Hobby Musings: Gray, Leaf navigating through uncertain times – We are all going through a strange and difficult period in our history right now. The coronavirus pandemic has caused some monumental changes to our world, and everybody has been having to adjust to a new normal with no immediate end in sight. While a relatively small part of our lives in the grand scheme of things, the hobby has also been immensely affected by this. To find out more about how this has impacted Leaf Trading Cards, I had the chance to catch up with, the company’s CEO, Brian Gray.
KS: Brian, we’re obviously living in strange times with the coronavirus pandemic going on. How has it affected Leaf’s operations?
BG: I mean honestly until a couple of weeks ago, we were rolling full steam. We made the decision a few weeks ago that we were going to ship Metal Football, which is one of our biggest releases. We worked double shifts to get it out, and we did.
After that, we decided from that point on we’d be working with a skeleton crew or from home. We have other products ready to ship, but we’re not doing so because of the pandemic. For us, it was a no-brainer to hold products until there’s some semblance of normalcy. With 2/3 of the shops closed, it doesn’t make sense to me to ship new products.
Our ability to get autographs right now is impeded. I think you’ll see a lot of products across the board delayed because of the autograph aspect. There aren’t any cards shows being conducted where you can get a lot of signings done in one place, so the supply isn’t there.
KS: In your conversations with shop owners, collectors and other hobby people, what are the biggest concerns you’ve heard?
BG: Honestly, the biggest concern is that we’ve been riding this massive exciting wave of the hobby being incredible. People seems nervous that this could derail that. I think if it’s short-lived and the pain hobby wide isn’t much worse than projections we’re currently seeing, I think things could snap back.
From store owners and dealers I’ve talked to, the sentiment is that when we’re back, the demand will still be robust and damage will be minimal. I think if people prepared properly over the last few years when business was good, they’ll be better set to manage through this. This is obviously bigger than anything anticipated though, so we’ll have to see.
KS: You’ve seen and done it all in the hobby. How do you think this will affect things in the short and long term?
BG: We’ve been trying to do our part with buyback products and injecting some value in the secondary market by buying cards. We took a few weeks off from buying to let the market set. Cards have actually been holding up pretty well over the last few weeks.
In the short term, I do see some rocky times ahead. I advised people on a podcast that if you need money over the next 60 days, you should sell as I do see values going down. Things could get worse if shipping companies decide to stop shipping non-essential packages.
I do believe cards will be better off five years today than they are now. There are lots of reasons to be positive long term. It is a little troubling right now to see a lack of panic in the hobby. I don’t want to see mass hysteria mind you, but just a little panic around products is healthy, because it shows people are cognitive about what’s going on around them. We have to figure out what the new real and normal is and go from there. Cards may outperform or equally perform the stock market five years from now, but I’m amazed we haven’t seen more short-term fear in the card world with everything going on.
KS: You did get some football out there before things got topsy-turvy. I’ve seen some impressive Joe Burrow autographs out on Twitter. How have fans been responding to cards from this year’s upcoming rookie class, especially the autographs?
BG: Right now, It’s overwhelming. We’re not able to be at full capacity because of the coronavirus concerns, and the market is starving for more football. This is the best rookie class in 10 years, and we may not see another one like this for a while. There are studs across the board and over 20 impact players.
You can see the impact already in the pricing in the market place. The market for products like Leaf Metal and Panini Prizm Draft has been strong. There’s a chance that all of the draft products, if the professional stuff is delayed, could be the only products out there for a while. The company that prints products for all of us is closed, so nothing is coming in. I think we’re at least a couple of weeks away from the breakers needing to get more inventory, but it’s going to happen. Some of those products, I could see some real appreciation there in the short term.
BG: Burrow’s huge and on fire. Tua’s on fire. There’s been good interest in Justin Herbert and the running backs like J.K. Dobbins and Jonathan Taylor. Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Chase Young, there’s just interest across the board. The QB from Hawaii, Cole McDonald, his stuff has been great. He wasn’t in our initial list of prospects to include, but we decided to give him a shot, and people have really been buying his stuff up.
It’s funny how it works. Sometimes it’s hard to figure out who will resonate with collectors. We have bigger names sign for us that don’t sell well, and then there are unknowns who come out of nowhere to be popular. It’s almost like Carson Wentz in a way. Coming out of a school in North Dakota State that hasn’t had a lot of pros, people who like the school flock to his stuff. I think we’re seeing something similar with McDonald.
KS: One product that is slated to release soon is Leaf Valiant Baseball. Is that still due to be released on time?
BG: Flash Baseball is ready and packaged in our facility. Best of Sports is also pretty much ready to go. I sent an email out to everyone saying we’re not going to ship out any products because it doesn’t feel right to do so with stores being closed and the overall uncertainty.
Once the world reopens, we’ll have a few products ready to go. I don’t see any new products coming out in April though, so we’ll likely take it off from shipping and give people a chance to breathe and figure out what’s going on. In the grand scheme of things, our cards, and cards in general, are not the most important thing going on. I’m glad they can help provide some enjoyment and escape for people during these tough times, but I’m not really trying to promote much right now.
One of the great things about the hobby is that you can still enjoy it in a variety of ways even with everything going on. Whether it’s still doing online ordering if you have the funds or even just watching breaks for enjoyment and community, you don’t have to be cut off from it.
KS: One of the calling cards with Valiant is the graded cards that are either 9.5 or 10. For the cards that don’t get that grade though, what happens with them?
BG: Most of them still end up in the product as one of the ungraded autographs. Some of them that end up in there could still be graded that high, but Beckett stops grading them once they hit 20% of the player in the set. So just because one of the other autographs doesn’t get graded, you could still submit it and have a good chance of achieving that high grade. With the cards in Valiant being metal stock, it makes it easier to achieve a better grade with them.