A Flashback to the End of Topps Football, Upper Deck Baseball

No card manufacturer has ever come close to being perfect. It costs a company millions of dollars each year to be able to use a major sports license on their trading cards. What that means is that products must be produced at an alarming rate and all corners must be cut in order to make a profit by year’s end. These exuberant fees means that programs such as quality control and customer service must run on skeleton crews. It also means that products must be ready to ship to retailers and hobby shops every two weeks without missing a beat. Designs and photography selection takes a back seat, as do timely autograph returns from players, be it on-card or stickers. Graphic artists with experience in the industry can easily be replaced by entry-level college grads and in-house photographers are eliminated thanks to services from Getty Images. The result? Half-assed products, uneven designs, lazy, repetitive photography, 2/3 autograph redemptions, and ideas that just make no sense. These days, collectors are the last thing on company employee’s minds when putting together a brand. As long as a product released immediately sells out (and it always does), the hobby steam engine rarely makes a stop long enough for the printers to cool down.

Today I’m going to be discussing two releases from two different companies that were so poorly received by collectors and retailers alike, that both companies responsible lost credibility that they were never able to regain. For Upper Deck, their disastrous product left them with just two years left in the baseball card market. Topps Company, had a little more time before Panini America swooped in and took their NFL license away. Some times, card companies need a hard reset but other times, the damage done is so clearly irreparable that the only way to quiet the storm is to make a forced exit. It’s been 15 years since these two products destroyed the reputation of Topps’ football and Upper Deck’s baseball programs but once again history is repeating itself with Topps Company recently losing their 70-year relationship with MLB.

2007 Upper Deck Sweet Spot

This product right here was Upper Deck’s attempt to troll Topps Company. The stunt failed so miserably that it ended up directly costing Upper Deck their MLB license after a nearly twenty-year relationship. Inserted in Sweet Spot tins, which retailed at $149.99, were mysterious asterisks cards. On one hand, it was pretty ballsy to take a direct jab at then Topps-exclusive Barry Bonds for breaking the home run records while being a well-known cheater, but really … what the hell were they thinking? Imaging paying a licensing fee of a million dollars to use the Marvel logo and brands associated with Marvel and then releasing an anti-Stan Lee comic book to every comic book shop in the country. How well do you think that would go over? It was a very public company suicide.

The ill-advised Barry Bonds asterisk cards were only the second-biggest blunder that came from 2007 Sweet Spot. You see, while the geniuses at Upper Deck were plotting up their asterisk autograph and a Michael “Buysner” insert, someone decided to go the cheap route on material for their Sweet Spot signature faux leather. The result? Faded autographs that were coming out directly from Sweet Spot tins just 2-3 months after its initial release. It’s one thing to poke fun at your competitor but it’s very foolish to release a high-end product ($150 for 3-5 cards) that eventually ends up ripping off half or more of your customers by releasing autographs that were so faded they could barely be seen. All you need to do is go on eBay and search this product to see that 15 years later, nearly 75% of all Sweet Spot signatures suffer from fading issues or are barely even visible anymore.

It’s safe to say that the illustrious Sweet Spot brand never truly recovered from Upper Deck’s 2007 stunts. By 2009, I was finding tins of Sweet Spot as a mid-level product in retail outlets. An embarrassing end to a Hobby-exclusive that just years prior was one of the hottest inserts in baseball cards. Not only did they go down hard but 2009 also happened to be Upper Deck’s final year as a licensed baseball card manufacturer. Upper Deck did so many things right upon their entrance into the card market and easily outclassed Topps in the 90s but it was clear that their pilot was going to take that plane down sooner rather than later.

2008 Topps Letterman

There’s no way to top 2007 Upper Deck Sweet Spot but at least Topps made an effort. Topps employees, desperate for new ideas and unable to come up with anything at all once again looked to Upper Deck for inspiration. At the time, Upper Deck was dominating baseball cards with signed, manufactured letterman patches in their SP Authentic brand. If you were collecting during this time, you could not go anywhere without seeing one of these beautifully, well-done cards. So Topps, piggy-backing off Upper Deck as usual produced 2008’s Topps Letterman, a high-end product that yielded a signed letterman card (plus 11 base cards). Topps, being lazy or with limited funds to spare decided that getting players to sign manufactured patches was too much work and/or risky so in an idea that set sports cards back twenty years, placed ugly stickers over the letterman patches. That of course, defeated all purposes of the gimmick in the first place.

As you can see below, the results were hilarious. Not only that, unlike Upper Deck, Topps Letterman offered parallels so you had your choice of a basic, sticker letterman or a Pokemon-sparkle letterman if you were lucky enough to beat the odds. In message boards, which were still a thing back in 2008, Topps Letterman was absolutely destroyed by collectors, as well as LCS owners and employees. No one had any idea at the time but Topps’ days in the football market were numbered. By 2016, Panini America took over the NFL license and never looked back. If you ever need a good laugh, just search for 2008 Topps Letterman on eBay and trust me, you will understand why this product was a disaster for Topps.

The Five Elements of Good Card Design

Author: Matt W.

So here’s the question. What makes you want to buy a card? Obviously, if you are a player or team collector, the player or team featured on the card will be significant factors in guiding your decision. Giants’ fans like myself generally don’t have too much interest in buying cards of Dodgers (unless it’s an old Steve Garvey card to stick on the dartboard). But those factors aside, I would argue that the overriding factor, at both a conscious and subconscious level, is the design of the card. Simply put, does the damn thing look good?

One of the more noticeable trends over the past decade has been the rise of retro-themed sets. While more than a few collectors deride retro sets, there’s a reason for their popularity. Quite simply, the older designs which these cards are based upon are generally far superior from a purely graphical standpoint than most new designs. Topps Heritage didn’t just take the hobby by storm by accident. It has been successful because many of the early Topps designs belong in the graphical design Hall of Fame. Even today, sixty-five years later, the 1954, 1955, and 1956 Topps baseball sets are probably the three best-looking baseball sets ever created, and why the 1955 Topps All-American, 1955 Bowman, and 1956 Topps football sets are among the most popular football sets of all time.

So the real question is what these designs all have in common:

1. The player image dominates the appearance of the card

2. They use bright and vivid colors

3. The cards have defined borders (although the 1954 design works just as well as a full-bleed design because the background is a single solid block of color)

4. The player and team names are easily readable, and two of the three designs (1954 and 1955) also incorporate team logos

5. The card numbers on the back are easily readable

And as you might guess from the title of this post, these are also what I consider to be the five principles of good card design. Now before you say to yourself “oh, he’s full of it”, ask yourself this. Which do you like better….1955 Topps or 1955 Bowman?

1967 Topps or 1968 Topps?

Why do you think that 1975 Topps is by far the most popular Topps set of the 70’s? Even looking more recently, why do you think that 2009 Topps was so much more popular than 2009 Upper Deck?

I’ll bet that every time, you chose the design that best adheres to the five principles.

Now, while principles #1, #2, #4, and #5 are pretty straightforward, some of you may take issue with principle #3. Do cards really need to have borders to look nice? Well, my response would be to wonder why it is that people frame photographs. The answer is that for some unknown reason, our visual cortex likes the idea of having a defined boundary. This is why we think most images look nicer framed. That said, full-bleed designs can look good, but generally only under one condition, namely when there is a large amount of contrast between the player image and the background, such as with 1954-55 Topps Hockey, the first series of 1969 Topps football, 1993 Fleer GameDay football and the 1993 Score Franchise inserts.

One area where this is been most apparent is in the design of Upper Deck cards. Up until 1993, Upper Deck cards featured both borders and gorgeous photography. However, 1993 was the year in which Richard McWilliam forced out the original founders of Upper Deck, the result of which was an immediate switch to full-bleed designs and an increased use of foil (which should never be used for lettering unless against a high-contrast background like in 2009 Topps), the result of which has been fifteen years worth of cluttered and garish designs with difficult to read lettering (note to Upper Deck, as anybody who has dabbled in photography or graphic design can tell you, the key to good design/composition is simplicity, not clutter).

Now although I feel that the industry as a whole is struggling mightily, one aspect that I find promising is the renewed emphasis on good design by collectors. Gellman, over at Sports Cards Uncensored, routinely slams poorly designed relic and autograph cards, and many other bloggers have become increasingly critical of lackluster designs such as 2009 Goudey (whose artwork was a pale shadow of the 2008 version), or Topps’ 2010 National Chicle.

Or think of it another way, consider which sets and cards have remained the most popular over the years? It’s the well-designed ones which people still enjoy looking at. There aren’t too many people with a 1970 Topps card on their mantelpiece, but I bet that there are more than a few with a nice 1956 Topps sitting there.