A former mainstay of childhood, baseball cards have long since become a meaningless historical footnote, occasionally garnering some small mention in the media when a family finds boxes of rare baseball cards hoarded in a deceased relative's attic. Personally speaking, the last time I purchased baseball cards I was upset because I kept getting Frank Pastore (1982 Reds) cards and not the Davey Concepcion I needed to complete my team collection.
In this context, today's announcement by the Major League Baseball (MLB) smacks of total irrelevance. The organization has announced that The Topps Company will become the exclusive manufacturer of baseball cards for the league. Topps signed a multi-year deal in order to end competition between card companies and potentially jump start the slumping industry. MLB hopes that having one official cardmaker will end the confusion caused by the multiple card manufacturers and seemingly endless series clogging up stores.
Michael Eisner, former Disney (DIS) executive and owner of Topps, stated that this move redirects "the entire category toward kids" and that it will help "promote cards as unique and original." The major question in the industry is, what does this mean for Upper Deck? As Topps' major competitor and the official playing card of the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), the company faces an interesting problem. It will be able to use pictures and likenesses of the players, but will not have rights to team logos and trademarks. Thus, it can produce a Joey Votto baseball card, but his uniform would simply be red and white - no logos, no city affiliation shown.
Believe it or not, there is a precedent for this type of card. Back in the early 1970s, Topps did not have permission to use the official logos of the NBA. This conundrum led to players wearing their uniforms backwards in their photos, resulting in confusing images like these.
Traders will now be limited to Topps cards, which could lead to less creativity from the card giant. As the outsider, Upper Deck has been a major innovator; the reduced competition could give Topps less incentive to create fun and interesting cards.
That said, perhaps consolidating under one card provider will be good for the industry. Card companies have come and card companies have gone (Fleer, Donruss, Leaf, and Score), yet Topps has survived. Perhaps Topps will realize that as the only dog in the hunt it will need to continue to be on the cutting edge in order to compete with the likes of the Internet and video games. With the times changing, the question is whether Topps can keep up with the market and make children want to invest in baseball cards again. The problem is that it may be time for baseball cards to go the way of the dinosaur.
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