1986 Fleer basketball cards have become some of the hobbies most popular collectibles, driven by Michael Jordan’s iconic card #57.
But many people don’t realize that the 1986 Fleer basketball set was a bit of a dud on release and was treated as “junk wax” for its first few years. Because of this, many deduce, the inferred evidence supports, and some conversations lead us to conclude that Fleer printed the 1987 basketball cards in far lower numbers than the 1986 cards. In the following paragraphs, I’ll share the current thoughts in the hobby about 1986 and 1987 Fleer basketball print runs.
Let me start by saying that all I’m trying to do is piece together some hobby history; Fleer never released print run information directly. No one documented this sort of information, and the people who worked for Fleer, or other card companies, weren’t necessarily collectors who saved this data; it was just a job for a lot of people.
In 1986, Fleer sold their cards directly to dealers for $108/case ($9/box).
Also, remember, basketball cards were so unpopular that Topps stopped making them in 1981. Fleer’s 1986 released didn’t sell well either, often not even going for $10 at retail locations. A collector noted that a shop owner offered him the 10 1986 Fleer basketball boxes collecting dust on his shelf for $5/box. I’m told that Fleer offered full-value refunds for unsold cases too. Other collectors and dealers stated that you could get them inexpensively in high supply at shows over the next few years.
Reed Kasoaka said that in the late 1990s, a Fleer executive told him that they printed 250k of each card in the 1986 Fleer set (~6400 cases), but based on really disappointing sales numbers, they cut the production rate in half for the 1987 set. And most dealers from this time believe something similar.
Additionally, PSAs population report is a solid guide as there have been nearly 5x as many 1986 Fleer (~291k) as 1987 Fleer (~64k) cards graded. Of course, some of that disparity is based on value after grading, but that’s a huge difference. Plus, for the past few years, high-grade 1987 Fleer commons command >$100 prices (when you could grade these cards for $6/each).
In an article about the 1987 Fleer set, Steve Taft noted that there always seemed to be more 1986 Fleer around. One of the set registry collectors agreed, saying that for every box of 1987 Fleer, he saw a lot more 1986s for sale. I also see a lot more 1986 Fleer cards and boxes for sale than 1987 Fleer. A search for “1986 Fleer Basketball” (with some filtering) returns almost 14k items on eBay, while a search for “1987 Fleer Basketball” returns under 8k items – knowing there is some overlap based on people writing “1986/87” in the title.
I also don’t think the ‘people are hoarding 1986 Fleer product’ argument holds much water here. The hobby, as a whole, was booming by 1986, and there are a lot of times when the 1986 set was pushing higher in price that would have induced people to sell (Beckett’s first guide, the Bulls championships, Jordan’s retirements, and comebacks, etc.). Plus, if a collector had the wherewithal to hoard 1986 Fleer, they probably would have saved some 1987 Fleer too.
In the end, we won’t ever really know how many of each set Fleer printed or how many were returned, thrown out, or saved. But the stories from dealers and collectors support the notion that Fleer made a lot fewer 1987 basketball cards than 1986. The print run also tells us that the popularity of the 1986 set is primarily demand-driven (no surprise, Jordan is the GOAT). And that we also shouldn’t be as surprised with 1987 Fleer basketball’s ascending prices the past few years since they’re more supply limited.
Have you heard any stories about the 1986 or 1987 Fleer basketball print runs or card availability? If so, please share them down in the comments or over on Twitter. Also, if you want to know more about 1986 Fleer Unopened products, check out the Unopened Archive page on the set.