In Defense Of Topps (and Panini)

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.

20 comments to In Defense Of Topps (and Panini)

  • I don’t know if I’ve read these articles to which you are referring; I’d like to see them.

    I agree with you for the most part. Nothing annoys me on Twitter more than the endless harping from some about how everything about modern cards sucks, no matter what Topps/Panini rolls out. This is not productive in any fashion whatsoever. It’s pointless, yet we have to hear it over and over and over. If you’re endlessly critical, you’re not being effective and no one will take you seriously.

    I do think there are some things that Topps wouldn’t do/would do better, if another company was allowed to makes baseball cards with an MLB license. But overall, I do think Topps is trying and that people use “the monopoly” as the culprit for everything they don’t like with cards today.

    And as I said in a post a week ago — people are buying the cards, so something is going right.

  • I agree with the majority of your sentiments but I would change the Nintendo/Topps comparison. Nintendo developed, made, and marketed Mario. Topps did no such thing with the baseball logos. A fairer comparison would be that Topps’ Chrome set is akin to Nintendo’s Mario.

    I also believe that just because a company has a monopoly doesn’t mean that company won’t advertise (or, in this case, just because a company is advertising doesn’t mean it doesn’t have an effective monopoly). You still need to get people to buy your product, even if you are the only one producing such an item (for non-essential items this is true at least).

    I’m certainly guilty of wishing for more options in the marketplace, but I’m the same guy who fawns over boxes of Pacific cards from the late 90s. I enjoy quirky and simply accept that fact that some sets will be terrible from that era. It’d be hard for me to pin down ANY Topps sets in the past two or three years that I would label as terrible. There have been plenty of sets that haven’t interested me (hello all things Bowman) but that doesn’t mean the sets are awful.

    Unfortunately, I think you nailed it with your final line. So long as people are spending their money, things are going well (enough) for the card companies. Heck, look at all of us who give the companies plenty of free advertising simply by writing blog entries about their products (whether positive or not, press is press).

  • I think Topps has done a pretty good job over the last few years. Like Nachos said above, there hasn’t been any truly terrible products produced over the last couple of years. But, you can please everybody. If a certain product doesn’t pique my interest, I just don’t buy any of it. Simple as that. Somebody else might enjoy the product and that’s their right to do so.
    It would be cool to have another officially licensed manufacturer or 2 in the marketplace but I don’t know how my wallet would be able to handle it these days. As we all know the late 90’s had way too many manufacturers and products were coming out just about every week. If there were more manufacturers today, there would have to be some limits on how many different products can be produced per year.
    Long Live the Hobby!

  • Gotta disagree pretty strongly with the assertion that Topps doesn’t have a monopoly. I believe “baseball cards” represent a single, self-contained market — in a way that Mario certainly isn’t — and that interest in licensed, MLB cards is high enough that those comprise almost the entire market. Topps has all of that. That’s a monopoly.

    The better comparison would be if, say, Coke entered into exclusive contracts with every sugar producer and every manufacturer of natural and artificial sweeteners. So, Pepsi wouldn’t technically be prohibited from making soft drinks, just from making soft drinks that have any kind of sweetener in them at all.

    That’d be a monopoly, and the FTC would shut it down pretty quickly. I think the only reason that hasn’t happened here is that one party holds all the licenses, and MLB gets a great deal of freedom in deciding who to contract with — if it’s in MLB’s best interests to grant an exclusive license, the feds hesitate to interfere. (And also, as big multinational businesses and markets go, this is a pretty tiny and insignificant one.) It’s not likely to get them in trouble or anything the way it did decades ago, but no question it’s a monopoly.

    • Jon

      Bill, thanks for reading, but I don’t think your Coke/Pepsi analogy quite works. Coke contracting with ALL sweetener producers would be closer to a monopoly, but it’s not the same as Topps having one exclusive licence with the MLB.

      Other companies are allowed, and currently do, make baseball cards. They have a license with the MLBPA (the players association), which means they can use active players, but don’t have permission to the logos or team names. Panini has been doing so successfully for over a year (and even has a license with the Hall of Fame that I believe Topps does not have), Tristar & Leaf have released products, and Upper Deck took a break (assumed to be for legal reasons) but will be making baseball cards again this season. So, it’s more comparable to Coke having the sole right to real sugar, but Pepsi can still use Splenda, Sweet and Low, or other artificial sugars. They may not be exactly the same drinks, but definitely still part of the same market.

  • Great read and I agree with ALMOST all of what you had to say. I’ve been a shop owner for almost 5 years and have seen quite a bit of change in that short time.
    The one thing I get the most frustrated at is the impression you expressed towards the end of your article.

    “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.”

    I’ve never understood the need of people to ‘keep up with’ all of the products a company produces?
    Would you not buy a Chevy or Ford because they make too many models to keep up with?
    Would you not buy Coke or a Pepsi because they have too many flavors to keep up with?
    Would you stop watching sports because you can’t watch EVERY sport?
    As with anything else in our consumer driven society it’s all about moderation. Find the brands you like and collect them, it can be as simple as that can’t it?

    That all being said, I don’t have a problem with these exclusive deals and I agree that it hasn’t stifled innovation. My one complaint at this point would be exclusive autograph deals. I don’t like that I can’t get a Wayne Gretzky, Lebron James or Michael Jordan card from a Panini product because of the Upper Deck deal. I don’t like that one of the hottest rookies in the NBA can sign an exclusive auto deal with Leaf. I don’t like that Andrew Luck can sign an exclusive pre-season deal with Press Pass etc. I think the leagues need to institute some kind of guidelines or require that their player be available to ALL of their official licensees.
    Thanks for the great article!

    • Jon

      Chris, thanks for the feedback and congratulations on your shop’s success. The cost of packs was a bigger concern to me as a late teen, when I left the hobby. I couldn’t buy packs regularly and pay for my car and save for college at minimum wage. To your question about keeping up, I, as a player collector, am a completest. All collectors set goals, and most of them are unattainable & realistic, but they are there. I have no problem with someone saying I’m only going to collect Topps Starlin Castro cards. I want all Starlin Castro cards as long as they’re numbered 50 or higher. That’s my one limitation.

      I’m not sure if I understand your analogies. I know cars and pop cans can be collectible, but they seem to be separate categories of collecting. I’m sure there are people out there that want to try every flavor of soft drink, but I’d be surprised if it was as common of a goal as someone wanting every card of a team, set, or player.

      But you are right, if you like a certain brand, then collect that brand. I think a lot of collectors struggle with defining their parameters because they like so much and they like multiple brands and it’s tough to obtain it all.

      I can’t speak for everyone, but I can assume that other player collectors are likely the same way. They want everything. Set collectors want all their cards including SPs. Team collectors are likely to float across brands too. If multiple companies are releasing 10 products each in a calendar year, it’s much tougher to get all the cards you ultimately want (regardless of how realistic that want may be) than if a single company were releasing cards.

  • Jeremy

    Topps or Panini need to do a 24 hour sportscard education show on comcast cable near the espn channels to bring the market current with todays technology.A show that covers everything from beginner to expert level,trading,box breaks,conventions,all the new different styles of sportscards being put out and how they are different.They also need to estimate the number still on the market of every card in existence to the best of their ability to help collectors judge the rarity and demand of a product when they are investing in it.This would give this industry the exposure that every other industry enjoys these days.

    • Jon

      Jeremy, that certainly would be interesting. I know ESPN has a show called “Mint Condition” where they talk about the business of cards somewhat. I don’t know if it airs on TV, or if it’s online only, but it’s still something. In terms of the estimated numbers, the closest we’re likely to get is announced print runs. I don’t think Topps would keep track of how many, for example, 1958 cards are still out in circulation, so that kind of education may not be possible.

  • Jeremy

    Imagine the growth the industry would experience if people were as informed about the sports card industry as they are about Ipad’s and cell phones.Just saying…the only reason people keep claiming the industry is slowly dying (which its not) is because it remains for the most part in the shadows or underground.They need to bring the market current and they will educate people giving them more security on investing and the business will take off like it did in the 80’s.My sportscards are holding their value better than my stocks…yes this business is alive and well.Four companies not going outta business MLB,NBA,NHL,NFL nuff said.They should try to estimate how many cards are still on the market starting with the oldest in circulation lotta work but worth doing if they take their industry seriously.

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  • Jeremy

    I think the best way to accomplish tracking the number of sportscards in circulation is to start a anonymous (user names only)database like that of beckett media where people can register their collections but to add a counter that tally’s each card registered and a check box that you can check when and if you trade a card,sell it etc to someone else that way it is more of a duty of collectors interested in knowing how many shares of their favorite cards are floating around the market.As you want to know how many shares are available in stocks when you invest…therefore helping to drive the price.I realize only the diehards will take the time to be a part of this study..but with enough word of mouth maybe we can get an idea what is out there and what has been lost by rough use,fire,flood,general damage over the years.It would drive up the price of more rare cards if the information was readily available.Combine that with print runs we should be able to get a general idea in time.Just a few ideas..

    • Jon

      Jeremy – while I like the idea of a registry or database, there are severe costs to setting something like that up, and there’s no way to ensure accuracy. I can’t see a card company spending the money for something that really wouldn’t help their bottom line for a long time. It would have to be something created by a group of devoted collectors. Even still, they would need to spend considerable time and effort to set up a database and educate consumers that it exists and that it’s worth their time to participate. Then you have to make sure they’re updating things, hope no one’s making anything up just because. Even if you’re talking about diehard collectors, I have 10s of thousands of cards in my collection, and I wouldn’t want to take any of my personal time logging my 1991 Kevin Mitchell cards into a database. If print run is really your concern, I think it’s safe to say that if it’s not announced, then it’s going to be quite high. Also, as we see on ebay, knowing how many cards are out there doesn’t necessarily affect value. Not all Albert Pujols cards numbered out of 25 or 10 are treated equally.

      Charlie – maybe my Mario analogy isn’t perfect, but what about my point about Coke licensing sugar and Pepsi getting to use only artificial sweeteners? Hypothetical, I know, but I’m not sure if any analogy will be 100% identical. The concept is still the same. Uncharted is only available on PS3, but that’s not a monopoly because other video games are available. Licensed baseball cards are not a monopoly because there are other baseball cards on the market.

      I’d be curious to hear what things you’ve seen that you wish MLB would have been overseeing. I don’t know if cards are more collectible for kids, but I also can’t necessarily say they aren’t. I don’t have any kids, but someone made a good point on another piece I’ve read that said magic/yu gi oh/pokemon cards, angry birds merchandise and lego figure packs are all equal to or more expensive than a pack of Topps series 1, so I have to think that the price point is better than our childhoods would lead us to believe.

      Madding – Please see my other comments as well, but maybe I can throw a couple more points to drive home the competitive advantage point. And I do want to be clear that a competitive advantage has a distinctly separate definition from a monopoly. Whether a vast majority is interested in MLB logos on their cards or not shows that it’s not the entire buying population. That in and of itself means it’s not a monopoly. Many may feel the unlicensed is inferior, but it is undeniably another option in the baseball card market. You can’t really subdivide the baseball card market into “licensed” and “unlicensed” and pretend they’re completely independent from one another.

      Let’s take the Sirius XM merger as another example. There were concerns about that being a monopoloy because the only two satellite radio companies were joining. The FCC stated that it wasn’t because regular radio existed, as did smartphone applications and other internet radio options. Those aspects could easily be seen as separate markets, much more so than licensed vs unlicensed baseball cards.

      Without getting too textbooky, I can also say there are other factors such as the fact that Topps hasn’t exhibited predatory pricing practices and that the market in general remains elastic are a couple other indications that this isn’t a monopoly.

      Now, with all that said, I’m with the general consensus in wanting multiple companies to produce licensed cards. I especially hope Upper Deck gets their business affairs back in order and wins MLB over again, because I think they produce the most interesting cards, but in the meantime I’ll collect everything for my guys. Licensed or not.

  • Good article, but I’ve got to agree with Nachos Grande. It’s not the same as your Mario analogy. Nintendo has a copyright on Mario because they developed Mario. Coke has a copyright on Coca Cola because they developed it. That’s a copyright, not a monopoly on Mario.

    I don’t know if there’s ever been such thing as a true monopoly – but there are things that are very close. Yes, Panini and Leaf and other companies produce baseball cards, and I even purchased a box of Panini’s Golden Age (nice product. But inclusion of MLB logos and trademarks are such a deal-breaker for so many collectors, that it gives Topps something close to a monopoly. Is that OK in this industry? Maybe – I don’t think Topps is lazy. Like Night Owl says – I think they’d do some things differently. But I still collect them and am happy overall.

    I think MLB is more to blame on this. Topps is a for profit company that should do what’s in its best interest to make a profit for its shareholders. But MLB should use the exclusive license to have more oversight over the company that they gave the exclusive license to. They made statements saying this would make cards more collectible for kids, and I don’t think that’s happened at all. I’m not a kid, so I don’t care that much, but I think there could be some things to help ensure a better future of the hobby, and by extension promote the MLB brand.

  • I think the amount of mainstream-ish press that baseball cards are getting right now is a great sign for the health of this hobby overall.

    I disagree on the overall point that there’s no monopoly, however. Only one company is allowed to produce cards representing MLB teams with MLB logos, and that’s what the vast majority of trading card buyers is interested in. Cards produced without the license are less desirable and in many cases not even recognizable as “baseball cards” to the average layperson. Topps has a competitive advantage because they are operating in a monopoly. Others are not allowed to produce the same product, which is essentially the definition of a monopoly. I believe that, without other minds from other companies able to participate in the creative process, the baseball card industry is stifled a bit.

    I’m not lumping myself in with Topps haters (or Panini haters.) I’ve liked some of what they’ve done and disliked some of what they’ve done. I doubt there’s anyone who bothers to write about this sort of stuff who hasn’t at least found some enjoyable moment with cards they’ve purchased in this era of exclusivity. I really hope that things change soon, though. We need some fresh eyes on this thing.

  • Jeremy

    I agree with you about commons Jon and i would say you would just estimate the total numbers you have of commons of each brand and each year and add it to some section in the database that is tracking commons not each individual common lol…i agree it is a time consuming situation as is researching stocks.We need this mindset at this point as the industry has grown far more expensive for the beginning collector/investor.As far as a company doing this it is doubtful but collectors as a group i see as possible.We will see just my ideas on how to better detail this industry as a whole for the good of all past and future collectors.Myself i have worked in two card shops from 1986-1992 and have extensive experience and knowledge of the past industry.Been a collector on and off since the 70’s.

  • You’re right – there probably isn’t another good analogy. And you’re right – Topps doesn’t have a monopoly on baseball cards, but the most certainly have a monopoly on baseball cards with logos. And like I said, that’s so important in this industry, where you’re consumers are hobbyists.

    Baseball card hobbyists are COLLECTORS. And most collectors I’ve met have some form of “completist” in them. Not all, but most. We make wantlists that have some kind of hope of finishing that list, be it a set, team or player. And those hobbyists tend to prefer logos – like I said, not having them is a deal breaker for so many collectors, that I think it is at least like a monopoly.

    I’m not sure if I have the answer to my “oversight” comment. I probably could think up some ideas if I had the time, but in general, when the exclusive deal was signed, a lot was said about bringing kids back to the hobby and making the market for cards less confusing. Well, I don’t think the 5 different types of Bowman products make it less confusing. And it doesn’t seem like the products are more kid friendly. And

    • Jon

      Charlie – My whole point is that there is no such thing, by definition, as a monopoly on only “baseball cards with logos.” I won’t deny that there are elements of a monopoly in exclusive licensing, and that’s what causes the confusion, but there are many other elements that are missing. There’s no doubt that logos are a deal breaker for a lot of people. I think Panini may have changed some minds with a couple of their high-profile releases, or even with their Triple Play set, but still many won’t buy the logo-free stuff. Maybe that will start to shift a little more if the exclusive gets extended. My guess (total speculation) is that it won’t and we’ll see at least Panini join the fold next time.
      I understand your point about the MLB. I remember a lot of backlash against them for making that statement. I don’t think the person making it was either thinking things through or had enough background knowledge to say what he said. Reducing confusion would be a huge help. Different Bowman products are fine, but I think what you’re getting at is when multiple releases meld into each other like Bowman, Bowman Chrome and Draft Picks & Prospects, where they all look the same and the numbering overlaps and who knows what’s what. That really should change and it is not kid friendly.

      Jeremy – your point about candy and cards is a very fair comparison and example of how the two markets have changed. I think candy is overpriced more than cards at times, actually. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had a higher profit margin than cards. The packs of cards have gone up, but as you state, it’s mostly because of the “added value” (which is a discussion for another time) of autographs, relics and rare parallels that didn’t exist in those simple 15 cent packs. 99 cent packs do still exist, but they aren’t as common as they should be.

      I’ve seen packs of cards at Dick’s sporting goods, which is a good venue for them, but Walgreens and CVS are key missed opportunities. I think some 7-11’s carry them, but not all. If nothing else, throw the Panini and Topps sticker albums into gas stations and grocery stores again like you said. That’s where a lot of my sticker purchases took place. Hopefully they do start pushing their stock into more impulse buy scenarios, because I completely agree it seems like a missed opportunity.

  • Jeremy

    Lets out it this way…when i was a kid i went down to the local pharmacy on my way to a daytime movie and would pick up a handful of candy at like 15 cents a candy bar and a couple packs of baseball or football cards also 15 cents each.Now candy bars are 69-99 cents each and a pack of cards is $2.50 and upif you can find one for sale which i hate that no one sells them but actual sportscard shops not gas stations not grocery stores..etc…that needs to change.It is now a INVESTMENT people are buying expecting value and return which they never did before.Packs of cards are not equal to candy anymore they are their own entity entirely.This market needs to realize and reflect that.Also panini and topps need to get back to marketing boxes of packs to every little and big store out there…even if they have to drop prices on boxes.Only place i see them outside of baseball card shops is wal mart that is not good for the industry if it wants to make a comeback.

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