Giving Topps a Baseball Card Monopoly Is the Wrong Decision

Baseball card market needs competition not exclusivity

By Josh Alper
|  Thursday, Aug 6, 2009  |  Updated 11:59 AM PDT
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Two companies couldn't possibly do this.

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During the halcyon days of the baseball card boom there were many companies vying for the dollars of collectors and the revenues went through the roof. The inevitable bust killed some of those companies, Fleer and Score we hardly knew thee, and now Major League Baseball is trying to close out the remaining competition by giving the business exclusively to Topps.

That's not how they spin it, of course. They spin it as saying that the way to revitalize the trading card business is by marketing it exclusively to kids, a party line that Topps' owner Michael Eisner is preaching as well.

"This is redirecting the entire category toward kids," said Eisner "Topps has been making cards for 60 years, the last 30 in a nonexclusive world that has caused confusion to the kid who walks into a Wal-Mart or a hobby store. It’s also been difficult to promote cards as unique and original."

That's hogwash on several levels. Anyone who has ever seen a kid in a candy or toy store knows that they have little issue deciding between things that they like and things that they don't. And if they like baseball cards, they're going to buy baseball cards whether they're made by Topps, Upper Deck or a cult that believes that Barry Zito is the messiah.

Eisner implies that Topps was selling a superior product, which is a specious claim given that we're talking about pictures of baseball players on cardboard. The only way that competition makes it hard to promote your product as unique and original is if your product is not, in fact, unique or original. If it is neither of those things, then you've got to eliminate the competition or lose market share. That has little to nothing to do with kids, who never drove the business anyway.

Sure, there's a bucolic image of kids with cards in their bicycle spokes being presented, but that's not what turned baseball cards into a cash cow in the 80's and 90's. It was adults, speculating on the future prices of cards in the same way as commodities traders speculate on the price of oil. It screws with the image, but it does wonders for the bottom line and there's not much chance of Topps recouping their investment solely by selling to kids.

The whole thing smacks of an inside deal between MLB and Eisner, who used to be part of the inner circle as the head of Disney. Disney, of course, once owned the Angels and owns ESPN, which has given the MLB a lot of cash and exposure over the years. Topps needs a little help to bolster their bottom line, so old friend Bud Selig helps him out and everybody's happy.  

Upper Deck, the only other big card company, isn't totally finished. They have a licensing deal with the MLB Players Association, which means they can still sell cards with pictures of big leaguers doing big league things. They just can't show team logos, which will make for some goofy looking cards.

Hey, that's unique! See, Michael, it's not that hard!

Josh Alper is a writer living in New York City and is a contributor to FanHouse.com and ProFootballTalk.com in addition to his duties for NBCNewYork.com.

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