This was new territory for football cardmakers in 1989, so I won't hold that against them. Besides, Classic and Star Pics hadn't entered the card market with cards aimed at college draft picks. Still, the shot is a nice one, showing Sanders looking to break into the clear against Nebraska defenders. In the bottom right hand corner of the photo is a snipe which reads, "Pro Set Prospect No. 1 Pick." Across the top of the card are a Lions helmet, Sanders's name and position, and the NFL logo. Across the bottom is Pro Set's name and its designation as "The Official NFL Card," a distinction they held through 1991. This card is red bordered with thin white stripes on the side which gives the card a gridiron motif.
On the back is a shot of Sanders that would have been more appropriate on the front. He is pictured with his coach, Wayne Fontes, holding up his Lions jersey. Below the photo are his name, number, and vitals. To the right of the photo are a list of his key collegiate achievements, as well as some facts about his draft selection. Below the text are the Pro Set Logo, the logo of the NFL Players Association, and the card number. The back has a white border. On the bottom edge of the border are a 1989 copyright and an indication that this is an official NFL card. Some of the text is a little small, and the photo selection could have been better, but Pro Set introduced a card that was thinner, brighter, and less formulaic than Topps. The value of this card, according to the March 2005 issue of Beckett Football magazine, is $8. Had the print run not been so large, I'm sure the Sanders RC from Pro Set would command a higher value, as the Sanders RC from Score ($40) does.
The NFL career of Barry Sanders lasted twice as long as Pro Set. Unlike Pro Set, Sanders left on his own terms, and more than fulfilled his potential. On one hand, Pro Set changed the way cards were made, with an emphasis on action shots. On the other hand, Pro Set also redefined mass production to the card market. Unfortunately, other companies followed Pro Set's lead, making virtually every card from that era permanently inexpensive. Those that survived the type of mass production Pro Set started simply spread their mass production over several lines of cards over the course of a season. Pro Set was onto a good thing during its years in the card hobby, pumping creativity and excitement into a hobby that had been monopolized by Topps and a business-as-usual approach. Unfortunately, Pro Set didn't know when to quit. Had they shown some restraint, Pro Set might still have been a hobby force. Instead, they went the way of the Canton Bulldogs and faded into history.
Related review - 1989 Barry Sanders Score RC: http://www.epinions.com/content_150760164996
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