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.