Thursday, August 6, 2009

Is this the end of baseball cards as we know it? Probably not

As I was enjoying my morning bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and starting on my daily internet surfing my life was flipped around and turned upside down. Did I finally get a job offer - alas no. Instead I stumbled accross an article on google news.

Upper Deck, after losing it’s NBA license a few months ago, also has lost it’s MLB license. Major League Baseball and Topps have come to a five year agreement that makes Topps the exclusive rights holder for trading cards. Wow. For the first time since 1989 there won’t be an Upper Deck base set to look forward to.

Well that might not be entirely true. Upper Deck does still have an agreement with the players’ association so they can release cards with their images on it. They just won’t be able to have the major league logo or the team logo’s on the cards. How this will be received by the collecting universe won’t be known until the new releases come out next year.

Upper Deck has definitely stumbled this year. Their base set lacked imagination, Goudey was a step back from last year and their decision to cut Masterpieces from the rotation was met with almost universal scorn by the collecting blog-o-sphere. Their one last hope to salvage 2009 lies in their new Goodwin Champions release that should be coming out shortly.

Goodwin Champions, check Mario’s page for a preview, is Upper Deck’s shot at an Allen & Ginter artist inspired set with oddball inserts. If it’s successful it should be an easy set to keep rolling out. Airbrushing off the logos in a “painted” set would look more natural than it would on a photo based set.

Hopefully this is a wakeup call for Upper Deck. Lack of imagination and worthless sets have plagued them over the last few years. UD Documentary (a good idea poorly executed), UD X (just a poor concept) and A Piece of History have all failed. Perhaps losing their license will force them to blow up their products and start from scratch.

In 1989 they were the new kids on the scene. Stunning photography and superior card stock made the competition seem like a minor league product. Unfortunately for UD the rest of the companies, at least the one’s that survived, improved their product to the point that there was a level playing field again.

Topps’ 2009 base set marked the first year where I thought their photography was better than UD’s. The pressure will be on Topps to keep their product from growing stagnant now that they have a monopoly on the MLB licensing. Some are referring to this as a new glory age, like the ’70’s, when Topps last held an exclusive contract.

Today’s high end, $150-a-pack card universe is a lot different then it was four decades ago. How will card shops / on-line retailers react if Topps releases a high end set that bombs with the collecting public? They might not have another brand to turn to in order to help recoup lost sales.

Michael Eisner, Topps Owner, is playing this as a chance for Topps to bring the industry back to the kids. An interesting position, but how is that going to go over with the collectors? Kids aren’t dropping $80-$100 for a box of Allen & Ginter. It’s going to be interesting to see if they can balance an appeal to kids and still satisfy the higher end / older collector out there. Who knows maybe we’ll see a decent product for less than a buck a pack next year.

Is this the beginning of the end for baseball card collecting? No. It’s an upheaval that needs to happen every few decades to freshen things up. Five years will go by pretty quickly, in that time Upper Deck could be back and better than ever. Panini might show that it can do cards as well as stickers. Without competition Topps might have the freedom to try some truly innovative designs without having to worry about the bottom line.

Will they be able to rebound and offer a competitive product in 2010? Will they scrap baseball and focus on hockey - the sport they have an exclusive contract with? Only time will tell.

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