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Century Old Baseball Hobby in Jeopardy?


If you haven’t seen the news in recent weeks, retail-giant Fanatics has made massive waves in the card collecting world, and while we’re still sorting through the details, change is coming.

A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that Fanatics would become the exclusive licensee for baseball cards. It wasn’t there where things stopped, though. The NBA and NFL also joined in the venture. That means over the next few years, it will no longer be Topps or Panini that produces sports cards, but instead this new brand entering into a completely new venture.

Specifically looking at baseball, Topps is the only player to be considered. Their current deal with Major League Baseball runs through 2025, but the license with the MLB Players Association expires following the 2022 season. Whereas Panini can produce unlicensed cards with big-league players, Topps would no longer have rights to major leaguers for their cards. The lone SKU they’d be able to make in 2023 would be the Bowman line featuring minor leaguers.

The blow to Topps is substantial, and the impending public merger with Mudrick Capital was called off following the news. Also notably, Alex Rodriguez’s intentions to buy Topps’ competitor Panini were also called off. For the New York-based card company, the exit from MLB leaves Topps holding only soccer as their notable sport-based license.

Rob Manfred is looking out for the almighty dollar here. Fanatics' purchase price is reportedly ten times larger than any previous deal agreed to by the union. It also directly benefits Major League Baseball and those within the MLBPA. The league owns equity in Fanatics and effectively allows all parties to further capitalize from one another.

A recent report from CNBC suggests that Fanatics' interests span far more than just cardboard. The retail giant is looking to create a whole new pillar within its company. From grading to selling, the company wants to have avenues for every aspect of the lifecycle of card collecting. Based on the report, it appears that the new giant entrant will explore any potential opportunity within the hobby.

The rub is that Fanatics and the leagues themselves seem to be betting on the popularity and collectibility residing with the product rather than the brand. Topps and Panini have done themselves no favors over the years. Poor customer service, slow redemption turnarounds, and dated websites are just touching the surface of current problems. What they do have, however, is an established identity. Topps is celebrating 70 years of baseball cards this season, and the iconic offerings being paid handsomely for are as much because of the subject as they are the established desire rooted in the brand.

Vintage cards have soared due to their scarcity. Key rookies have experienced a boom because of the sets Topps included them in. Lesser competitors such as Leaf and Onyx have seen little success in driving desire to the same levels despite similar subjects and chase offerings. Fanatics will have to buck that trend.

We’re still months, and potentially years, from understanding how this all will look. For the sake of Topps and Panini, being bought and allowing their brands to be used under the Fanatics umbrella seems like a promising avenue to pursue. Maybe that’s not one the new head honcho will be agreeable to. I find it hard to get excited about an entirely new offering from my collecting seat, no matter how much of a draw the shiny feeling may bring. Topps is iconic with baseball cards, and while I enjoy the hobby, it’s an unnecessary venture into disposable income.

Years down the road, some may consider this era vintage, so maybe I just shifted my focus. I’d love to be surprised by Fanatics and find myself drawn in, but for now, I’m more than comfortable sitting on the sidelines and working through the bewilderment of what just took place.

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I haven't been interested at all in baseball cards since I was a kid. I do find the single licensee platform to be the way the major sports, ultra especially, MLB have operated. It seems to me, this is just more of the same MLB policy. Short term gains without any vision at all costs.

There has been a magnificent decline in baseball card brands over the past couple of decades.

https://www.bbonly.com/baseball-cards-by-year-and-brand.php

  • 2008 - 49 brands
  • 2009 - 36 brands
  • 2010 - 19 brands
  • 2011 - 16 brands
  • 2012 - 12 brands
  • 2015 - 11 brands
  • 2017 - 17 brands
  • 2018 - 19 brands
  • 2019 - 13 brands
  • 2020 - 9 brands
  • 2021 - 2 brands

We've seen the same move in regards to television, etc. It's not without similarities across other sports or product lines, either. With the decline in market competition, gaining sole access to an entire marketplace (monopoly) has been pursued at length. Apple's iPhone was originally exclusive to AT&T and Palm's Pre was exclusive to Sprint, for example. The big names no longer do this as it's proven to be a disaster, but I suppose MLB's ability to offer a double monopoly (product market and product together) is enticing. Kinda like cable companies owning not only the lines that go to your house, but also the content you receive. 

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I watch this market through the eyes of my ten year old that really likes the idea of cards, but there are big parts of the market that exceed a ten year old’s budget.

I’m not sure what to think about cards in that context - there is not the ubiquity there once was, and it’s interesting that cards become a digital currency in games like MLB The Show. What is probably my biggest concern is all of this concentration of brands under the umbrella of the Fanatics company. They already seem to control much of the merchandising and all of the online presence of MLB and others; it’s not the best experience for fans and seemingly not for teams. The Twins online store is a Fanatics site that has far fewer products available than you can find in person at Target Field for instance - and that retail arm of the Twins has no online presence.

I’m curious what that experience will translate to for card collectors. I’m not confident that a one source for all things baseball will be a good thing.

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5 hours ago, bean5302 said:

I haven't been interested at all in baseball cards since I was a kid. I do find the single licensee platform to be the way the major sports, ultra especially, MLB have operated. It seems to me, this is just more of the same MLB policy. Short term gains without any vision at all costs.

There has been a magnificent decline in baseball card brands over the past couple of decades.

https://www.bbonly.com/baseball-cards-by-year-and-brand.php

  • 2008 - 49 brands
  • 2009 - 36 brands
  • 2010 - 19 brands
  • 2011 - 16 brands
  • 2012 - 12 brands
  • 2015 - 11 brands
  • 2017 - 17 brands
  • 2018 - 19 brands
  • 2019 - 13 brands
  • 2020 - 9 brands
  • 2021 - 2 brands

We've seen the same move in regards to television, etc. It's not without similarities across other sports or product lines, either. With the decline in market competition, gaining sole access to an entire marketplace (monopoly) has been pursued at length. Apple's iPhone was originally exclusive to AT&T and Palm's Pre was exclusive to Sprint, for example. The big names no longer do this as it's proven to be a disaster, but I suppose MLB's ability to offer a double monopoly (product market and product together) is enticing. Kinda like cable companies owning not only the lines that go to your house, but also the content you receive. 

Nailed it, this world is all about verticality and it's not good for consumers because we're ultimately left with 1-3 choices and none of them fit our particular preference.

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Many of my 1950's New York Yankee Topps and Bowman cards were defaced by me, due to my deep dislike for the Yankees,, which began as a boy, and continues today, decades later.  Nobody told me that a 1954 Mickey Mantle  card with an inked moustache, would years later devalue my card hundreds of dollars. Who knew?

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my ‘60s experience was somewhat different, ashbury. it was ALL about ripping open that 5-cent pack and rifling through the five minty-fresh cards in hope of finding killebrew, oliva, tovar or the ever-elusive mudcat grant — and the unique thrill when it actually happened. i do agree that it had nothing to do with asset appreciation. but i’d like to think that today’s 10-year-old kid can still find total satisfaction in seeking a similar needle-in-a-haystack thrill.

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On 9/5/2021 at 10:11 AM, Shaitan said:

Cards make very little sense in a digital era. Develop an app that appeals to the 8-14 age range.

As someone that actively participates in buying cards now, and as a 31 year old, I don't understand this at all. Cards are a commodity I want to own tangibly, not in a digital sense. I don't get NFT's at all though, and feel old thinking about them.

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On 9/7/2021 at 10:36 AM, Ted Schwerzler said:

As someone that actively participates in buying cards now, and as a 31 year old, I don't understand this at all. Cards are a commodity I want to own tangibly, not in a digital sense. I don't get NFT's at all though, and feel old thinking about them.

I also don't think digital cards make much sense. But I think MLB needs something for new tech that appeals to the audience the way that cards once did. 

Few people born after 2000 care about physical collections.

As a kid, here's what I liked about cards:

- collecting

- trivia/stats

- pictures

- bonding with friends

You can get stats/trivia and pictures everywhere now. But I see a void now for the bonding/community aspect, as well as a modern form of collection.

I'm not saying cards should go digital -- simply changing the medium and not the product is a recipe for failure. But something new that creates that enthusiasm.

 

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