The past couple weeks have seen articles written about the card collecting hobby (specifically baseball card collecting) by people that I would personally consider to be outsiders. The authors even allude or admit to their status as outsiders. These high-profile writers are using their newspapers or aggregate blog services to chime the death knell of baseball card collecting.
You may have seen these articles make the rounds on twitter, or on the message boards, or linked in other people’s blogs. Pieces like these aren’t anything new, but they are still frustrating. Their articles tend to lament the good old days of the hobby they admittedly largely left behind. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but they also take it a couple steps farther by stating that the “Topps monopoly” has ruined baseball cards forever and proceed to provide sensationalism and baffling opinions instead of facts to back up their claims.
What’s even more frustrating is that I was made aware of one of these articles through a tweet by Upper Deck. They used it as a back alley entrant to announce that they’re going to produce baseball cards again in the 2013 season. I’m okay with companies taking playful jabs at one another, but Upper Deck should know the difference between opinion and fact, and they also shouldn’t be promoting an article claiming the death of a card collecting category they hope to be a part of again shortly.
I may not be a professional writer like the authors of either of the two most recent items, but I can at least dispute the most egregious claim that keeps popping up. Let’s forget about all the petty little arguments about card numbering, the devaluation of 1988 Barry Bonds, or prices of packs over a 25 year span.
Their respective theses may or may not need debating, but they’re symptomatic of a greater issue. Collector X doesn’t like something in the newest Topps product, so it must be a result of the “monopoly” and their obvious laziness. “They’re the only baseball card license in town, so why should they care? They’re phoning it in non-stop. I wish other card companies would come in, so they would be forced to try and I could enjoy Topps cards again.”
I hate to break it to you, but Topps doesn’t have a monopoly.
There are several other card manufacturers in the market, Topps isn’t the only one. I know they’re the only one allowed to produce cards with MLB logos right now, but they aren’t a monopoly. That just means they have an exclusive license. It’s like saying Nintendo has a monopoly because they are the only ones allowed to release a Mario game. One is a stranglehold on a particular market and the other is a competitive advantage. There’s a big difference.
A monopoly would mean that they have sole control over the market, and they don’t. The trading card market is quite diverse. Panini is producing baseball cards. Upper Deck has the ability to produce them and apparently will be soon. Leaf and Tristar have been releasing things here and there. If someone wants baseball cards, they have other options. They’re not fully licensed, but they are options. A big option is to not buy new cards at all.
Major League Baseball chose Topps to be their exclusive license. Just like the NBA chose Panini to be the exclusive license holder of their league. If these were true monopolies, Topps and Panini would only have to worry about making enough revenue to stay in business. Instead, these are competitive advantages that the professional sports leagues can take away. It’s hard to imagine the card companies are truly being lazy when they have every intention to impress their respective leagues so that license can be extended, thus extending their competitive advantage.
If the card manufacturers fail to deliver the sales, the leagues will be moving on (and let’s not forget about the shareholders they have to answer to), so what incentive does Topps have for phoning it in?
If Topps was phoning it in, would they have instituted the Million Card Giveaway contests, or this year’s Million Dollar challenge?
If Topps was just skating by, would they hire Hall of Famers to go on talk shows and promote their product?
For that matter, would they be signing new Hall of Famers to autograph deals if they could just produce whatever they wanted and be a-ok? Why pursue Griffey if they have a “monopoly?”
Would they be spending the time and money to create and air commercials on television?
Would they even try new product lines and online exclusives?
Would they try to one-up Panini in the “Largest Card Ever” department just to get some national press? Sure it’s a ridiculous promotional stunt, but if it even brings a small fraction of new collectors into the fold, isn’t that a success and, again, not being lazy?
Previous quality control issues either existed before the exclusive license or also exist in product lines that aren’t exclusive, so that can’t really be a legitimate argument, can it?
Same goes for any customer service issues you may have heard about.
So, I hope that helps dispute some of the “laziness” arguments. Please let me know if I miss any and I can try to address them in the comments.
Okay, but what about innovation? Competition breeds innovation, which means better cards. That’s true, but why can’t innovation still penetrate across sport lines? If Upper Deck produces a shadow box card for a NCAA football release, don’t you think that affects how Panini handles their basketball? One company produces a video card, the other company feels compelled to do something similar to stay competitive. No matter the sport, it’s all part of the same market and innovation can come from any company and any product line.
And as for sales, I don’t have numbers, but I can make educated assumptions that sales are up based on levels of production. If certain parallels or inserts that used to be included in every pack are now in every other, despite a similar print run, it stands to reason that Topps believes they can move enough product to cover that insertion rate.
The only thing I can’t dispute is choice. Some people want to only collect fully licensed MLB or NBA cards, but they don’t like Topps or Panini respectively. That’s the biggest downside. I’m not a fan of the exclusive license for this reason. In my ideal world, the MLB and NBA would issue licenses to a few companies and reduce the number of products each and produce. Why? Because the reason I got out of the industry was partly pack cost, but mostly because there was just too much to keep up with. So from that standpoint, I like the exclusive licenses.
Anyway, that’s my opinion, but it hardly means the industry is dead. It seems to be alive and well.
I don’t really know the best way to end this. After all, I’m not a professional writer. All I can do is ask that when you read a complaint that you take a minute and think things over. Is it that Topps is being lazy, or is it that the accuser is being unrealistic or overly dramatic?
I think you know the answer. Long live the hobby.