Why a Lack of Innovation in Card Collecting is Killing the Hobby

Card collecting has been a hobby many Americans have enjoyed for the last 100 years, and it has seen a huge boost in popularity over the last 40 years. A boom that, as my previous article mentioned, almost led to the collapse of collecting.  Like any hobby, card collecting has its critics and problems. Some say the hobby is losing appeal and struggling to attract new members. Others say that prospecting has caused the hobby to become too expensive for most collectors and is driving people away.  Regardless of how you feel, there is a much broader problem plaguing the hobby and collectors: a lack of competition caused by strict licensing agreements.

Innovation in Card Collecting

A Brief History of Card Companies

Before we look at why card companies and a lack of competition among them is a problem, it would help to understand how they came to exist. The first baseball cards appeared in the late 1800s. By the turn of the 20th century and shortly after the Second Industrial Revolution, cards were being sold in cigarette and confection packs as a prize/incentive to buy that particular brand.  Cracker Jack started including cards with their treats as early as 1914.

Then WWI began and card production lulled. As Europe rebuilt itself and the U.S. shifted away from wartime productions, cards started coming out again in the Roaring ’20s, only to be hindered by the start of the Great Depression. It wasn’t until 1933 when The Goudey Gum Company introduced a set that was unlike any other that the cards came into their own. Bright colorful cards appeared that were colored by hand featuring the two biggest players of the time: Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. On the back were short biographies of the players,  which was a first for baseball cards.

The Rise of Topps

Back then, collecting was not what it is today and cards were not meant to be collected. They were gimmicks to get you to buy whatever product they came with.  The U.S. was forced to enter WWII and production of cards was reduced. They were still being made, but not in any significant quantity. By 1948 the Bowman Gum Company and Leaf Candy Company were the biggest producers of cards, while Topps Chewing Gum began issuing their first sets.

1952 came and Topps produced the most popular post-war set in the hobby, including the 1952 Topps Mickey Mantle card, the first one ever made by Topps.  Topps also introduced the practice of putting statistics on the backs of cards. Topps gum was not popular with consumers but their cards were. People were buying Topps gum and throwing out the gum just for the cards. In 1956, Topps bought out their biggest competitor, Bowman, and Leaf dropped out of card production. Topps would enjoy a monopoly on the sports card market for the next 20 years. Various regional sets and experimental sets from other companies would come out during this time, but nothing matched the national production level Topps had.

Other Distributors Appear

In 1975, Fleer sued Topps to break up the monopoly they had on cards. Fleer won. In 1981, Fleer and Donruss started issuing cards with their own gum. An appeal of the lawsuit by Topps clarified that their exclusive rights only applied to cards sold with gum. Therefore, Fleer and Donruss had to stop selling cards with gum. Fleer included stickers of MLB team logos and Donruss puzzle pieces, which, when assembled, made a puzzle of a famous player. In 1984 Beckett Magazine was created to try and provide values for all cards. The Junk Wax Era was upon us and Score entered the market in 1988, followed by Upper Deck in 1989.

Upper Deck introduced the Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card, as well as tamper-proof foil packaging, hologram-style logos, and higher quality card stock which allowed them to charge a higher price for their cards, a premium set at the time.  Topps followed suit by bringing back the Bowman brand and creating the Stadium Club set in 1991. 1992 came and with it the first form of an insert/refractor/parallels. These were short-printed cards that were not part of the normal set and featured borders that were different colors than white or which had a metal foil over them that refracts light. In 1997 Upper Deck introduced the first relic and memorabilia cards, cards with pieces of game used equipment in them. Fleer, introduced the first type of numbering on cards, meaning the fraction stamped on the card is how many were printed, including the first 1/1 card, making that card the only one in the world. Autographed cards first appeared in 1999.

Recent Years

Score would change their name to Pinnacle Brands only to fold in 1998. Pacific, who entered the hobby in 1994, closed its doors in 2001. Fleer declared bankruptcy in 2005 and was purchased by Upper Deck. Donruss lost their license to produce MLB licensed cards in 2006. Today, only Topps and Upper Deck have full MLB and MLBPA licenses. Panini had been making various cards, action figures, and stickers in Italy since 1960. Their stickers of football (soccer) clubs in Europe took off in 1970 after their appearance at the 1970 World Cup. In 2009, Panini received a license from the NBA to make basketball cards, and in 2010 a similar license was received from the NHL. In 2011, Panini inked a deal with the MLBPA to use players on baseball cards but could not secure a license with the MLB, so their baseball cards cannot feature any team names, logos of teams, or pictures of players in team uniforms.

Today’s Lack of Innovation

Think of the hobby world as Middle Earth ruled by three factions: Topps, Upper Deck, and Panini.  Topps owns Bowman and produces baseball cards under both names. Upper Deck owns Fleer and O-Pee-Chee and only makes hockey cards under those names. Panini makes basketball, soccer, and football having licenses on all three for all leagues. Panini also makes unlicensed baseball and hockey cards. They lack both an NHL and NHLPA license so they cannot use a player image or team on the card. Panini produces sets under the Panini, Donruss, and Score brands. Leaf produces baseball and football cards without a license to either league.

As you can see, each of the major companies who make cards have a monopoly on their respective licensed products. If you want a card with a New York Yankees logo on it you have to buy from either Bowman or Topps. It is unfortunate that these companies all lack real competition. They are on cruise control and without competition do not have to be innovative. There are no competitors or challengers who could steal business away from their customers. Either you buy their product or you can get one without your favorite team or players image on it. Cards are a rare consumer product, where you cannot purchase the generic version. Cards are meant to be looked at. Why would anyone want to look at a card missing a players image or team, the most important parts? Would you want a card of Tom Brady that is either missing his picture entirely or has his photo, but all traces of the New England Patriots have been removed from his jersey and the face of the card? No logos, no mascots, and instead of the word Patriots the card simply says “New England.”

Diversification is Key

Card companies need their licenses so that they can all be on a level playing field. That way the consumers and fans of the hobby can dictate sales. Instead, the card companies are able to set whatever price they want for cards since you have no alternative product to purchase. Topps needs to make hockey, Panini baseball, and Upper Deck basketball. What we have now are companies just waiting for their season to pump out a year’s worth of products in 3-4 months.

If there is no real competition, card producers are going to remain comfortable and do the same thing year after year. Topps, for example, keeps using the same image of certain players for the same set. They might occasionally experiment with new ideas and designs, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. For example, Topps put the pen tip that a player used to sign a card inside said card in their 2017 Tier One set. That’s new, innovative. But would you want to own a card with a piece of a pen Bryce Harper touched and used to sign something? I would much rather own a card with a piece of a game-worn jersey or bat than a pen.

A Path Forward

Look how much innovation came in 10 years between 1989 and 1999 for the card collecting hobby; that’s the kind of innovation it will require to attract more collectors and keep the hobby afforable. It is not entirely on the card companies to do make this a reality, either. The pro sports leagues need to give more licenses to these companies so there can be more competition. But no matter what, the card companies need to stop coasting. They should develop something new to attract new and old collectors alike.

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