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Morning Reaction: Pondering the Topps' Exclusive

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My cell phone rang a bit later than normal Wednesday night, just after 10:20. It was CNBC sports business guru Darren Rovell on the line. I’ve come to know this about Rovell in the six-plus years since I first met him: When he calls, you pick up – no matter what time it is.

This time, as always, Rovell was full of gold.

He was checking to see if I’d heard the news that Topps, according to a just-posted story on the New York Times website, had been granted an exclusive license from Major League Baseball effective beginning with the 2010 season.

I told him I hadn’t, and began immediately scrambling to put something together for our own website and blog, all the while discussing with Rovell what it all means in the grand scheme of things.

My first reaction was that Upper Deck’s announcement in early July that it had secured an extension from the MLBPA for next season was a mighty effective smokescreen that led quite a few folks – myself included – to believe that 2010 would be no different than 2009 in the baseball card category.

(Despite repeated efforts to obtain information on the state of baseball license renewals, we never were able to get much from the quieter-than-normal principals.)

My second reaction was that the announcement, at least on the surface, seems to put Upper Deck in a pretty precarious situation without licenses from MLB and the NBA.

I also thought about how three sports out of the four biggies now have exclusive trading card agreements with different companies and how, ultimately, the lack of competition almost always leads to fewer good choices for the collector – a point not lost on most of the collectors leaving comments to last night’s post on Beckett.com.

Rovell and I talked for a good 15 minutes, and much of that time was spent pondering whether kids – that largely lost demographic that many folks in this industry are trying desperately to reconnect with – will ever return to the hobby in meaningful numbers.

Personally, I don’t think they will. But I also don’t think that’s the end of the world, either.

Look, I love cards and I do my part to make sure that the kids in my life – my two sons, my nephews and nieces, the kids on the sports teams I help coach, the kids in my Sunday school class and the kids in my neighborhood – love cards, too. Some do, and that’s great. But for many of them, cards just don’t stack up, cool wise, to the myriad other options available these days, from iPhones to videogames and everything in between.

But you know who almost always thinks the cards I try to introduce are the cat’s pajamas? The parents; those thirty- and forty-somethings responsible for handing out the discretionary income and the ones who seem to be doing much of the collecting these days anyway.

That’s why I think the real growth opportunity in sports cards is the adult sports fan. That’s who really needs to hear the message about how cool sports cards are. They’re the ones who can do something about it, starting with opening their wallets and sharing their enthusiasm with their kids, who are sure to grow up to be adult sports fans themselves.

There are worse marketing strategies than embracing the fact that our core demographic is a 25-to-54-year-old male.

So, this morning, what does Topps’ exclusive in particular – and, in general, Panini’s in basketball and Upper Deck’s in hockey – mean in the grand scheme of things? That remains to be seen.

What we know for sure is that the trading card landscape is changing dramatically right in front of our eyes. That change is sure to continue in the coming weeks and months.

All we can do is stay prepared, remain open-minded and maintain a willing ear. After all, I get the feeling more late-night phone calls are coming.

— Tracy Hackler

8 Comments

Mark

Let me get this straight. MLB wants to give an exclusive to a company that has trouble with delivering what it promises in boxes, cannot even bother to show up at the National, cannot meet its release dates, has terrible customer service that cannot answer a letter without pissing of a 30+ year collector, has a terrible kids website that cannot even get the password mailed to me for my kids, and wants to direct all of its attention to kids that are not coming back like they think? Great! I am glad they are looking out for me because I am just a poor confused soul that doesn’t know what I am buying. On the bright side, this will help me save money on baseball cards next year as the only products I’m in on for Topps are the base Topps, Heritage, and A&G.

Posted August 6, 2009 at 10:40 am | Permalink

I hope that Eisner will do someting for the kids rather than just take their money. Maybe some of this discussion will point Topps in the right direction. Collectors can only hope. One thing for sure is that the landscape is changing.

Posted August 6, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
Jason in Dallas

Wasn’t it Topps that kept saying that exclusives were bad for the industry with the whole Razor deal?

Posted August 13, 2009 at 10:39 am | Permalink
TOM

MY GOD! Topps had THE WORST customer service in all the hobby already ….. and it got WORSE after the Eisner “Take-Over”. We don’t even get a lousy pack of cards and a “sorry” for all the expired redemptions that they refuse to fill (that also have a shelf-life shorter than that of all other companies!). The new regime is short and hardline in their responses. Im Done with Topps. DONE

Posted August 13, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink
Greg

I think this stinks for collectors. I have two kids and they have no interest in the hobby despite my efforts. Four years ago we lost Donruss with their great products, now we lose Upper Deck, while they stink with redemptions, they at least make some great high end product, so now we lose Premier, Ultimate, Sweet Spot and Exquisite. Topps has only had one original idea in the past three years and that was triple threads (Which was an idea they took from leaf). So maybe I will be like my kids and find other places to spend my money.

Posted August 13, 2009 at 3:15 pm | Permalink
Wade

My hope is that these exclusives in the various sports will cause kids to come back to collecting. The fact is, there are way too many brands, with too many sets/lines of cards, not to mention way too many inserts…way too confusing for the average kid. A kid buys a pack or box now and pulls what he thinks is a “good” card of a player, only to find out that it’s not the gold bordered, autographed, jersey with a patch card so it’s basically worthless.

Return collecting to it’s simplicity and I think you’ll have the kids come back. That may not be what the card companies want though, because like you say, kids aren’t the ones with the money..

Posted August 13, 2009 at 3:42 pm | Permalink
ScottA

Wade, explain to me how a card is “worthless” to a kid because it doesn’t have some stupid piece of cloth attached to it or doesn’t have a gold border?

It isn’t worth anything to an ADULT who is only buying it as an investment. To a KID, it is worth something to them if they want it, if they like the player or the team, if they like the picture, or if it reminds them of their favorite sport.

I’ve been collecting comic books and baseball cards for over 25 years… and I am SICK TO DEATH of people treating those industries like the stock market and “investing” in cards/comics only to be disappointed when the market drops out from under them like it did for BOTH industries in the late 90’s.

I’ll say the same thing to you that I’ve been saying to people (mostly kids who don’t listen to me, LOL) for over twenty years: Buy something because you LIKE it and NOT because you think it will be worth money some day. Then if it goes up in value, it’s a bonus and you can sell it later on if you want to. But if it doesn’t go up in value… then you still have something you like!

:-)

Posted August 14, 2009 at 4:48 pm | Permalink
Wade

Scott…I agree 100% with you…and I’ve been collecting comic books and cards for 35 years…unfortunately if you’ve been in any of the card shops or shows it’s easy to see that any kid over the age of, oh I don’t know, eight, knows what a Beckett is and goes straight to the price guide after they buy a pack of cards. I don’t like it any more than you do, but these kids see what everyone seems to want…the latest greatest insert…and don’t pay attention to anything else…

I’ve tried to get my son to collect what he likes and not worry about prices or what anyone else thinks is the best. You and I are on the same page, unfortunately I don’t think that has been the case for quite some time. As I originally said, I’m hoping that reducing the number of card companies per sport will eliminate the plethora of cards out there along with the confusion that both adults and kids run into. If we can get back to collecting rather than investing, everyone wins…

Posted August 17, 2009 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

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