For Better Or For Worse…

Yesterday I was mulling over my next blog post and I was considering writing a short piece on the exclusive deal that Topps has with Major League Baseball and its effect on The Hobby.

For those of you who didn’t know (because you’ve probably been living under a rock, or something), back in August of 2009 MLB announced an exclusive licensing arrangement with The Topps Company in an effort to “streamline and stimulate the trading-card market”.

The exclusive deal went into effect on 1st January 2010 and is due to end (at least at the time of this writing) on 1st January 2014. According to their contract with MLB, Topps is allowed to produce up to 17 different Major League releases, with products retailing for under $1/pack (Opening Day, Attax, and Stickers) being exempt. They are also obligated to produce two Minor League products.

At the time when this news broke I wasn’t collecting, but I still closely followed The Hobby and a revelation like this was hard to miss. I remember thinking, along with pretty much everyone else, that giving a deal like this to Topps could only be a bad thing for Baseball card collectors, most likely resulting in a drop in standards and quality of the card products.

Now, over three years on from the original announcement, the dust has had plenty of time to settle and perhaps we can now re-examine where things stand for Baseball card collectors and their relationship with Topps and their products.

But… rather than me sprouting off some ill-educated drivel I thought I’d revisit the thoughts of Chris Harris over at his blog Stale Gum who wrote a piece called ‘Some thoughts on the Topps/MLB license deal’ back when the original news broke.

In his article Chris makes several solid points in favour of the deal, pointing out that Topps had been given a unique opportunity to re-invent and restructure the Baseball card market for the better.

I thought it would be fun to revisit the points that Chris made three years ago, to see where things stand today… So here goes…

1. Fewer brands — Four years ago when there were four licensees, The Hobby was drowning in a sea of 89 different baseball card releases. So MLB and the PA did what was best for The Hobby by 1) letting Fleer die; 2) kicking Donruss out; and 3) limiting the two remaining card companies to 20 — later lowered to 17 — releases each.

Four years later, and 34 brands is still too much; and to be honest, Topps and Upper Deck just aren’t up to producing that many quality products. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at some of the stinkers Topps and Upper Deck have released in recent years: UDx, Documentary, Moments & Milestones, and Stadium Club — products whose sole reason for being, it seemed, was to fill out their respective company’s 17-brand quota.

— I guess that this was pretty much a given really. Collectors had been criticizing card companies for years for the amount of product that they were producing, most of which was often dubious in terms of quality and content. The exclusive license for Topps did exactly what MLB intended in terms of streamlining The Hobby market, although whether the market was stimulated or not is possibly still open to debate

2. The end of the gimmick card — With exclusivity, the days of the gimmick card should be over. There is no need for Topps to print cards of squirrels, print cards upside down, or stealth short-prints that compromise the integrity of the base set.

2012 Topps Series 1 Skip Schumaker ‘Rally Squirrel’ SP

— Mmmm… OK then Topps… Explain this one away. The more things change the more, I guess, they stay the same. Who’d have thought that Chris’ prophetic words of three years ago would see the release of another Topps card with a squirrel on. And it was bloody short-printed. And it still fetches between $45 and $60 on eBay!!! SP cards are here to stay people and, love ’em or hate ’em, form the backbone of several Topps Baseball sets each year, particularly the retro themed sets like Heritage and Allen & Ginter, alongside the main Topps base set (although they tend to be variants in the main Topps set rather than rarer base cards). If done carefully, and in moderation, I firmly believe that SP cards have their place in The Hobby and can provide a welcome challenge for set builders

3. Reinventing Bowman — The last couple of years, Bowman Baseball has been a brand that has lost its way. Yes, the “ROOKIE CARD” rules that went into effect in 2006 have taken a bite out of Bowman, but much of the decline of Bowman has been self-inflicted. This is a golden opportunity to reinvent Bowman. Instead of three Bowman sets (Bowman, Bowman Chrome, and BDP&P), consolidate them a single, late-season, brand.

— Amen to this!! As a fan of Rookie cards I really wish Topps would scale back their releases and produce one ‘mega’ Bowman set that goes out each year after the World Series. That way you can ensure that they catch ALL the rookies for that particular year and beef up the autographed rookie selection as well. Keep the prospect cards, by all means, but just put them in one larger product that makes life so much easier for rookie and prospect collectors

4. Marketing The Hobby to older collectors — For years the mantra has been, “We must get kids into The Hobby.” And for years, The Hobby responded by making “kid-friendly” products: Triple Play, Fun Pack, Topps Kids, UD PowerUp, UDx, et al. There’s just one problem with that though. Speaking as a former child, I know from experience that most children hate being pandered to. Kids want “grown-up” stuff and grown-up trading cards are no exception.

How about this: Instead of marketing baseball cards to kids, how about selling them to adults? Back in the early-90s, you couldn’t watch a hockey game without seeing an ad for Upper Deck Hockey cards. Why not try the same now? Why not place Topps banners on outfield walls? Why not run thirty-second ads during games? How about ads in Sports Illustrated or ESPN: The Magazine?

Oh sure, Michael Eisner is saying the right thing about kids. But in order for The Hobby to grow, Topps needs to re-focus it’s efforts towards adults. Market to them. Educate them. Sell to them. It not that The Hobby should abandon kids, per se; but market to their older brothers and dads. (And yes, their sisters and moms, too).

— Difficult one for me to call here as living the UK makes us pretty much removed from everything that happens back in the US. We don’t get to go to card shows or frequent card stores (at least any of the few that seem to still be open, anyways) so if there’s someone out there – in the US or Canada – that might be best placed to comment on this then lets hear from you 🙂

5. A more down-market Hobby –Topps does not do “high-end” well. So why bother with it anymore? Now that they have exclusivity, is there any reason for Triple Threads or Sterling Baseball? I doubt most collectors would miss it anyway.

— Couldn’t agree more!! I’ve already mentioned my disdain for hi-end card releases in a previous post so I won’t labour the point here. However, given the fervour that met the most recent release of Triple Threads only last week, it appears that there is still a thriving market for hi-end releases, with collectors frantically searching for the one, big ‘hit’ that will make their collecting dreams come true!!

So there you have it… As I mentioned in my comments against Chris’ fourth point, as UK collectors we’re pretty much removed from the epicentre of the Baseball collecting world over in the US, and as a result I don’t feel that we’ve been greatly affected by the exclusive Topps/MLB license agreement.  As far as I see it, Topps has continued to produce popular quality card releases aver the last few years and we still use channels such as eBay or COMC to collect what we want, when we want it, falling foul of shipping costs and import taxes along the way.

And we still do it because we love The Hobby so much!!

I’d really love to hear from anyone over in the US or Canada to get your take on how The Hobby is thriving (or not) over in your neck of the woods!!

And thanks to Chris Harris for all of his thoughts, those many years ago…

p.s. Contrary to how it might read above, I really do love that Rally Squirrel short print!!

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