Tuesday, January 27, 2009

What did we learn today?

Ten years from now, we'll look back at the events of today, January 27th, 2009, as the day that changed The Hobby forever. Much like that day in 1980 when Judge Newcomer broke up the Topps monopoly; that day in 1988 DeWayne Buice went searching for Chinese food, and walked into The Upper Deck sports card shop instead; or that day in 2005 when Donruss's MLBPA license was revoked; the day MLB properties filed suit against Donruss on the same day Panini acquired the exclusive rights to produce NBA cards and stickers will be, I believe, a turning point in the history of The Hobby.

First off, the suit was something Donruss should have seen coming. When the sell sheets for Donruss Threads were first issued, and showed most of the logos weren't completely airbrushed out, in my mind a lawsuit was inevitable. It wasn't a matter of if D'russ would get sued, but when. But even if Donruss eventually wins or settles this suit, they've all but lost any chance they had (however remote) of ever getting their MLB license back, and they only have themselves to blame.

As for Panini, most collectors probably remember them from their late-80s sticker books, or from their European soccer cards. So what can NBA collectors expect? Their primary business is still in stickers and collectible card games (both sports-related and non-sports). It should be a given that they'll try to import both into basketball. What they've never done before is an "American" style sports card set. Panini has never made an autographed card; nor have they made a game used card; and most of their existing products sell for less than $1/pack.

Can Panini adapt to the tastes of the American collector with more upscale products? Or will they stick (no pun intended) with what works in Europe? We won't know until the first sell-sheets come out, but judging from this quote from Sal LaRocca, Executive Vice President of the NBA's Global Merchandising Group, we can expect basketball cards to go down-market.

“Our exclusive partnership with Panini provides us with the best opportunity to recreate the trading card market by developing the key retail channels with a variety of products and promotions geared towards all consumer segments.”

"Recreate the trading card market." That's a interesting choice of words, eh? And Mr. LaRocca may have a point. Over the past decade-and-a-half, as the price of a pack of cards has skyrocketed past the $5, $10, $20, $100, and $500 price-points, total revenues have plummeted, and that is no coincidence. It's a trend that started in the mid-90s across all sports, and despite the best efforts of the existing manufacturers (or perhaps, because of them), shows no sign of letting up. So maybe the NBA giving an exclusive license to a company with a track-record of affordable and collectible products, might not be so bad for basketball collectors.

"A variety of products ... geared towards all consumer segments." Again, an interesting choice of words. The NBA has given Panini the right to produce anywhere from 15-20 card sets per year, so variety should not be an issue. With that many products, there ought to be something for every collector. However given Panini's efforts in European Soccer cards, I have a feeling that the era of the $100/pack product may be coming to an end -- at least in basketball.

Here's one thing that should give basketball collectors pause. Although an established company in Europe, Panini hasn't had a US presence since the early-90s. They are, for all intents and purposes, a start-up company. The first basketball sets are traditionally released in the late Summer/early Fall, which is six to eight months from now. Will Panini be able to get a product out the door by then? And will it be any good? Or will they half-ass it like 2001 Donruss baseball?

And what about Topps and UD? Will they go the unlicensed route and produce sets of retired players and draft picks? Considering that they still have Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and others locked up to long-term exclusive contracts, Upper Deck might issue single-player sets. However today's lawsuit against Donruss may put the kibosh on that idea.

Finally, it will be interesting to see if Panini will be content with just an NBA license, or if they'll try to acquire another sport's license. Both Topps and Upper Deck's MLB licenses expire at the end of this year, and if Panini makes the kind of offer to baseball as they did with basketball, 2009 may very well be the last year for Topps and/or Upper Deck baseball.


dayf said...

So Donruss finally got sued, eh? Man, what a busy day. I sure hope MLB doesn't go all NBA on us at the end of this year. There needs to be more competition, not less. Hockey cards have been Ass since UD got the monopoly. And if Topps goes, I go. Period. I have a thousand vintage sets to complete if they don't want my 2010 money.

As far as the Panini thing goes, the more I think about it, the more I think this could be the best thing to happen to the industry in decades. Move the balance of power back to the cheap fun sets. Get kids collecting stickers and playing basketball card games again. I have no idea how they are going to pump out 15 sets from scratch though.

thehamiltonian said...

Panini does have a North American presence. Its not large, but they have offices in Canada - they still distribute NHL sticker albums via these offices.

Anonymous said...

What a way to celebrate my 29th birthday, to have one of my favorite hobbies shaken up with a lawsuit and an exclusive deal moving Basketball to a one company product.

If I were Upper Deck or Topps I would be getting my college deals in place and release a total kick ass line of draft pick sets that blow Press Pass out of the water. It could successfully give the middle finger to the NBA and David Stern as they might be more desired by american collectors. Possibly.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Though this might be good change for low-end collectors or kids around the world, I don't think Panini could produce the products which satisfies High-end collectors in United States or Japan.
They have produced high-end soccer cards with autographs and memorabilias in the past for Japanese market, but all were terrbly packaged and easy to find out which pack has auto or jersey.
I think all they have to do first is finding the printing company in United States and stop using their factory in Europe.