Tuesday, April 20, 2010

My Unsolicited Topps Hobby Round Table Entry.

Now you'd think that a card company that sends certain cardblogger free samples of their product to review, would have sent an invite to their inaugural "Hobby Blog Round Table." I guess my invite was lost in the mail, so here are my two cents:

1. How long have you been collecting? What are your favorite players, teams, sets, etc. to collect? Which card in your collection means the most to you and why?

I've been collecting baseball cards, and only baseball cards, ever since my mother bought me a wax pack of 1980 Topps Baseball when I was five. I've been addicted to cardboard ever since.

Although I'm a Phillies Phan (and yes, fan is spelled with a "PH"), I don't necessarily collect a specific team or player. I'm a set builder -- Topps, Heritage, A&G, 90s-era Stadium Club, and so forth. Yes, we still exist.

2. In the time that you have been collecting, what is your favorite story, memory, experience, etc?

Buying a waxbox of '93 SP Baseball for $45 and being angry for not pulling one of those way-cool Platinum Power die-cuts. Oh well, I still have two of those three Derek Jeter RCs.

3. What are the effects on the hobby of major card companies moving toward exclusivity deals with sports leagues? Given that this could be the direction that the industry is headed, what should card companies do to continue to provide a quality product to collectors.

I know I'm in the minority here, but something had to be done to stem the tide of lousy products. Yes, I'll miss Upper Deck Baseball, the same way I miss Fleer (not so much Donruss, but that's neither here nor there). But over the last 10-15 years, there was a lot of garbage products being made, most of which had no reason for being (Upper Deck X, Topps TEK, Pinnacle Inside, et al) and most of which have been thankfully forgotten.

The cardboard bubble burst a long time ago. The Hobby can no longer support four licensees and over 90 products, per sport, per year.

With that said, "Scoreboard Abe" and "Yank-akke" notwithstanding, Topps has done a decent job in their first year of exclusivity.

4. Pick a timeframe- 5, 10, or 20 years. In that timeframe, what has been the single best and worst development in the hobby?

Not to toot my own horn, but the single best thing that to happen to The Hobby over the last decade has been the internet and cardblogging. For the first time since the days of Jefferson Burdick's typewritten newsletters, the collector has a voice, and that voice is finally being heard. If Jefferson Burdick were alive, he'd be one of us.

The worst thing that has happened, and this is more of an extension of question #3, was what I like to call the "Second Wave of Overproduction" that took place starting in the mid-90s and ending only now, and the related escalating price of a pack of trading cards.

I don't think it's a coincidence that as pack prices have increased (from 1989 Upper Deck's $1 packs, to '91 Stadium Club's $2 packs, to '93 Finest's $5 packs, to '96 Leaf Signature's $10 packs, all the way up to the $20, $50, $100, and even $500 packs so common now), total Hobby revenues have inversely declined. In 1991, The Hobby was a $1.2 Billion industry, based largely on $1 and $2 waxpacks. Today, it's about a quarter of that.

5. What are your thoughts on prospecting? Do you do it personally? Why? Has the clamoring to find the next big rookie affected the quality of products, either positively or negatively?

I don't understand how some collectors can get excited over an autograph of a Class-AA backup catcher or a Refractor of a high-round draft pick who'll probably never play an inning in the Majors. I don't get prospecting, and I don't think I ever will.

With that said, I used to like Bowman Baseball. A lot. Up until the rules changed five years ago, it was the only product that combined rookie card selection with base set collectiblity. Sadly, thanks to the MLBPA's rookie card eligibility rules, the bundling of Bowman with Bowman Chrome, and especially the addition of autographs in the base set, this is no longer the case. While Bowman (and for that matter BowChro and Draft Picks & Prospects) can no longer claim to be "The Home of the Rookie Card,"(there were more "true" rookies in Heritage last year than in Bowman, BowChro, or BDP&P) it has been the addition of base set autographs that has done more damage to the brand.

6. We are collecting tangible products in an increasingly intangible world. As our lives move more and more online, what will the effects on the industry be? Will the next generation of kids be as excited about collecting cards as we are? How should the major card companies respond?

This has been a question that has vexed The Hobby for over a decade. I remember The Hobby's first attempts to meld trading cards with "cyberspace," and the results were forgettable (anyone remember Donruss VxP, Upper Deck PowerDeck, or CybrCards?). ThePit.com never really took off; and eTopps, while retaining a very, very, small cult-following, remains exactly that: A very, very, small, cult-like product.

I have no idea how well ToppsTown is doing. But with how well Topps Attax has fared among kids (especially Match Attax in the UK), maybe there is hope for cardboard in the future.

7. How has new media changed the way you collect? How should the major card companies utilize new media to connect with their consumer base? How can new media change and/or revitalize the hobby?

It's not changed the way I collect, per se. But I know that the "new Hobby media" has brought in more and more of what I call "lapsed collectors" -- i.e. people in the 20s and 30s who collected when they were kids and, for whatever reason, stopped. Cardblogs, cardvlogs, and video box breaks have reintroduced card collecting to this generation. Unfortunately, The Hobby has done a poor job in marketing to this demographic.

The Hobby can exploit new media by being more transparent with collectors. Use your corporate websites to post sell-sheets and provisional checklists the day you send them to dealers, and if there are any last minute changes, tell us as soon as possible.

For example, the provisional checklist of 2010 Finest Baseball had 20 Autographed Rookie Letter Patches. It turns out, there are only 15 in the product. But I've yet to see anything on the Topps website explaining why? (Although you can find out that redemption #1 will be good for a Jason Heyward card.)

8. How has the recent rise in counterfeits and scams affected the way you collect? What advice would you give the major card companies to help combat this?

Since I don't really collect "high-end" stuff, I'm not really at liberty to give you advice on this. I do want to comment though on last year's Topps Tribute.

I don't think I'm asking for much, but I think "seat-gate" could have been avoided if Topps simply stated what exactly the "Relic" on the card is. I pulled one of those Babe Ruth "seat" cards (from a box you sent me) and nowhere on the card does it mention what the three relics are. Just the standard disclaimer that "The relics contained in this card are not from any specific game, event, or season."

Well, why not? Why can't you tell us what specific "game, event, or season" those relics are from? If you can't tell us that, then how are we supposed to know if those relics are legit?

9. The poor economy has affected all of us in recent years. In what ways would you like to see card companies respond to provide interesting, affordable products for collectors?

It all depends on what you mean my "interesting" and "affordable." I was disappointed to learn that Topps brought back Opening Day after a one-year hiatus. While I appreciate that fact that Topps is producing an "affordable" product, OD is, for all intents and purposes, a set most of us already have and a product in which little to no effort was made into producing.

A couple of year's ago, Topps did produce a product that was both "interesting" and "affordable." I really wish you'd bring back Topps Total.

10. We’ve done autographs. We’ve done just about every kind of relic/game used product you can think of. What’s next? Where do we go from here?

There's only so many things you can do with a 2-1/2" X 3-1/2" piece of cardboard that hasn't been done already. Cards have been die-cut, foil-stamped, laser-burnt, made out of stuff other than cardboard, covered in fabric swatches, and stuck with autographed stickers. Is there really anything new?

11. If you could say one thing-anything- to Topps and know that the CEO will read it, what would you say?

First of all, I'd like to hand Mr. Eisner a copy of my resume and that I am available as soon as possible. I can fetch anyone a cup of coffee and a copy of the Wall Street Journal like no one's business. That, and I actually know a little something about your product. After that, I have only three things to say:

1) WE ARE YOUR BEST CUSTOMERS

Not only are we your best customers, we are so fanatical in our devotion to The Hobby, that many of us take hours of our lives to write about it -- giving you a TON of free publicity in the process. We collected through The First Wave of Overproduction. We collected through the 1994 Strike. We collected through The Second Wave of Overproduction, and the current Great Licensing Shake Out. We will continue to collect, and we will probably do so until the day we die.

2) DON'T TAKE US FOR GRANTED

Stop insulting our intelligence (and tainting your company's reputation) with gimmicks. Stop making cards of squirrels on foul poles (unless they're in Allen & Ginter, of course). Stop dressing up Chinese-American law students to look like fake Japanese teenagers. Stop Photoshopping Red Sox logos and former Presidents on Derek Jeter's cards, and stop depicting Babe Ruth in the uniform of a team that didn't exist until two decades after his death.

Next year will mark Topps' 60th year in the baseball card business. On name and reputation alone, your products (especially your flagship) should be able to sell themselves. But if you feel the need to resort to gimmickry in order to get us to buy and collect your cards, what does that say about your product? What are you signaling to collectors? That you have no confidence in your own work? And that the only way you think we'll buy it is if you include an unannounced short-print of A-Rod with whipped cream all over his face?

Gimmicks are a sign of weakness. WAKE UP! YOU'RE TOPPS FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! Start taking yourselves (and us) seriously!

3) GIVE US WHAT WE WANT, NOT WHAT YOU THINK WE WANT.

Let's take your flagship product: Topps Baseball.

There is no reason in the world why the Topps Baseball base set should NOT be, at a minimum, 792 cards (396 in each series). We don't need Photoshopped cards in Series One -- that's what Series Two and Updates & Highlights are for. Tell Winston Smith, or whoever it is you have in the design department, that we can wait for that first card of Roy Halladay in a real Phillies uniform. Ditch the gimmicks and the "Legends Variations." If you want to put Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, et al in the base set, then fine. Put them in the "base set" like you do with Mickey Mantle every year -- none of this hybrid-variation crap. One and only one player per card number, please. Speaking of which: ixnay on the anufacturedmay atchespay. A manufactured patch is NOT a "Relic." Stop treating it as one.

After that, how about bringing back some old favorites?

You want to make an all-painted set? Fine. Ditch National Chicle (a brand that has a pedigree in football, yet has no connection whatsoever to baseball cards) and call it "Topps Gallery." Bring back Stadium Club -- the real Stadium Club, not the $20-worth-of-fail you called "Stadium Club" in '08. You want a set that appeals to kids, cheapskates, AND traditional collectors? Two words: Topps Total.

Make Bowman Baseball relevant again by pushing it back to a mid-Summer release and subtracting the Chrome cards and base set autographs (or at the very least, making them "autograph variations"). Subtract the letter patches in Finest -- they don't belong in a product like Finest.

Keep on doing what your doing with Heritage and Allen & Ginter. TA&G is a product where the inclusion of non-baseball subjects actually works as it goes with the spirit of the original 19th Century A&G cards. Topps 206 was great last year, but I don't think it'll work as an annual release -- maybe once every seven years. It especially won't work if, as I suspect with the addition of non-baseball subjects like the Queensboro Bridge, you're making it into a de facto second series of A&G. The real T-206 set was baseball and only baseball. Topps 206 should be as well.

After that, I'd shake Mr. Eisner's hand, thank him for his time, and wish him a good day.

3 comments:

Joe S. said...

I rarely agree with things you say. Oddly, I agree with almost everything you've said in your "unsolicited" round table interview. (I think you had to solicit Topps through Twitter to take part...).

I'm not bothered a whole lot by stuff like Opening Day. It's a great way kids to be able to get two or three packs instead of just one. My nephews enjoy the mascot cards in particular. I'm not bothered by gimmicks, as I feel they don't take away from the ability to complete a set. Hey - if Topps wants to put $30 (essentially) in a pack (after an ebay sale, I mean), so be it.

But I hate what has happened to the "Home of the Rookie Card." Believe it or not, there are people out there who enjoy owning rookie cards just for the sake of owning them. I don't look to sell them for hundreds of dollars, I don't necessarily care about the radiation parallel refractor numbered to 5. I just like to say that I have Justin Upton's rookie card (or whoever). But where do I get that now? A pack of Bowman? Do the BDP cards count? What about the Chrome? By my count, there are THREE different sets in each 'regular' pack of Bowman these days. It used to be the only set I put together each year, but now I won't even buy a jumbo pack discounted to $5 because I'm not even totally sure what I'm buying.

I don't like that feeling.

My only other beef with the manufactures is when I see low-end players in high end product. I'm sorry, but a $200 box of Topps Sterling shouldn't contain a bat relic of Lance Berkman. This is precisely why I'll NEVER buy high end. Ever.

Anyway... great article!

Susan said...

No one got a personal invite. The invite was sent out over Twitter.

Tom the Ripper said...

Chris I doubt the social media guy was briefed on the fact they send you product for review, he didn't have a "need to know" so to speak.

Its kind of like our government and UFO's, I'm sure there is a hard drive somewhere with an image for every card that will be produced for whatever set is upcoming, (rather then just sell sheet images) but because of the rampant compartmentalization within Topps very few people know about it (and if asked would deny its existence)