Brian Gray Quits As Leaf CEO Under Unclear Circumstances

August 29, 2023

Brian Gray is one of the best-known people in the sports card industry. He has worked in the hobby, filling one capacity for another for three decades.

But for the last 13 years, he has been chiefly known as the CEO of Leaf Trading Cards. But now that news has surfaced that Brian Gray is quitting as Leaf CEO, we are left with many questions about the company and the hobby’s future.

Not so long ago, Brian was talking about how excited he was regarding the future of Leaf. And now he has announced that he is leaving the company. So, it makes sense to ask, what happened in the interim?

Check prices for Leaf Trading Cards on eBay

News of Brain Gray quitting as Leaf CEO

On August 25th, Brian Gray posted the following message on Twitter (yeah, I still call it that):

“This has been a long race. For the first time in the past year, I am tired. I need to create a margin in my life to focus on health, family, and all the things I love about life that were relegated to the back burner over these 3 decades. Fortunately, the perfect person has been found to take the reins that will allow me to transition from this role.”

Gray doubled down on his explanation that his reason for walking away was related to a focus on his personal life. He posted an NBC News article on “The Great Resignation” and Tweeted, “Little secret: this is the article that most transformed my vision for MY future.”

Leaf Trading Cards meanwhile released the following statement: “The strategic move comes as part of the company’s ongoing efforts to enhance its leadership team and position itself for continued growth and success in the dynamic trading card world. Plenty of big things are happening with Leaf, which will be shared in the future. Until then, count on Leaf’s unrelenting efforts to bring you the most diverse, interesting, and value-driven releases in the market.”

The successor to Brian Gray at Leaf Trading Cards

Since then, the company has announced the successor to Gray at Leaf Trading Cards. The individual involved is Kevin O’Neil. According to the company statement:

“Leaf Trading Cards is thrilled to announce the appointment of Kevin O’Neil as its new CEO. With his extensive experience and expertise in the hobby, Kevin is poised to steer the company to new heights of success. This strategic move comes as part of Leaf Trading Cards’ commitment to growth and innovation in the trading card market.

Based in the heart of the Lonestar State, Leaf Trading Cards has solidified its leadership structure with a dynamic three-headed hierarchy structure. Alongside Kevin O’Neil as CEO, Josh Pankow and Gregg Kohn assume the roles of Active Vice Presidents, infusing the company with their distinct expertise and strategic prowess.

The strategic transition at the helm of Leaf Trading Cards highlights the unwavering dedication to staying at the forefront of the trading card market. The teamwork of the three leaders promises to bring fresh ideas, creative solutions, and an unwavering commitment to collectors globally.”

Check prices for Leaf Trading Cards on eBay

Who is the new CEO of Leaf Trading Cards, Kevin O’Neil?

The incoming CEO, Kevin O’Neil, said: “I’m both excited and proud to be named the next CEO of Leaf Trading Cards. This position comes with big shoes to fill, along with the responsibility of continuing to produce highly collectible, innovative products. I look forward to connecting with the many stakeholders of Leaf, including employees, partners, and collectors, starting next week.”

While Kevin is not particularly well known in the hobby, he has worked in the industry for years. He reportedly worked in various capacities for Topps, Upper Deck, Press Pass, and Beckett.

His highest profile role was as Director of Hobby Sales at Topps. However, it is an open question if he can fill Gray’s shoes, especially since the future of Leaf Trading Cards has been somewhat unclear.

Check prices for Leaf Trading Cards on eBay

Brian Gray’s special place in the hobby

We are many years into the corporate era of the sports card hobby. Today, companies do their talking through careful (or not so detailed) public relations statements. And also through an increasingly significant number of vindictive lawsuits.

But this was once a hobby filled with big personalities and people in the hobby for the sheer passion of it. Brian Gray is the absolute pinnacle of the old-school type. He has a big mouth and says what he thinks. Meanwhile, his love for cards and sports is almost childlike and deeply endearing.

Gray didn’t treat Leaf as a money-making venture. And let’s be honest, it was probably never much of one. To him, it was his baby and a labor of love. Here is an excellent example of what I mean. When Leaf had trouble getting out redemptions for Wander Franco cards (this was back in 2020, before the unpleasantness), Gray Tweeted the following:

“Good news … our company is virtually shut down.. I woke up feeling bad we didn’t have a chance to send Wander Franco redemptions out, so I went in at 6 a.m. and shipped 500 total redemption shipments today (wanders and more!).”

Check prices for Leaf Trading Cards on eBay

The status of Leaf Trading Cards

We have written extensively about Leaf Trading Cards in the past. There was originally a Swedish confectionery company named Leaf International BV. They released some of the best-known baseball cards of the 1940s.

But the new company shares only the name with that brand. Formed by Brian Gray in 2010, Leaf has managed to carve an essential role for themselves despite not owning the rights to any of the major sports leagues in the United States.

They have excelled at providing large amounts of autographs for a reasonable price. In addition, over the years, the design capabilities of Leaf Trading Cards have improved remarkably.  

Still, Leaf Trading Cards are somewhat peripheral actors in the hobby. As one user on Blowout Forums joked after the news broke: “All 2 leaf collectors are devastated.”

A changing hobby

As you all know, the hobby has changed rapidly in recent months. Fanatics has consolidated its monopoly over card production through a variety of steps. Most recently, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) terminated its contract with Panini.

As reported here, “that termination means that Panini can no longer produce cards with current players’ names or likenesses, and Fanatics will effectively be able to produce NFL cards three years early.”

That has come as part of a prolonged and ugly war between Fanatics and Panini, the company they are replacing at the top of the hobby pyramid. Panini has claimed that the Florida-based apparel company poached its employees. Panini then sued their rivals for breaking anti-trust laws. Meanwhile, Fanatics has countersued Panini for suing them frivolously.

Now news has broke that Fanatics may have snatched LeBron James away from Upper Deck, where he had an exclusive auto and memorabilia deal. All this to say, the folks at Fanatics seem determined to eliminate or at least seriously hamper the opposition.

So, what room is there for Leaf in this brave new world?

Check prices for Leaf Trading Cards on eBay

Rumors surrounding Leaf

In April, Gray posted a series of cryptic Tweets that had many of us guessing about the company’s future. He wrote, “Thanks for the prayers, guys! Had an amazing meeting. Something I never saw myself doing may be a reality. It’s fun being wanted.”

There was much speculation surrounding this subject, but he did not clarify. Gray explained, “Sorry for being cryptic, but it is legally necessary.” However, he later expanded on that, saying, “It’s fun being wanted.”

At the time, there were insistent rumors that Fanatics had purchased Leaf Trading Cards. However, the Florida-based apparel company denied that this was the case.

That Tweet was followed up with confirmation that Leaf was in talks with other companies. However, what the scope of cooperation negotiated may have been and who the partners were was never confirmed.

Gray wrote, “To clarify, Leaf Cards doesn’t comment specifically on any rumors or speculations in the market. I can say the following: Leaf is in discussions with multiple parties regarding strategic opportunities. We will not comment further until there is something concrete to comment on. Hope you understand.”

As far as we know, no outstanding agreements between Leaf Trading Cards and other actors in the hobby were concluded. It is perfectly possible that Gray was hoping for a sale or some other lucrative form of cooperation before riding into the sunset.

Therefore, the negotiation failure he was alluding to may have been a factor in the CEO’s retirement.

Check prices for Leaf Trading Cards on eBay

Recently, a scandal surrounds the authenticity of Leaf Trading Card’s celebrity autographs. We don’t know that Gray’s leaving was related and not honestly because he wants to spend more time with his family. However, the two incidents are very close in time and therefore seem suspicious.

On August 22nd, Ari Lehman posted on Facebook that autographed cards sold by Leaf Trading Cards purported to feature his signature had not been signed by him. Who is Lehman, you may ask? The actor is best known for portraying the infamous Jason Voorhees in the first film of the Friday the 13th series.

After an apology and clarification from Leaf, Lehman accepted the explanation from the company and said: “Forgery Update!!! Leaf Trading Cards Has Given Me An Apology &  Determined The Source Of This Fraud!!!  They Were Given A Fake Affidavit By A Dishonest Vendor. I Have Seen The Document, and my Signature Is Forged There, Just Like On The Cards!!! We Hope To Re-issue The Card With My Real Autograph On It. The Fans Deserve The Best Because Jason Fans Are The Best!!!”

How Gray responded to these allegations

Of course, Gray denies that there is any relation between his leaving and the autograph scandal. When the Twitter account for Hobby News Plus! Asked, “I’m inquisitive about the timing of Brian Gray leaving Leaf. The same week, Leaf was accused of fake autographs (Ari Lehman) and said it was a vendor’s fault. OK…which other autographs did Leaf get from this “vendor”?

The newly retired CEO responded, “He signed these the collector’s con in Florida and signed sticker and affidavit. 100% My departure has been planned for over a year, but the perfect guy fell in our lap now.” Nonetheless, the fact that he continues to deal with this issue publicly shows that it remains a concern for the former CEO.

After announcing his retirement, Gray blamed a distributor for the mix-up and said that he had been assured by that party that the Ari Lehman autographs were authentic. Gray posted on Facebook and laid the blame on an individual named Josh.

The role of Josh Pankow

If that name sounds familiar, it refers to Josh Pankow, one of the two new Acting Vice Presidents of Leaf Trading Cards. Gray wrote that he had talked to Lehman and that “Josh merely apologized for the confusion. Josh did not apologize for the autos Ari signed and the Affidavit he signed.

He said if Leaf ever had a problem, we would make it right, but in no way did he acknowledge any problem.” Referring to Lehman, Gray said, “he signed the stickers and probably doesn’t recognize the cards. Nothing else to say; if Ari disagrees, bring it on.”

Some of you may remember that in 2019, Pankow was observed selling 2022 Leaf Metal Soccer cards on eBay while employed by the company. It was one of several instances where Leaf Employees sold cards that were supposed to be available in packs. For example, former employee Joe Clemons sold 43 of 120 serial numbered 1/1 marketed for a promotion. Meanwhile, Adam Berk reportedly sold 23 1/1 cards.

Previous cases of alleged fake autos involving Leaf

While the explanation satisfied the actor, there had long been rumors that some Leaf Trading Cards have inauthentic autographs. In particular, many people were suspicious of cards featuring the signature of wrestler Chyna, released immediately after she died in 2016. And let’s keep in mind that Leaf did admit to the actor that these cards were fraudulent.

Retired Brazilian soccer star Ronaldinho sued Leaf Trading Cards in December 2022. He alleged that Leaf was using his likeness and autographs without full authorization or clear transparency on design and sales.

The player’s lawyers claimed that “there is no question that the products sold by the defendant bearing Ronaldinho’s rights were sold to mislead and confuse the public into believing they are purchasing products associated with or endorsed by Ronaldinho.”

Questions about the Ronaldinho Autos

But it gets worse; the player also alleged that “Leaf has orchestrated a scheme to defraud athletes and consumers by placing on its trading cards, stickers, and other memorabilia counterfeit signatures of famous athletes, including Ronaldinho.”

Indeed, the play’s lawyers claimed that when he did a session for the company, the Brazilian “signed only jerseys and numbers. At no point did Ronaldinho sign any Leaf cards or stickers.” Nonetheless, they allege, “Leaf issued, created for sale, offers and sold an unspecified number of cards bearing counterfeit signatures purportedly from Ronaldinho.”

The card company countersued in January 2023, alleging the lawsuit was frivolous. Leaf insists that the autographs are all authentic and have been judged by the grading companies. That part is certainly genuine. A decision is still outstanding on the case.

Once again, the case involves a third party that obtained the signature. In this case, according to court documents, Memento Memorabilia charged $90 per signature. We can see in this case again the practice of using third-party contractors for signatures may be at the heart of the problem.

We do not know if any of these allegations are true. But there is enough of a question here to raise concerns that their practices regarding autographs are problematic, even if we believe it was an honest mistake.

The final word on what the retirement of Brian Gray means  

The small-scale scandal surrounding Leaf Trading Cards autos deserves more attention than it is getting. If Leaf was purchasing cards from untrustworthy vendors sight unseen, that raises questions regarding the authenticity of many of their other cards. After all, one of the main selling points of these unlicensed cards was the plentiful availability of signed cards for a relatively modest price.

Gray is leaving the hobby on a bittersweet note with this issue in the background. His oversized personality and outspoken demeanor are a leftover from a different era in the hobby. Gray described himself as a humble collector and often acted more like an enthusiastic hobbyist than a CEO.

As everything in this business becomes corporate, we will miss people like him. I guarantee his replacements will be far less colorful.

But on the other hand, the circumstances in which the CEO is leaving are not ideal. There is a strong sense that many of the company’s business practices are amateurish and problematic. I don’t get the feeling that Gray is intentionally hawking fraudulent autos.

But Leaf does seem to have been in the habit of cutting corners by hiring untrustworthy actors to obtain autographs on the cheap. In some cases, that may have led to them getting fraudulent autos and, in others, to confusion among athletes and celebrities who did not recall signing a contract with Leaf.

Fanatics, PSA, and eBay handle their business more professionally. However, in the corporate world of the current hobby, I dare say we will miss Brian Gray.

Check prices for Leaf Trading Cards on eBay