Leaf Trading Cards Is Under New Ownership, What Does This Mean For The Company?
Leaf Trading Cards has had a unique place in the hobby for some time. While they have not had the resources to issue licensed cards, the company has instead focused on attractive unlicensed cards.
Their products often have a very impressive list of autographs as well. But over the last year, they have had a few scandals that saw their founder and longtime CEO, Brian Gray, step down.
Now, the company has been purchased by Orange Mountain Capital. What does it all mean for the company and the hobby now that Leaf Trading Cards is acquired and under new ownership.
The announcement of Leaf Trading Cards acquired under new ownership
On November 15, Leaf and Orange Mountain Capital released the following PR statement:
Leaf Trading Cards Under New Ownership: Orange Mountain Capital Acquires Leading Sports Trading Card Manufacturer
Leaf Trading Cards, a prominent name in the sports trading card and collectibles industry, is proud to announce its acquisition by Orange Mountain Capital, a dynamic player entering the sports and pop culture space. The deal marks a significant chapter in the long and storied history of Leaf, with Orange Mountain Capital expressing enthusiasm for the brand’s legacy and its commitment to further enhancing its prominence in the market.
The acquisition was spearheaded by Douglas Maxwell, representing Orange Mountain Capital, who expressed excitement about the strategic move into the sports and pop culture sector. “We are thrilled to be venturing into the sports and pop culture space, a realm we’ve had our sights on for quite some time. Leaf’s rich history in the trading card industry is a testament to its standing, and we are eager to contribute to the continued success and evolution of this iconic brand,” remarked Maxwell.
Brian Gray is out
“I’d like to personally thank Brian Gray for his time and effort in assisting this transaction. We couldn’t be more excited to move forward with this new ownership group,” stated the new Leaf CEO, Kevin O’Neil.
In response to the acquisition, Brian Gray, the outgoing owner of Leaf Trading Cards, offered his thoughts on this transformative development: “The purchase of Leaf by a group focused on expanding and refining the incredible company we have built is exciting for both the Leaf team and the hobby as a whole. While I am sad to end an era of Leaf ownership, it is exciting to see Leaf take the next steps in its growth process.”
The acquisition by Orange Mountain Capital represents a strategic move aimed for new heights in the sports trading card hobby.
Who is Orange Mountain Capital?
That is a great question. Does anyone have any leads? This brand-new corporation was incorporated in Delaware on August 24, 2023. Of course, Delaware has the most business-friendly environment to incorporate. That is why new and, more importantly, shell companies often incorporate there.
The lack of any known activity or status for this company probably means one of two things. Either this is an attempt to buy a company for a low price and then sell it for higher once stabilized.
In this case, they would likely be viewing an eventual sale to Fanatics or, less likely, to Panini. Or, possibly, the Orange Mountain Capital company is a front for a takeover by another actor.
We should also note that August 24, 2023, was one day before Brian Gray stepped down as CEO of Leaf Trading Cards.
When Brian Gray stepped down
We should also note that August 24, 2023, the day Orange Mountain Capital was incorporated, was one day before Brian Gray stepped down as CEO of Leaf Trading Cards. Is that a coincidence? It’s doubtful, especially since his stepping down was probably in the works for a while.
On August 25th, Gray posted the following message on X:
“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.”
Leaf Trading Cards 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. Many 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.”
With Gray gone, Leaf announced a new strategic team. They appointed Kevin O’Neil as CEO, while Josh Pankow and Gregg Kohn assumed the roles of Active Vice Presidents. O’Neil is quoted in the new press statement as implying he will continue in his capacity for now.
Indeed, considering that Orange Mountain Capital was incorporated just before this announcement, O’Neil may be their handpicked guy. He was not particularly well known in the hobby before this appointment. However, Kevin has previously worked in various capacities for Topps, Upper Deck, Press Pass, and Beckett. At one point, he served as Director of Hobby Sales at Topps.
The scandals that undermined Leaf trading cards
On August 25, 2023, Gray posted: “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.”
While Brian Gray has claimed that he is leaving to focus on his family, many are skeptical that this is the main reason. It is a classic trope that embattled politicians and CEOs step away, saying they want to “spend more time with their family” when they are being forced out. And there are certainly clues that this is the case with the former Leaf Trading Cards CEO.
There have been some issues with Leaf this year that may be related to Gray leaving. Then, there were claims that some of the Leaf signatures were forged. On August 22nd, just days before Gray stepped down, Ari Lehman, the actor who played Jason Voorhees in the first film of the Friday the 13th series, complained that his signature on cards released by Leaf was not real. The company admitted these signatures were fake but blamed the event on an unscrupulous third-party vendor.
This was not the first time that Leaf faced allegations of this sort. In 2016, the company released a card featuring autographs of the wrestler Chyna. They came out suspiciously close to the date of her death. In addition, some people believed they did not match her signature.
Meanwhile, Brazilian soccer legend Ronaldinho sued Leaf in December 2022 for issuing cards with his likeness and signature without approval. However, he did not claim the autographs were not accurate.
None of these events alone would have been fatal for the company. But a card manufacturer selling unlicensed cards with possibly fraudulent autos is not a great look. It may have been better for all involved to part ways.
Is Fanatics involved in the sale of Leaf?
Back in April of this year, Gray posted a series of cryptic Tweets that made many wonder if he was about to sell his company to one of the major players in the hobby.
For example, 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.” At the time, Gray explained, “Sorry for being cryptic, but it is legally necessary.” However, he later expanded on that, saying, “It’s fun being wanted.”
Understandably, the hobby was full of rumors that Gray had sold the company to Fanatics. However, the large apparel corporation denied involvement and did not buy the company directly.
But because the company in question, the Orange Mountain Capital group, is entirely unknown in the hobby (or elsewhere), it raises questions regarding who is behind it.
Even if Fanatics is not behind that move in any way, the idea may be to sell to them. That would make sense because Fanatics has been working very hard to monopolize all elements of the hobby.
But if Orange Mountain Capital Group is independent, they may want to start a bidding war between Fanatics, Upper Deck, and Panini. The company may want to keep the asset for itself and develop it. However, their recent incorporation suggests a more opportunistic motive.
Why would big players in the hobby want to purchase Leaf??
As we have, Leaf has some significant advantages that many in the hobby are unaware of. We think of them as the creators of unlicensed cards, and that is certainly most of what the company does.
However, they own some of the rights for high school events that may be useful to an actor trying to challenge Fanatics. For example, the rights to high school all-star games like the All-American Bowl.
Collectors of Leaf Cards have long admired their top-notch quality control. Leaf cards tend to grade better than their counterparts from other companies. They generally feature very well-centered cards and beautiful designs.
Some consider Gray’s design concepts to be too bold and colorful. But I think they are marvelous, and so do many others.
Leaf Trading Cards’ production capacity
Leaf also owns a reasonably robust manufacturing infrastructure. That would be a tempting prospect for any of the card companies. As we know, Fanatics has allegedly bought much of the card manufacturing company that prints most Panini cards.
As we reported here previously, in the lawsuit, Panini alleges that Fanatics, through two separate transactions, obtained a controlling stake in GC Packaging, the leading company Panini uses for printing their cards.
According to Panini’s lawyers: “This acquisition—a direct violation of GCP’s contractual obligations to Panini—undermined Panini’s ability to perform even in the short run under Panini’s existing licenses, thereby hoping to force Panini into a sale.”
They have muscled the Texas-based card company by purchasing Panini’s card printer. That means that, in theory, Fanatics can try to make GC Packaging work against the interests of Panini.
Or as the lawsuit puts it: “Because Fanatics has control over GCP, Panini is now beholden to Fanatics for its lifeblood—the production of nearly all its trading cards.” Indeed, according to Panini, Fanatics has used this leverage to restrict the allocation of production GC Packaging considerably provides to Panini, violating their contractual obligations.
In this context, there is excellent value in owning more production infrastructure. For Panini, it can be a matter of survival. For Fanatics, it can aid in their quest to monopolize the hobby.
Leaf Trading Cards customer service
Leaf Trading Cards has long offered high customer service as a small and proud company. Panini has a severe problem with that, as anyone who has tried to deal with the card giant knows.
Indeed, Fanatics has said in their counter lawsuit that Panini has such lousy customer service that it has led them to lose their market share.
However, many collectors are similarly unhappy with Topps’s customer service. It does not fulfill the higher standards of service that Fanatics has obtained. Therefore, Leaf can help either company improve its services.
Leaf Trading Cards new ownership – The final word
We are not sure what is next for Leaf Trading Cards. But to say that its future is uncertain is an understatement. A company, Orange Mountain Capital, has just purchased them, that does not seem to have any existence apart from this transaction.
Therefore, it seems unlikely they bought it to nurture the company. It reminds me of the Gordan Gekko playbook of using companies rather than developing or producing anything. But time will tell.
One thing is for sure: Brian Gray’s removal and his company’s sale are sad tales. We no longer have independent and passionate small actors in the business. It is a massive corporate business.
And the big corporations in it, like Fanatics and PSA, are only getting bigger. This squeezes other players out of the action. We await the fate of Leaf Trading Cards. But somehow, I doubt there will be a cheerful ending for the company.