By David Lieberman, USA TODAY
NEW YORK — Don't choke on your bubble gum when you hear what former Walt Disney CEO Michael Eisner has in mind for Topps, the 69-year-old trading card and candy company just bought for $385 million by a consortium he led.
He wants Topps to create a movie, TV, Internet and publishing franchise around Bazooka Joe, the eye-patch-wearing kid introduced in 1953 on the waxy comics that wrap Topps' Bazooka bubble gum.
"Bazooka Joe could be the next big hero," Eisner, 65, says. "I'm not saying it's going to be Raiders of the Lost Ark," which he oversaw as CEO of Paramount Pictures. "But that would be the goal. Bazooka Joe is my new Mickey Mouse."
The idea, he says, is to help Topps strengthen its connection with kids and be considered "a real media company that is up there, and at least talked about, with the other media companies that we all know."
That's a lot to chew on for a firm that treaded water for most of this decade.
Its most famous products — baseball and other sports and entertainment trading cards — faced growing competition from rivals including Upper Deck and Donruss/Playoff. Gum and candies, including Ring Pop lollipops, grappled with the steep rise in sugar prices. Topps ended up moving some production to other countries, including Mexico, with lower tariffs.
Topps generated $11.2 million in profit in the fiscal year ended March 3; revenue was $327 million. Eisner, who's non-executive chairman, aims to accelerate growth by spinning Topps as a sports entertainment brand.
"There's no reason why there can't be Topps movies, Topps Internet, Topps television, Topps miniseries and Topps publications," he says. "It's all about sports and sports stories."
Eisner knows that playing field: He oversaw ESPN, the Los Angeles Angels and the Anaheim Ducks during his 21 years at Disney, as well as sports-related movies including The Mighty Ducks and Angels in the Outfield.
To fulfill Eisner's vision, Topps may have to change how it markets its cards. It has deals with baseball, football and basketball players and leagues, as well as properties including Star Wars, SpongeBob SquarePants and Pokémon.
"Cards were predominantly a kids product, which, over the last couple of decades, became a collectible product," Eisner says. "That's the tail wagging the dog. I hope they're collectible and that people love them and that they increase in value. But they've got to be fun. Some should be opened; they shouldn't just sit in their packs forever."
To capture a new generation, he wants cards imprinted with codes that can be used to find additional information about sports stars or entertainment characters on the Internet.
Eisner's also intrigued with WizKids, a maker of card-based strategy games including MechWarrior, HorrorClix, HeroClix and Battlestar Galactica that Topps bought in 2003.
Eisner's belief that Topps could evolve into an entertainment force helped him to stay focused through the turbulent months after Topps in March accepted a $9.75-a-share offer from his Tornante Co. and Madison Dearborn Partners.
Dissidents on Topps' board, led by representatives from hedge funds Pembridge Capital Management and Crescendo Partners, said the price was too low. That view gained credence in May when Upper Deck offered $10.75 a share.
"We were down by about five runs in the bottom of the ninth with two outs," Eisner says.
Then in August, Upper Deck withdrew its offer, saying that Topps refused to share key information. Topps said a deal likely wouldn't pass muster with antitrust officials and questioned whether the company could raise the cash it needed.
Shareholders approved Eisner's offer the following month. The deal closed Oct. 12.
"The thing that probably turned it around more than anything was, about a week before the (shareholder vote), we put out a press release that we're not going to raise our price," Eisner says. "I didn't want to lose Topps. But I wasn't going to pay a price that made it impossible for us to do what we have to do."
Eisner has his work cut out for him. Few young people know about Bazooka Joe. He isn't even sure how old the character should be.
"I've talked to a few talented and creative people who are thinking about it," he says.
Still, aside from Harry Potter, "Most of the characters of the big-event movies made in the last couple of years (including Spider-Man, X-Men, and Superman) were created in comic books 30, 40, or 50 years ago," Eisner notes.
"I'm hoping that Bazooka Joe has that same little piece of your brain, or somebody's brain. And if it doesn't, it'll just be a good movie and we'll create a new emotion around it."
He also relishes having another chance to stand in the movie production batter's box.
"Who knows when I'm ever going to be able to do this again?" Eisner says. "We did it successfully at Paramount and at Disney. There is no formula. It's all about associating yourself with people who can bring a new level of creativity to a solid company."