by Rich Klein
I had lunch with some of the guys I used to work with at Beckett last week and after we exchanged pleasantries, the first question they asked me was “What do you think about the recent licensing announcements?” By now you’ve probably heard that MLB and Topps are staying together on the exclusive partnership through 2020 and Upper Deck has joined Panini with MLBPA licenses.
I think I shocked everyone when I said “This is a case where everyone is correct” and although some collectors and companies might prefer a different set up, the end result is, for now, the right one for all parties.
If you think about the 1950’s and why collectors look so fondly at the first half of the decade, a key part was the battle between Topps and Bowman for card supremacy. As we all know, Topps won that war but we are left with some great designs in the early and mid-1950’s. However, one advantage to the owner of a monopoly is that the amount of money they pay can be reduced since there is no competition.
Within 15 years, the late, great Marvin Miller (who should be in the Hall of Fame for how he rescued the players from being so underpaid for their talents) not only set his sights on getting better deals from the owners but also worked on getting better deals for his constituents in the Player’s Association from companies that would use their images.
One of his goals was to increase the compensation from Topps. At the time, the players were receiving very little. Miller does describe in his book some of the inner workings of the deal that eventually went down in the late 1960’s. And if you ever wondered why there were so many recycled photos in the 1969 Topps Set (Baseball hobby News once did a great article on that), it was part of players not really willing to participate fully for the new Topps set. Needless to say, by the early 1970’s the players were bringing home far more money from the card companies than they had been during the 1960’s.
Then the next big seismic shift came in the early 1980’s when a judge struck down Topps’ baseball card monopoly and Fleer and Donruss joined the fun to be joined later in the decade by Score and Upper Deck. In addition, to all these cards companies, the players and the leagues (MLBPA and MLB for future reference) were also getting oodles of money and by the early 1990’s the party appeared like it would never end. However, the baseball strike came in 1994 and did many harmful things to the card business. The MLBPA had socked away so much cash in anticipation of a work stoppage that the player’s survival money came mostly as a result of the what the card companies had paid the MLBPA. Yes, our collecting habits helped to keep that dark period in baseball history (no World Series, remember?) alive.
When the strike was settled, the card business had changed and then a few years later when eBay really became dominant, the card companies were still paying large sums of monies to the MLB and the MLBPA but with somewhat diminishing results as their collector base was receding.
This whole scenario led us to 2004 when we at Beckett counted approximately 90 mainstream collector issues during the course of the year, which comes out to an average of one every four days.
Think about that number for a minute, and how many box reviews I would have done that year — which would have been a full time job in itself. Needless to say, that situation was untenable and the survival of the fittest would begin the very next year when Fleer went out of business in the spring of 2005. A few months after that, MLB and the MLBPA reduced the number of card companies to two and left Donruss/Leaf/Playoff out in the cold.
While some hobby insiders still believe the best arrangement at the time would have been to maintain multiple license but have each manufacturer release just one product per month, the decision at the time did produce one very useful result in that the number of sets released became far more manageable (although some say it’s still way too high for the casual collector to understand).
So by 2009, the next key decision was made to make Topps the exclusive manufacturer of cards by MLB. Again, if one really thinks about that decision, it makes a lot of sense. After all, you have Topps with their 60 or so years of baseball card production, their books pass MLB scrutiny and it gives MLB a focus in the category. The reason I say this makes sense is that how often do you hear the phrase: “official sponsor of Major League Baseball”? As a unit, it is always easier to have one and only one manufacturer to work with so that made perfect sense in 2010. Three years later, Topps and MLB were able to come to an agreement that the relationship was working and thus the contract was renewed for another seven years.
Now how about the recent agreements between Panini and Upper Deck and the MLBPA? Again these deals make perfect sense. If you remember when we discussed Marvin Miller, one of the goals for the MLBPA is to make more money for the players whose average career does not even last five seasons. Thus, separate contracts with the players and manufacturers works for MLB and its players.
The contract seems to indicate that Upper Deck’s books are back in order and with new management after Richard McWilliam’s passing a fresh start does seem fair even though it wasn’t that long ago the MLBPA was telling players not to sign with them.
Being shut out of an MLB license, the other two companies make the second best deal they can make and the players generate more money both as a group as well as individually. Plus, this gives players chances to make more money for autograph deals with all three. The recent Stephen Strasburg signing is a good example. Similar to another Scott Boras client, Alex Rodriguez, who began his card career by not appearing on a Topps cards for many years due to a dispute relating back to the 1993 USA National team, Strasburg went for a deal to give him the most money (and, I suppose, who can blame him?).
Every card collector will react differently. Since Topps is far the best at sending me product to review, on a selfish level I’m happy they will continue to have fully licensed MLB and MLBPA cards. The deal also gives the other companies a foot in the door. Panini proved this year with its National Treasures brand that you can have an uber-popular product without using MLB logos and trademarks.
You know though, what really is the best result for collectors in this: There will be more choices and more ways to collect cards but not to the extremes of the early part of the 21st century. Each company will have to be somewhat creative with the added competition for collectors’ dollars. And, after all, isn’t that really the best world for collectors?
Rich Klein can be reached at [email protected]