The Golden Age of Baseball Cards™

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Vintage Baseball Card Blog

Topps’ Exclusive Deal with Major League Baseball

August 6, 2009

by William Szczepanek

The Topps exclusive deal with Major League Baseball has everyone in a twitter. What does it mean for the future of baseball cards? Who will survive?  How will humanity be affected? Topps’ rights include exclusivity on MLB, Jewel Event and Club trademarks, logos and other intellectual property, for use on baseball cards, stickers and certain other product categories featuring MLB players. Exclusive rights begin on January 1, 2010. "Generations of baseball fans have grown more connected to the game through collecting baseball cards," said Baseball Commissioner, Bud Selig. "We look forward to partnering with Topps to restore baseball cards as the game's premiere collectable."

Eisner was quoted by The New York Times as saying, "This is redirecting the entire category toward kids." For the last 30 years Topps has not held the exclusive rights. "There is a greater chance of organizing the marketplace with a singular partner," said Tim Brosnan, MLB's executive vice president for business. "It's a business that's critically important to our mission, to make players icons to kids."

I’m not a lawyer, but it does seem that there could be antitrust implications.  It’s not the same as the exclusives that MLB has with an official car (Chevrolet), credit card (MasterCard), soft drink (Pepsi).  People will buy and use these things whether MLB supports them or not. It is the death knoll to any baseball card manufacturer who can’t use a team logo since the team logo is an integral part of the product, unless those companies, like Upper deck, can innovate to provide something brand new.

Kids aren't confused. The market just hasn't been geared toward them. The kids know a good deal when they see it and Topps will have to do a good job in order to reign them in.

What do people really want from the new Topps, or baseball cards in general?  Is the (are the) manufacturer(s) listening, or are they plotting to suck everybody into a scheme that will make them more money. Kids in the 50s got sucked in, but they also had a love affair with cards. Today, very few people are actually happy with what they are buying.  Frustration abounds.  Maybe what most people really want is something more to complain about.

Companies today pride themselves on their customer service.  If these companies did a good job they wouldn’t need customer service staffs in the first place.  Health Care Insurance companies provide a tremendous service to healthy people around the country. People aren’t quite so satisfied when they get sick and their coverage is denied.  Is Topps listening?

Value in the future comes from a combination of qualities - scarcity, and interest.  If nobody wants it, it doesn’t matter how scarce it is.  The Honus Wagner card has value because very few of these cards exist, but many people would like to have one.  Why do people want a Honus Wagner card?  They want one because of its value, and because they have something that no one else can have. Very few people remember seeing Honus Wagner play.  Not even me.

Cards from the 50s and 60s have value because many people relate to the cards personally and they were produced in a somewhat limited quantity, so there is a demand.  When people who collected these cards are dead, will there still be an interest and will there be long-term value?

Which of today’s cards will have value in the future?  It will be those cards that are of particular interest in the future that have been produced in limited quantity.  Can anyone predict of all the cards that have been produced in the last 30 years, which, if any, will have particular value? Not me.

What do people want in a baseball card? Most adults want something that will have value later on. Most kids want something that’s fun. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.  Or, are they?  If they are too scarce, then they don’t become popular.  If something is popular then it will probably be oversold.

I think there is great potential for baseball cards made of plastic with computer chips controlling images, statistics and possibly game play.  But, are these really baseball cards?  Do real baseball cards need to be made of cardboard?   Again, a collection of cardboard cards that contain statistics which allow for competitive game play could be popular with both kids and adults.  It would be very easy to devise a game played with these cards and dice that could spark interest, particularly if the game statistics on each version of a player’s card varied, creating a career year for some, or an off season for others.

Most everyone wants great design, photography and layout.  The cards of today surpass most from the past in this respect, though the classic look can be very appealing.

Much criticism has been made that the market is glutted with cards of all kinds and that people confused and can’t decide what to collect.  That analogy seems a bit lame.  The computer industry prospers with many different models. A multitude of automobile models allow people to purchase what appeals to them. It’s the competition that drives the market, however, each market is still able to survive because there is enough demand for each model, as long as people can afford to buy them. When people cannot afford cars then the more efficient, less expensive models survive, which means that we will all probably be driving Chinese cars in the next 5 to 10 years.

Where am I going with this?  Chinese baseball cards for a penny a pack? This concept is not as far fetched as it sounds. Though, I do expect more innovation in the future, by linking baseball cards to Web media and by creating baseball cards for more than just collecting purposes. This should bode well for baseball card dealers, who are now wondering about the direction of their business.

The market is alive and well, but it’s just changing like everything else.  

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