Baseball Cards go “Exclusive” in 2010
I can still remember back when I was oh so young, getting my weekly allowance then racing full bore on my bike with my friends in tow down to the local 7-11 to throw my weeks earnings of two dollars on the store counter and ask for packs of those foil wrapped baseball cards. I am not sure even now why those cards seemed to instantly transform my little world into a state if euphoria and let my imagination run totally rampant while glancing at that Cincinnati Reds Ken Griffey high color and foil card.
And after a quick evaluation of the cards in the deck, the losing players card from that bunch always ended up between a clothespin in the spokes of my bike for the trek home to produce a mimic motorcycle sound that let the neighborhood know the “Baseball Gang” was roaring down the alleyways. Then when we finally hit my garage, we would all circle and argue for hours trading our new cards with ones in our back pockets and never agreeing totally on their worth or importance, but remembering their stats and their teams.
And even while we sat there boasting about our treasured bounty from the store, we made sure to chew that starchy piece of bubble gum until it could not longer handle a single bubble or our jaws ached from the constant state of chewing. But to us, the cards were as close as we could get to our sports heroes. For the smiling faces of the professional ballplayers looking back either posed at the plate or on the mound sent us into hours to recalling their heroic moments. It sent us into a realm of fantasy where we would duplicate or even top their previous years statistics if we got the chance on the field.
So it was sad moment for me when I read in August 2009 that Major League Baseball was ending their 30-year relationship with the Upper Deck Company LLC and signed an exclusive multi-year trading card pact with The Topps Company Inc. It always seemed like there had been more than a dozen companies springing up and then dissolving into thin air selling and marketing baseball cards to the masses. But on January 1, 2010, the Topps Company will have exclusive use of any of the MLB’s 30 team logos and trademarks.
And this is a huge blow to the small cottage industry that first thrust itself upon my generation with their multi-card sets and that historic piece of rectangular hard bubble gum. Upper Deck, which still has an agreement with the Major League Baseball Players Association, might have something to say about all of this before the beginning of 2010. This season, Upper Deck produced over 16 different sets of cards just for 2009 alone. But will the streamlining of this iconic piece of cardboard be easy, or will it be pushed back into the darkness by the isolation of its true player and game images only being available by one lone manufacturer?
In 1991, the sale of these little cardboard masterpieces reached over $ 1.2 billion in sales. Which at that time, was a huge chunk of change for the industry. I know that about that time I was pumping in a huge amount of excess cash to get some of the collectible cards and “game-used” cards that were beginning to float around the country. Who would not want a small piece of a Roger Maris bat, or even a small swatch of a Sandy Koufax jersey.
Most of these cards consisted of a small patch of a MLB sanctioned baseball, or a sliver of a players personal bat that was then dissected into a million pieces and sandwiched onto a card. And we were all eager to find those cards and put them into our collections at that time as an investment into our futures. Every season, the trading card companies made sure to advertise that there were “special cards” hidden within the hundreds and hundreds of decks for us to find. But after the trading card industry hit its top spot in 1991, it then began a slow decent towards the bottom.
By 2000, the industry was seeing only $400 million in sales annually and was seeking other avenues to promote and increase the sales of their products. Trading card companies used this down period to began its inversion into other sports besides baseball and football for their new revenues sources. And in 2008, the sale of these once wanted cards fell to an all time low in sales of just over $200 million, including the new card sources like NASCAR and NHL editions.
My romance with these special cards started about 2001 when I got my first “Game-Used” card from a pack I purchased in a 5-pack set in a small hobby store in St. Petersburg,Florida. The card was a 2001 Ken Griffey Junior “Game-Used” jersey card from his first stint with the Seattle Mariners.
The card was issued by Upper Deck, and it was a piece of his home blue jersey sandwiched between two pieces of plastic. Along with the holograms on the item and the photo of him on both sides of the card, it became a cherished piece of my card collection. More for the way he played the game then for the piece of fabric inside the plastic.
But it should come as no surprise that MLB decided to side with Topps in the exclusive rights for the trading cards marketing. Because the head honcho at Topps now had a visual presence with MLB in the form of ex-Disney CEO Michael Eisner. Most people might remember he was also at the helm after Disney purchased the then Anaheim Angels back in the 1980’s, and he was front and center on the podium to thrust skyward the first World Series trophy won by the team in 2002.
I am not calling foul here in any way, but it just goes to show you that sometimes it really is “who you know” and not “what you know” that can get you that one special meeting with MLB to even propose such an arrangement. Since Topps now has the exclusive rights to the teams logos and images, does this mean that the other companies will have to cease any contact with MLB players who might already be under contract for companies other than Topps? And can these companies, who have an exclusive signing contract with certain players block their signatures on cards in the future?
You would think that both of these questions will be percolating in more than a few boardrooms around the country in response to the announcement of a single entity taking over the MLB’s marketing of the trading cards. I have heard whispers that Upper Deck might consider litigation or a simple injunction, but at this time nothing has been submitted to the courts. And you can imagine that individual players will be reviewing their current contracts with the trading card companies and align themse
lves to be in compliance with the MLB new agreement.
MLB Commissioner Bud Selig told MLB.com in August that the deal is suppose to “restore baseball cards as the games premier collectible.” The multi-year deal will give Topps exclusive use of MLB,Jewel Events and club trademarks, logos, and other intellectual properties for use on baseball cards, stickers and other product categories featuring MLB players. Such a monopoly in properties surrounding baseball is a huge kudos for Topps.
It is funny how these little pieces of cardboard have produced and induced millions of people over the years to buy, sell and trade these cards both on avenues like E Bay or at your local Flea Markets. Just for giggles, I popped my hand into a box of older cards in my closet that I have not split up and alphabetized. So picked out a total of 10 cards to see which company dominated the cards in my box.
Well, Topps did end up coming out on top with 4 cards in that pile,with Bowman having three cards. Also within the pile were companies like Fleer, Score and Donruss90, which had the final 3 cards in the deck. And you could see quickly which company had the money and power to get major MLB players to sign deals with them, even back in the 1990 season. The bottom three companies did not have a superstar or starter on any of the MLB roster at that time. Bowman did get the likes of the Phillies Dave Hollins and Athletic pitcher Mike Gallego in my small selection.
But even back 20 years ago, Topps got the premier players for their set of cards. In those 4 Topps cards were players like Oakland’s Shortstop Walt Weiss, Royal Second baseman Frank White, Tiger Shortstop Alan Trammel and Orioles starting pitcher Ben McDonald. But what was really wild during that brief time I put my hand back into that box was the nostalgia and the blast from the past seeing some of those names pop into my eyes again after so long. Some might go to the Baseball Hall of Fame, but all of them held different memories to me both as players and as cards in my collection.
I remember almost coming to blows with my friend Steve Haas back in 5th grade over my Cincinnati Reds Cesar Geronimo card, or how I felt like I was a really shrewd dealer to trade three non-marque players cards for a hologram 1989 Cleveland Indians card. Now all my trading cards are sectioned out by alphabetical order into small plastic containers, each with rubber banded players duplicate cards all together. To think of all the time and money I invested into these cards now seems so funny that someone like Cardinal Andy Van Slykes 1985 card could have graced the spokes of my motocross bike for weeks and I was not the wiser.
But as the baseball card market has gone into the shallows, so has the Sports Card shops that used to number over 5,000 strong all over the country but has now dwindled down to under 500 shops specializing in these pieces of our baseball youth. But people have always told me that “all good things have to come to an end.”
Maybe that is true even with those little cards we used to buy for the glory and charm of trading with our friends for hours at a time. That some cards were valued so high by us back then to be placed in our school books as bookmarks to show our exclusive pride towards our baseball heroes. And maybe, just maybe a few of us, like me…looked forward to that starchy piece of thin bubble gum when I opened the package…even today.