by Eamonn Donlyn
Life comes down to a series of experiences. We are living in an era where ‘the experience’ dominates every walk of life, and the sports collectible market is still adjusting to the digital frontier reality.
Sporting leagues are concentrating on creating new ways to engage a very tech savvy audience, with new venues and stadiums looking more like the inside of a Best Buy than a sporting event at times. Anything for a more 'enhanced' experience for the fans.
But for generations now, collectors have been finding alternate fan experiences through the magic of cardboard, autographs, jerseys, plaques and much more. Owning a piece of sports history, such as a Super Bowl ticket stub, game-worn jersey, or simply the rookie card of our favorite hero gives us all that extra connection with the sports we love.
But as leagues and teams turn their focus toward technology for the future of fan engagement, the collector's world is caught somewhere in the middle. We touched on this subject a couple months back, when discussing the decline of the singles card market, as Topps and other manufacturers are testing the best way to serve the sports collectible fans of today and tomorrow. Technology plays the role of obvious key factor.
It has been a mercurial relationship between technology and collectors since the 1990s. eBay single handedly changed the card market, regardless of your stance on that impact. Next to the manufacturing companies and capitalism itself, the auction site has had the most influence on how we buy, sell and trade cards today.
When you take a step back, and look at collecting as a whole, the changes in society and culture have had the largest impact, despite those in the industry that view the manufacturers as the evil empire.
Fantasy sports leagues have helped provide the ‘experience’ with sports that once solely lay in the hands of card collectors. You can collect players each season, and trade them to achieve tangible goals, a real-time interaction that cards struggle to compete with. Previous generations used their imagination with cards to fill this void, now things are changing quite rapidly.
Video games have provided another sports escape outlet, even allowing fans to build their own team with ‘trading cards’ on some of the more recent games such as the Madden franchise, which includes Madden Ultimate trading cards within the game.
So, it doesn’t seem too far fetched to think that the next stage in collecting will be heavily influenced or even dominated by the digital age, especially since everything is moving in that direction (sidebar: remember when Sportflics were the newest in card technology? Anyway, I digress...)
Over the last few years card manufacturers have been investing in various other markets, looking for the best ways to sustain and grow. In 2011, when Topps purchased GMG Entertainment, a big player in the Facebook realm, Topps continued to build upon its Digital Services brand.
The new products that have come out of the company since that time frame, tend to focus on engagement and and mobile apps. The only problem with competing in this environment, is that things change very quickly and the ‘trendy new shiny object’ can quickly become a thing of the past if you don’t have the resources to ‘pivot’ on a dime. This means it will take time for the card companies to figure out which markets to compete in, and when to integrate them with their core card businesses.
Topps 3D Live franchise never really ‘took off’ as hoped, and its Topps Town project has suffered a similar fate proof that finding a way to bridge the gap between generations is quite challenging, as with most industries.
Upper Deck has come out with a credit card program that can reward you with e-cards and eventually physical cards as well. Panini introduced the first video trading card a couple years back, but the battle with Upper Deck rages on as UD’s EVOLUTION brand of video cards are a bit further ahead in production and a more readily available when you search eBay for video cards.
The Virtual Fan Network (VFN) has created a digital card network, and plenty more companies are working on rival products that merge all of these new technologies in online communities. While this realm is still a bit cloudy, it is clear that finding a way to combine the best of fantasy sports, video games, and trading cards seems to be a common thread.
What does this all mean to traditional collectors? Positive progress. It shows that the industry is not ‘dying a slow death’ as some might say. All of these areas are proof that while the market might be changing in many ways, innovation is at the forefront of all of these concepts.
The fact that none of these products have quite hit a home run just yet shows that the primary market still has strong footing, waiting for a product that is more suitable to people who still prefer to hold a tangible item in their hand.
Game used cards are a prime example that people are open to new ideas, within the confines of reality. Regardless of how many ‘virtual experiences’ are created, it seems like the one to succeed will have to find the right marriage between technology and the ability to actually collect items in the physical world. After all, the best 'experience' is one that blends the best of both worlds, allowing fantasy and reality to be combined with the imagination of collector.