A Quick Look at NFL and AFL Trading Card Rights in the Early 1960s

A while ago on Twitter, I shared links to the 1961 Topps and 1961 Fleer football Unopened Archive pages, and someone asked how it was that both Topps and Fleer had a license to print AFL and NFL cards in the same year. We also noted that it was weird that it was midway through what were seemingly exclusive 4-year deals for each brand. And honestly, after more research, I still don’t know why or how this happened, but I thought I would share some information about NFL and AFL trading card rights in the early 1960s.

This all started with the founding of the American Football League in 1959 and its inaugural season in 1960. They were challenging the established National Football League, who, as PSA wrote, “…had a fan base. They had connections with college athletes, and they had Topps bubble gum cards. The popular trading card company had issued its first professional football set featuring NFL players in 1956, which began an uninterrupted streak of Topps football sets featuring contemporary players that ran through the 2015 season.”

So, just as the leagues were competing against each other, Fleer and Topps would also. Fleer printed football cards from 1960 to 1963, having the rights to the AFL players in 1960, 1962, and 1963 and Topps had the rights to the NFL players during that time. Somehow, in 1961, both companies had players from the AFL and NFL.

Here is the year-by-year breakdown of each set.

1960 Fleer: The set has 132 cards, 125 with players and seven showing head coaches. It was Fleer’s first football set and was made up entirely of AFL players. And since it was the first year of the AFL, most players were coming into the pro ranks out of college, so Fleer showed them in college uniforms.

1960 Fleer #76 Paul Lowe

1960 Topps: The 132-card set only has NFL players and showcased the expansion Dallas Cowboys.

1961 Fleer: Fleer released the 220-card set in two series, the first with 132 NFL players and the second with 88 AFL players.

1961 Fleer #11 Jim Brown

1961 Topps: The 198-card set featured NFL players in the first series (#’s 1-132) and AFL players in the second series (#s 133-197), with card 198 being a checklist. 

1961 Topps #1 Johnny Unitas

1962 Fleer: The set has cards of 88 AFL players, and many collectors believe it had the lowest print run of any of the Fleer football sets.

1962 Topps: The 176-card set features NFL players 

1963 Fleer: The set features 88 cards of AFL players and a great unnumbered checklist. The set is known to have three of the most sought-after vintage football cards of the 60s (the checklist, Charles Long, and Bob Dougherty).

1963 Fleer Football Checklist

1963 Topps: The 170-card set of NFL players was grouped alphabetically by city name.

1963 Fleer #96 Ray Nitschke

Things got interesting after that when in 1964, the Philadelphia Gum Company obtained NFL rights through 1967, and Topps printed AFL-only sets between 1964 and 1967, leaving Fleer with no product in football (or baseball). Then in 1968, after the NFL and AFL agreed to merge, Topps got the rights to both leagues.

I can make a lot of guesses about exclusivity and printing rights in the early 60s that led to the 1961 sets from both Fleer and Topps having both AFL and NFL cards, but I really don’t have any facts. If anyone knows what was going on, please let me know in the comments, and happy collecting!

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