The trading card world is still reeling from the news that was reported by The Wall Street Journal and others on Thursday afternoon, that MLB and the MLBPA will both enter into a long-term, lucrative agreement with Fanatics to be the exclusive trading card producer when current licenses expire.
But that’s burying the lede, which is this: Topps is out.
This is earth-shattering news, especially for a sport — baseball — that values its history and tradition more than any other of the core American sports. And to give the boot to the company that’s produced baseball cards since 1951, by handing an exclusive license to a new company, is almost unfathomable. This is like MLB saying, “Sorry, Yankees. We’ve decided the Mets will be the exclusive baseball team representing New York City and the surrounding area. Thanks for being part of our history, but you’re not part of the future.”
MORE: Ranking the 13 best sets of the Junk Wax Era
Now, speculation is rampant that Topps could figure into the future, somehow. There is not yet a name for the new company under the Fanatics umbrella that will produce and distribute these trading cards, and Topps as a company is available for acquisition. The deal to take the company public fell apart when Thursday’s news broke.
Maybe Fanatics buys Topps and uses the infrastructure — employees, printing presses, distribution networks, auto/relic acquisition, etc. — already in place to make it a seamless transition. Again, that’s just speculation (hopeful, because it would be great to see Topps still in the baseball card game).
The secret to making money in the trading card collecting game is no secret. Topps and Panini both cracked that code, as evidenced by the crazy amounts of demand, money and interest that drove the hobby to unprecedented levels in 2020 and 2021.
“Sales numbers are the best that they have been in the past decade,” Emily Kless, communications manager for Topps, told Sporting News last October.
“It has been absolutely insane,” Jason Howarth, vice president for Panini America, told SN that same week.
So this new company has a blueprint for how to print money. Sure, there are tweaks to be made — for example, nobody seems to like redemption cards, though they’re probably a necessary evil — but the basic game plan is pretty simple. So today, we have one request for this new company, however it shapes up. It’s a simple ask.
Make cards available.
I cannot stress this enough: Have at least one base-type product that’s available everywhere, all the time. Not every product, of course. Demand is good for a business, obviously. High-end products with high-dollar entry points are wonderful for the bottom line. But it’s crazy that people who want to buy baseball cards are not able to, unless they happen to get lucky and walk in shortly after a department store’s shelves have been stocked. And expand the reach beyond department stores.
Let’s get back to the days when every gas station, bodega and convenience store had a few packs available, for kids or kids at heart.
This product line does not need to have bells and whistles. Good photography and design is a must, of course. Celebrate the game, this wonderful sport of baseball, with the images and the execution. Don’t go cheap. But do go back to the days when each pack had one “special” card, like Topps Gold or Upper Deck’s Electric Diamond, that’s unique and fun to find but isn’t going to cause flippers to go out of their way to clear out shelves the moment they’re stocked.
And, this is maybe the most important part: No more than $1 per pack, for a dozen or so cards. Include fun subsets — think 1991 Score — and some type of sticker — think Junk Wax Fleer or UD’s hologram stickers — for the kids. This isn’t a get-rich-quick set, but it absolutely is a worthwhile long-term investment.
These products will build the hobby by getting more kids — and kids at heart — excited about collecting. You cannot entice someone to collect if you can’t get the product into their hands. I keep thinking back to a conversation I had with D.J. Kazmierczak, Panini’s VP of sales and product development, earlier this summer. We talked about this exact subject, referencing the early-1990s Donruss line, Triple Play, that Panini brought back for one year in 2012.
“The industry was in a completely different place then. Back then, as I was joining the company, the P&Ls were very tight, being honest with you,” Kazmierczak said. “A lot of products, if they weren’t profitable they just didn’t last. (Triple Play) was a victim when we tried that for this exact reason, to make a kids-type product. It did not sell, and that’s why it went away. Could we bring that back now, in this environment? We probably could support it, and maybe we will. The longer that this inflated marketplace goes on, the more we’ll have to consider those types of products. We do need to get more products into the marketplace that are affordable. I recognize that. I don’t want to go without saying that. It is important to us. It’s just not a simple solution.”
MORE: Ranking the top baseball card sets of the ’80s and ’90s
It’s easy to understand why the 2012 Triple Play product wouldn’t have sold well at card shops and card shows. Most of the people shopping there are looking for the lottery ticket. And that’s why distribution is so very important for this type of product. This new Fanatics company, if it truly understands what’s important about growing the hobby, will bring the product into people’s everyday worlds. We talk a lot about the mistakes card companies made during the Junk Wax Era, when they produced basically one product and just mashed the “print” button over and over. But distribution wasn’t a problem. In fact, it’s a model. Again, not for every line — the products that retail for $1,000 a box don’t need to be next to the king-size Snickers bars at every QT — but for the “get our product in people’s hands” problem, it’s perfect.
Because here’s the thing: Clearly, the market is still booming, even now after life has somewhat returned to normal. Grow the hobby, a dollar pack at the time. This absolutely has to be a priority for the new Fanatics regime. I hear all the time: “Nobody wants a pack that isn’t going to have a lottery-ticket type card,” but, sorry, that’s just not true. Just because folks on eBay aren’t clamoring for Topps Opening Day doesn’t mean a product like that doesn’t fill a need in the hobby.
I was in a local card shop this week, and a kid came in looking to buy a pack of football or basketball cards. The cheapest available started at $9 per pack. And that’s not price-gouging, by any stretch. It’s just what the cost is. The kid left without a pack. That cannot happen, and the responsibility does not lie with the card-shop owners. It’s absolutely on the companies — well, company — going forward.
If you’ve followed me on Twitter this summer, you know I give away packs of Junk Wax cards at the ballpark when I’m covering a game.
you know how this works, folks. if you’re at the Brewers-Cardinals game tonight and you want a FREE pack of old-school baseball cards, let me know and head on up to the press box. you’ll get your choice of these 11 different brands/years/sets. pic.twitter.com/DYSrd8cA3Q
— Ryan Fagan (@ryanfagan) August 19, 2021
These are not packs with “lottery ticket” cards, but I can promise you that the smiles on the faces of the people who open those packs — young or old — are proof to me that available, affordable packs are an absolute must for the long-term health of the hobby.
Do it for the kids, and the kids at heart.