Thursday, August 06, 2009

Some thoughts on the Topps/MLB license deal.

So naturally, the biggest Hobby story in years breaks when my computer is in the shop. Just my luck. By now you've heard that Topps has locked up the exclusive trading card license with MLB Properties. For 2010 and beyond, the only baseball cards that will feature the non-airbrushed logos of the 30 Major League teams, will be produced by Topps. This comes on the heels of last month's extension of the licensing deal between Upper Deck and the MLB Player's Association that will keep UD in the baseball card game. (Topps is not, and has never been, privy to the MLBPA's group license, choosing instead to sign players to individual contracts.)

Although UD will, more-than-likely, continue to print "half-licensed" cards (and still retains their license with USA Baseball), the initial reaction in the cardblogosphere to the Topps deal has been, as expected, negative. However, this collector thinks that 2010 may not all that bad for The Hobby. Let me give you five reasons why a return to exclusivity may not be such a bad thing.

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.

34 brands among two licensees being reduced to 12-15 from only one company will lead to fewer crap products. But it will also have the added benefit of giving the remaining products a longer shelf life, and bring a level of clarity to the marketplace.

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.

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.

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 thatmost 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.)

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.

Will we miss a fully licensed Upper Deck Baseball? Of course, but it's not the end of the world and it's not the end of The Hobby. Besides, WHAT ELSE ARE YOU GOING TO COLLECT?


Anonymous said...

At first read, I thought you were crazy for saying the companies should market and sell to adults. I thought you were saying it only because you ARE an adult, and you want your demands catered to, forgetting that younger collectors are the future of the hobby.

Except then I realized you were completely right.

You know why I got in to card collecting? Because my dad was into it. You know why my nephews are into it? Because Uncle Joe is. Someday soon, I hope to get my own son addicted to the hobby, which I think will happen because "Dad" is in to it.

You're right - market and cater (at least SOME) to adults, and the kids will follow. Because what little boy doesn't want to be like dad?

stusigpi said...

12-15 is still too many in my opinion. You and I seem to be in the very small minority that like this idea.

Unknown said...

Stopping high end products is one of the dumbest things I have read lately. I know a lot of people cannot afford them, but do you really thing Topps Series 1 keeps them in business? No its the 100$ profit they make off a box of sterling. I buy all high end, and cases, and while I do not prefer sterling or triple threads, many high end buyers do. Whether you like those products or not, they pay their bills.

AceWild said...

Finally some one sees this as a positive. With the sells of Baseball cards declining its going to take something radical like this for it to change. Who knows maybe Topps will greatly improve there products. Topps has a monopoly but there products suck people wont buy em. Cards aren't a necessity.

Todd Uncommon said...


(Insert sigh of relief reading rational hobby thoughts and discussion)

I agree that the time is right for an exclusive license. The hobby has been hemorrhaging products and money for years. It's clearly contracted, and now the vendor list is shorter to match.

Any market growth at this point will have to be out of real revenue of greater sales, and will be very difficult to manufacture or produce false growth.

Making base product meaningful again is the "back to basics" mantra that this hobby needs. Gimmick cards and so-called "high end" are not sustainable. Why have so many releases been so poorly developed or designed?

High-end, I doubt, is pure gravy. It takes a lot more effort to produce low-print run (1/1 anybody?) sets with all sorts of garbage inserted or stuck on to the surface.

The hobby slowing down and spending more time on uplifting their core product will be more sustainable than making yet another forgettable and anonymously pricey brand label. And this is coming from a guy who usually spends up and down the spectrum.

It is a little too bad, because I think I did see UD start to put down their cup of Kool-Aid, and reconsider their strategy.

Far too long UD's looked like the Oakland Raiders of recent years. Talk, talk, talk about a "Commitment to Excellence" (when the results are anything but), and run at the top by a once-industry-genius turned egomaniac-burn-the-house-down-crazy-person.

I thought that UD had turned a corner, and started to hear the hobby, instead of foisting their "story" over and over.

I sincerely do hope that they don't overload on producing logo-less product, but that they continue their reinvention in their products and attitude the hobby in general. I loved OPC, and would love to see more like that, with whatever they make.

Gellman said...

As expected, I have to disagree here. I have to say that Topps won't use this to improve as the cost of obtaining and maintaining this deal will force them to drop a lot of things that many of you feel are the plusses of their products. bottom line, a loss of competition is never a good thing for quality. And though fewer products seem like a good idea on paper, they won't be helpful when the quality drops to make up for over spending on the exclusive.

Jawdy said...

Excellent post! Good points, all of them. It will be interesting for sure.

MadMo said...

Count me in as one of the minority that thinks this might turn out to be a good thing.

Besides the clutter thing, Topps might be able to better focus on what customers they want to target without having to consider the issue of competition. Topps should be able to find out easily what sells and what doesn't sell in today's hobby. In turn this may mean better products for us, the collectors.

On the other hand, I got a couple of side questions about this whole thing: 1) Did MLBPA stiff UD by signing the agreement if they knew that Topps would have the exclusive licence, knowing that Topps signs contract with individual players and MLBPA would not get any money as a result of Topps' arrangement? 2) What would MLBPA/MLB do about the Rookie Card rule? I would be happy if that get swept by the wayside.

Anonymous said...

Jeff Jeff Jeff Jeff Jeff come on now. Look it is better for Topps to expand the collector base. If Topps expands the collector base from 100,000 to 200,000 with lower quality/cheaper cards the hobby will be better off. Look Jeff you may be spending big money on the high end now but what happens to the hobby after you go, who replaces you. The hobby needs more collectors as opposed to short printed jersey refractor autograph 1/16 cards of Chien Ming Wang

Gellman/Madmo - I hope the quality drops with the price. Get rid of the gloss and gold foil on baseball cards and bring back the Graybacks. Keep the rookie card logo. When I open up a pack of 2010 Topps Cards and get Jason Heyward, I will know that is his one and only rookie card. Less Brands. What is wrong with a 1978 Eddie Murray rookie card. A McDonalds hamburger today taste the way it did in 1978 and that is not a bad thing.

Competition is good? Have you seen the cards they are producing today. Upper Deck X (lac), Upper Deck Elements (from the periodic table?, what is this science class)

MLB is a monopoly. Is that A bad thing. - BATEMAN72

Tom the Ripper said...

what is with this "late 80's early 90's overproduction" nostalgia? That didn't turn out so good.

But hey, at least rookies were rookies, men were men and dreams of future riches were, uh, nevermind.

Topps has a MLBPA license, I don't know if they sign individual players in addition to that for some reason (other then exclusive autgraph/game used deals)