As pretty much everyone in this hobby knows, Topps Company entered into an exclusive deal with Major League Baseball in 2009. That deal effectively pushed its final surviving competitor, Upper Deck, out the door. That exclusive deal with Topps was first renewed in 2013 and was set to expire in 2020. By then, it was expected that at least one of the three companies producing unlicensed baseball cards –Upper Deck, Leaf, or Panini was going to make its pitch to MLB for a license. One company, worked tirelessly and spared no expense to revive their baseball card brand, including hiring a major name in the hobby to run their baseball department. Turns out it was a moot point.
Last week I had long conversations with two high-level executives from different companies producing unlicensed baseball cards and both gave me the same exact grim news that has yet to be reported by any hobby journalist; Topps’ exclusive deal with MLB has already been renewed well beyond 2020, effectively continuing Topps’ decade-long monopoly in the world of baseball cards. For the foreseeable future, Topps will continue to be the sole producer of baseball cards depicting team logos and complete team names. For older collectors, this news is nothing new as Topps has been found guilty before of what some lawyers would characterize as anti-trust conduct or violations. Topps was slapped on the wrist in 1980 by a Federal Court. The following year, Donruss and Fleer entered the market.
I have no intention of outing my two sources but will say both are currently employed in the upper ranks by current card manufacturers producing multiple baseball card products a year without team logos or names. As this news breaks, you may hear their official takes on the matter. I do not know when Topps and MLB will announce the news of the renewal but one of my sources told me that there was a “handshake deal” in place as far back as 2017 but officially everything was signed much more recently. It would not surprise me to see more news break at the National Sports Collectors Convention this coming August.
What This Means for Collectors
If you are happy with Topps’ offerings since 2010, you are in for a treat. Nothing will change, everything will remain the same. However, Topps has not been perfect since the exclusive deal fell into place. Just look at the recent 2018 Topps Series Two 84 case break from prolific case buster, Brent Williams, for proof that Topps may not be as committed to quality control issues as it would be if there were other competitors demanding it. Topps also came under fire for several errors in their numbering which resulted in multiple cards for #365 and #564 and missing cards for #364 and #565 not to mention the awful collation of their product.
Here are my 1983 base autos thru almost Topps jumbo 30 cases. 75 card checklist. I only have 22 different names in over 100 autos. 7 of them below I only have 1 time. And not one of these is an all-star or retired auto. #Disappointing pic.twitter.com/Q0m2Gvvq7x
— Brent Williams (@brentandbecca) June 13, 2018
Also, in case you were wondering … production is WAY UP this year. One of my sources tells me that Topps has no choice due to the high cost of keeping the exclusive license. He told me that in 1991, the NFL license was a reasonable $200,000 per year but in 2017, the price had inflated to an estimated $15,000,000 price tag. What that means for anyone with an exclusive deal is in order to break even, companies have to churn out product after product just to survive which is why by the end of this calendar month, Topps will have already churned out thirteen pack-style releases and non-stop online products such as Topps Now and Topps Living Set.
Oh, and your eyes are not deceiving you. Production is also way up as well. Brent Williams calculates that the print run of Heritage is up 30% from last year while Finest is up by a whopping 50%. That explains why Bowman Mega and Retail boxes completely littered Target and Walmart isles this year. Sure, collectors were chasing the Shohei Ohtani cards but with such a huge production, you can expect to see unwanted ’18 Bowman cards taking up box space for the next decade at card shows and if Ohtani becomes the next Hideo Nomo or Kerry Wood, it will be a disastrous product on the secondary market for sellers.
What This Means for the Competition
Unfortunately, in this market there is no room for competition. Let me make this clear, this is not Topps’ fault. We know damn well Upper Deck would have jumped on the opportunity, so would any other company. However, this leaves three companies producing baseball cards and/or sets with baseball players … in the cold. Upper Deck has already bowed out of baseball-only sets and continues to prosper as the exclusive card manufacturer of the NHL as well as with their Marvel releases. Panini America is doing what it can with their Donruss license as well but doesn’t even really need baseball.
Panini set to take in $1 billion this year thanks to World Cup.
Context, Bloomberg reported earlier this year the entire Topps Company “might” be worth $400 million. https://t.co/yeHDwK74dd
— Sports Card News (@SportsCardNews) June 13, 2018
Perhaps the biggest loser from yet another Topps exclusive is Leaf Trading Cards. Leaf, run by Brian Grey, appears to be the smallest of the three competitors but is putting out some of the most beautiful baseball cards ever seen. This means collectors lose, too. Had Leaf Pearl carried MLB team logos and colors, it would as of this article, been THE product of 2018, so far. Unfortunately, there is still a huge prejudice in the world of baseball cards when it comes to unlicensed cards with airbrushed logos and colors and I have been one of the biggest enemies of such cards in the past.
When I left the world of baseball cards in 2014, I was pleased with its direction. I felt at the time that Upper Deck had lost its mojo and was out of touch. With Superfractors hitting an all-time high and Topps catering to the nostalgia-crazed collectors by ressurecting the Tek brand, I felt the company could do no wrong. BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR. Just a few years later, I see a company that has become lazy and with no real competitor in sight can do whatever it pleases. There is no longer any innovation and despite what some will have you believe, the kids are long gone.
All I wanted as a collector was a CHOICE. I love Topps, especially their Finest and Chrome brands but when it comes to a flagship set, Upper Deck is my choice. I love Tek and other flashy brands but when it comes to inserts, Leaf absolutely killed the game in the mid to late 90s with innovative creations like Knothole Gang and cards printed on acetate. Finally, I love Donruss Baseball. It was the brand that made me a collector and I could not put into words how important it is for me to see it return to prominence one day. Unfortunately, thanks to Major League Baseball, that may never happen … at least not in my lifetime.
Stay tuned for a HUGE giveaway related to this story and make sure to follow me on Twitter as I am way more active there than here at Wax Heaven.