Licensing exclusivity in the world of baseball cards is again a hot topic
Over the weekend, an interesting rumor broke from Wax Heaven, a popular baseball card blog. That site reports that Topps has struck an extension for its exclusive deal with Major League Baseball to continue to be the sole producer of its baseball cards beyond 2020 (the year the current deal is believed to expire). Topps has been the exclusive producer of MLB’s cards for about a decade now and the article says that will be continuing. Exact details on the extension remain unknown and the report is yet to even be confirmed as of now. Full disclosure here: this may be true or it may be premature.
If you’re a pre-war or vintage collector without knowledge of such happenings, you’re obviously unaffected. But the gist of it is that all four of the major sports have exclusive deals with card companies these days. Topps has MLB, which first happened in 2009. Upper Deck is the sole producer for NHL cards and Panini has the NBA and NFL. Now, those companies can and do make other cards featuring athletes in sports where they don’t own the licenses. But they cannot produce licensed product for other leagues using real names of current players, logos, etc. Those are more of a generic product and, while not collecting them myself, likely not as desirable.
While there are all sorts of grumblings that this can’t and shouldn’t be happening, it’s of course not the first rodeo for this sort of thing. While Topps had a long stranglehold on the market, Fleer tried to break in for some time. They were shut out until finally winning the right to enter the card market along with Donruss, producing licensed baseball cards in 1981. After that, the flood gates sort of opened up. There was Score jumping on board in 1988. Topps revived Bowman in 1989 the same year that Upper Deck got into the market. Others continued to follow suit and things were confounded when companies began creating other premium brands like Fleer did with Ultra in 1991. In a period of only about a decade, there were suddenly a whole lot of options out there as opposed to only one.
Back in those days, you had all kinds of companies producing all kinds of cards. Basically, if they could afford a license with a league, they could play ball. But while there wasn’t much exclusivity for league licenses, you did have were some individual player deals that sort of set the ground for this.
One popular example was when Classic, a company that got into producing cards of draft picks and rookies after producing some board games in the 1980s, signed Shaquille O’Neal and other college athletes to a deal in 1992 that allowed them to print their very first cards featuring them in collegiate uniforms. That set the collecting world into a frenzy and made Classic an instant hit as the Shaq cards were his very first ones.
Now, it was really short lived as other mainstream card companies were able to print his cards as soon as he got into the league, anyway. Classic beat everyone to the punch but only by a few months or so. But, the long-term credibility Classic gained by the move and the publicity really built that brand and made them instantly relevant at the height of card collecting.
Good or bad?
So is licensing exclusivity good or bad? As is the case with just about everything, there are two sides to the issue.
The overwhelming mindset is that the deal is good for the card manufacturers which own the deals but bad for just about everyone else. I mostly come out on that end as well but is that entirely true?
Here’s the thing. Like many other collectors, I got out of baseball cards around the time I got ready for college. For one thing, there were more important things going on like dragging myself out of bed for class after a night of binging on NBA Live ’95 or Madden with friends. But for another, it became an absolute rat race trying to keep up with the staggering number of sets out there. And when I returned a few years later, visiting a card shop on a trip back home, I was even more disinterested in jumping back into the hobby with parallels now the norm and these strange things called game-used inserts.
Take a price guide these days and it’s easy to see what I mean. You’ll find a large amount of pages for cards from the 1990s through today and the sets featured from before then are usually limited to only a small amount of pages. It simply became too difficult to try to keep up and that was particularly true if you collected more than just baseball. Adding football, basketball, or hockey to the mix made things even worse. From that standpoint, exclusivity can certainly be a good thing as it puts a somewhat reasonable cap on the number of products in a particular sport. And while I’m all for options, there comes to a point where too much is simply too much.
The irony in all of this, of course, is that when there were too many products, collectors repeatedly bemoaned that fact. I know – I was one of them and I wasn’t alone. Whenever I talk to collectors that got out of the hobby, that, along with the fact that much of what they collected as a child had become nearly worthless, is among the most oft-repeated lines. Now that there are fewer options, collectors suddenly want more.
And even if you like having a gaggle of options, the idea of numerous manufacturers is an absolute pain in the butt for collectors of only specific players. Sure, the counter argument to that is that’s already the case since numerous 1/1 cards every year make it impossible to collect every card from a single player, anyway. But the fact remains that in the Wild West of numerous brands printing numerous sets, collecting individual players would be an even bigger nightmare than it already is with an even larger number of parallels and rare, sometimes expensive, inserts to chase.
The bad, however, overshadows that in the mind of many collectors.
The biggest problem with licensing exclusivity is the clear lack of competition. That’s bad not only in baseball cards but in other industries, too. It’s the reason why monopolies are often not allowed to continue.
As a pro wrestling fan, that problem has been apparent for some time. When the WWE had the WCW as competition in the late 1990s, the quality of both products remained high because they had to keep their fanbase together. Today, without any real competition, the WWE has scooped up virtually every relevant talent in the industry and, in the minds of many, offers a subpar product without any real repercussion. Don’t like the product? Tough, because they’re the only game in town.
Topps and other exclusive licensees really have no motivation to ‘step their game up.’ That doesn’t mean they will intentionally produce a low-quality product, of course. After all, there are jobs to be kept and such. But there’s really no overwhelming push to need to produce the absolute best product they possibly can.
It isn’t only quality that suffers from a lack of competition, either. It’s that the pricing can very quickly get out of hand and there is next to nothing that the collector can do to stop it.
Sure, collectors can always ‘vote with their wallets’ and such, but the reality is that the cards will be bought by somebody. That’s evident in how much collectors will spend on modern wax and even modern singles, like the $400,000 Mike Trout card and the talk of Shohei Ohtani’s $100,000 card, despite the fact that he’s played not even a full half season of major league baseball. Not shelling out $500 for unopened product at your local card shop may hurt that business a little but it isn’t even registering for the manufacturer who will sell those items regardless, whether it’s to that shop or elsewhere.
The idea of collectors not buying cards to try to force prices lower is admirable. But like other such boycotts, it really wouldn’t work because too many collectors love themselves some baseball cards and couldn’t stay away even if their lives depended on it.
Who’s to blame?
Assuming the news of an extension is true, Topps is about to take quite a PR hit. In fact, that’s already begun on Twitter despite the news not yet being confirmed. But should they?
For one thing, they’re hardly the only outfit doing this. If you have outrage over Topps for its exclusive deal with Major League Baseball, you should have the same anger with Panini and Upper Deck … you know, the companies that you wish could compete with Topps in baseball. Seems kind of dumb, right?
And, here’s a secret: Topps’ primary responsibility is not to appease collectors, anyway – it’s to make a profit. Being angry at Topps for cornering the market on baseball cards is akin to being angry at Amazon for making it so darn easy to order things online from them than it is to purchase goods from your local business down the street. Or at the restaurant across the street slashing its prices to run another nearby restaurant out of business. The limiting of competition happens in virtually every industry, in one form or another, everywhere.
The real blame lies with the leagues themselves for taking these deals. They are making millions of dollars with these contracts so, essentially, they’re doing what they should be as well. But if you’re a modern collector and want to direct anger, do it towards them. Those are the entities deciding that collectors don’t need more product – not the card companies. The card companies are merely trying to stay relevant and blaming them for that isn’t fair.
What happens next?
So where does card collecting go from here? The reality is that none of this ultimately matters too much. This same model has been in place since 2009 and some younger collectors haven’t even been in the hobby when they had more than one option. Topps is still producing a good amount of variety and while it would be good to have more competition in the market, there’s still enough stuff out there to keep things interesting for modern collectors.
Is it ideal? Of course not. But there isn’t going to be any type of dramatic hobby shift when this has been happening for such a long time, anyway.
And if you’re like me out there building a T205 set and stockpiling pre-war cards, you can continue to sit back with your vintage and enjoy the shenanigans from afar.