Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Fisking the MLBP/Topps Renewal Announcement.

Yeah, I know.  Long time, no blog.  I guess I owe you an explanation for that.  See, I’ve been blogging less and Tweeting more.  I figure, if I can get my point across in a series of 140-character Tweets, why wait to post a 500-word blog post.  Efficiency. 

Want more of my takes?  Go give me a follow on Twitter @stalegum.  DO IT NOW.

So what brings me back to this decreasingly relevant corner of the Stalegum Media Empire?  There are some things that can not be refuted in 140 characters such as the news emanating out of the Las Vegas Industry Ass Slap. 

(That’s what I call it anyway.  The Las Vegas Industry Summit is an excuse for bunch of dealers, distributors, and other industry types to go to Vegas, party like it’s 1999 for four days, and slap each other on the ass for such a job well done over the last year.) 

The big news was that MLB Properties (MLBP) sentenced collectors to an additional seven years of boring, characterless, gimmick-laden, baseball card products.  FEEL THE EXCITEMENT!

To their credit, the PA did give Upper Deck their license back and Panini locked-up Stephen Strasburg to an exclusive autograph deal.  But if it’s “real” baseball cards you want, you’re stuck with Topps until 2020 – like it or not.

But what really bothered me about the extension was MLBP’s justifications for granting it. 

They are laughable. 

So laughable, I’m going to do something I haven’t done on this blog in a while – well, other than actually post something – and “Fisk” it.

OBTW, I tried to find the “official” MLBP news release, but could not.  I also attempted to find such release on the website; which now, apparently, has evolved into an e-commerce site selling t-shirts.  The closest thing I could find was Beckett’s article which I have reprinted (in italics) below.

By Chris Olds | Beckett Baseball Editor

Topps and MLB Properties are extending their exclusive licensing agreement for baseball cards.

Their deal is extended through the year 2020, according to an announcement made by the company today.

First of all, seven years?  Isn’t that a little, oh I don’t know, long?  Considering that the current agreement that expires at the end of this calendar year was only for four years, seven seems a bit excessive.  Maybe (hopefully?) there’s an out clause.  I don’t know.

This brings me to something Brian Gray from Leaf said this week in Vegas.  Official league licenses will soon not matter.  Maybe with this news, collectors who previously turned their nose at unlicensed and partially-licensed cards may take a second look.  I for one was impressed with the previews for 2012 (ahem) Panini Prizm Baseball.  It completely blows away 2013 Finest Baseball.  Who knows, maybe they might make their own cards? (Foreshadowing?)

If collectors are willing to take partially-licensed cards as seriously as fully-licensed ones, then Topps may have just over-paid for seven years’ worth of fool’s gold.

“Since making Topps our exclusive baseball card licensee, they have continually validated that decision by bringing clarity to the marketplace

“Clarity to the marketplace?”  I’m curious as to how MLBP defines “clarity.” 

Does purposefully concealing ALL elements to a card product until AFTER its release “bring clarity?”

Does having 12 different levels of parallels in nearly every product “bring clarity?”

Are they aware that there are THREE different Bryce Harper rookie cards in 2012 Topps Baseball?  If so, what’s so clear about that?

 and reinvigorating the hobby,

“Reinvigorating the hobby?” By what metric?    

especially among young people,” said Howard Smith, the MLB Senior Vice President, Licensing, in a prepared statement.

“Especially among young people.”  There’s a theme here; we’ll be getting back to it soon.

“Generations of baseball fans have grown more attached to the game through collecting baseball cards, and Topps is continually coming up with new and creative ways to reach the next generation.”

Reaching “the next generation,” how?  Oh yeah, that’s right, I forgot. Topps Attax!  Match Attax was so big with kids in England, so naturally, it HAS to work over here.

Wait, what?  You’re telling me they don’t make Attax anymore?  BUT THAT WAS FOR “THE CHILDREN!”

Oh yeah,, how on earth could I have forgotten that? 

Huh?  They shut that website down a year-and-a-half ago?  BUT THAT WAS ALSO FOR “THE CHILDREN!”

So what are they doing now for “The Children?”

The longest-running manufacturer of baseball cards, Topps has made baseball cards since the 1950s and first signed its licensing deal with MLB Properties in 1969. Its current run as an exclusive licensee began in 2010. It will keep exclusivity on “MLB, Jewel Event and Club trademarks, logos and other intellectual property, for use on baseball cards, stickers and certain other product categories.”

Got that?

Topps said it will aims to “improve the retail and collecting experience and make cards increasingly relevant to children” in its statement.
“The Children.” 

I don’t know if anyone at MLBP or Topps knows this, or for that matter cares, but this is not a Hobby for “The Children” anymore.  It has been this way for decades.  It ceased to be a Hobby for “The Children” back when I was a child, and that was 30 years ago. 

This romanticized notion of Wally, Lumpy, Eddie Haskell and The Beaver, all trading and flipping Topps cards in a 1950s-era schoolyard is exactly that; a fictional representation of an era that no longer exists – and probably never did in the first place.  Yet by continuing to make appeals to “The Children,” this is the notion of collecting MLBP seemingly believes is ideal.  (Yes, I realize this is a “straw man” argument; but since no one at MLBP is returning my e-mails, this is all I can assume.)

If you really, really, want to bring “The Children” back into The Hobby, (a tenuous proposition, at best, but I’ll play along with the premise for shits and giggles) here’s a free bit of advice: Stop pandering to them.  Speaking as a former child, if there’s one thing children hate, it’s being treated like children.  That’s why Topps Attax failed to translate on this side of the Atlantic and Toppstown was discontinued. 

Here’s another free bit of advice to get “The Children” collecting again.  It may be too late now, but I’m going to give it to you anyway.  Give Panini and/or Upper Deck an MLBP license. 

Again, citing my previous experience as a former child, I came of age in the 80s, during the great boom in at-home video gaming.  When I was in grade school, we seriously debated the qualities and shortcomings of the respective video game systems we owned.  Every afternoon at recess it was on: Atari 2600 versus Intellivision.  In high school, the debates continued only the systems changed (Super Nintendo vs. Sega Genesis).  Even in my 20s, it continued with PlayStation versus Sega Saturn versus Nintendo 64.  
The competition created cliques that were fiercely loyal to their brand.  Despite the brand loyalty, we were still intrigued by the other systems.  (I mean, what NES kid didn’t want to play Sonic?)  They got “The Children” talking about video games, which in turn led to sales for all involved. 

The same was true in baseball cards.  When I was a kid, you were either a “Topps, a “Fleer,” or a “Donruss” kid. Having three different card sets to collect got us to talk and debate about cards.  More importantly, it got us to COLLECT cards, even those from the brand we weren’t loyal to.

If you want “The Children” to collect baseball cards again, you have to engage them on their terms.  In other words, don’t play down to their level and build brand loyalty.

“Topps has been making baseball cards for over 50 years,

First of all, don’t sell yourself short.  Topps has been making baseball cards for over SIXTY years.  Then again, if you think about it, they really haven’t.

The Topps of the Shorin family, Sy Berger and Woody Gelman no longer exists.  It ceased to exist in 2007 when the Shorin’s sold out to Madison Dearborn and Michael Eisner.  Oh sure, MDP and Eisner now own the Topps name and assets, but there is one thing they didn’t buy.  The soul of Topps.

A couple of months ago someone asked me what one word could best describe 2012 Topps Baseball.  I gave it some thought, and the word I replied with was “Soulless.”  There is no soul left in Topps anymore.  The product development teams are stocked with M.B.A.s and marketers instead of collectors and the results have been predictable: bland base sets, useless parallels, meaningless inserts, worthless hits, and dumb gimmicks. 

If I could, I’d take half a dozen M.B.A. students and another half a dozen marketing students, lock them in a room and tell them to make a baseball card product.  I’m sure the result would be something resembling 2013 Topps Baseball.

and with the ongoing support of MLB, we will continue to produce the most innovative and exciting collectibles in the marketplace,” said Doug Kruep, Topps’ Vice President and General Manager, U.S. Sports & Entertainment.

Like a Bryce Harper RC that you can’t reasonably find in a pack?

Like a gimmick card of a squirrel?

You call that “innovation” and “exciting?”  I’ll call it what it is: bullshit.  And unless Topps makes major changes in their product development, that’s exactly what The Hobby is in for the next seven years.

“We value our relationship with MLB and look forward to being in business with them for many years to come.”

Ummm, gee thanks.

Chris Olds is the editor of Beckett Baseball magazine. Have a comment, question or idea? Send an email to him at Follow him on Twitter by clicking here.

Yeah, yeah, we know Chris.  You don't have to put the same footer into every blog post. 


cynicalbuddha said...

Well damn if your going to come back you might as well come back throwing haymakers. I couldn't have agreed more with everything you said and though you can't see it I'm standing on my desk applauding you. And I already follow you on the twit. I just wish you'd find another reasons to write 500 + stuff again.

cynicalbuddha said...

Oh and time to reset the countdown. I ended up taking my countdown off the blog. To depressing having it up there anymore.

Spankee said...

Another inherent quality in kids, just like the desire to NOT be treated like a kid, is hating being told that there is one option. You can't say "I don't want those, I want THOSE". If Topps wants to play to Children, there damn sure needs to be more than one product that costs less than $2 a pack.

mike said...

Standing ovation, Mr. Harris. I've read your blog for a few years, and you've hit the nail on the head again with your latest opine about Topps.
I really think Topps' Opening Day is about as "kid-friendly" as you can get given the content and price point, but since the market changed and buying cards went from drug stores to eBay, the selling points should have changed as well. Offering 12 different color parallels to a base card, five inserts with no purpose and patch and auto cards that aren't interesting really have watered down the product. Topps hasn't aimed to making a dynamic product with its flagship or spinoff sets (as I can attest as a player collector) - but the market would be much better off with competition. I agree with both Spankee and Buddha in their sentiments.