We are at a place we never thought we would get to.
The first two weeks of the baseball season have been cancelled. If there is another week cancelled, Major League Baseball will do the unthinkable and wipe out games on the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s MLB debut, easily one of the most culturally significant days in American history.
What does the lockout mean for baseball? Specifically for collectors, what does it mean for the hobby?
We are in a world where baseball and its players should be fighting for every single potential person who could be a fan to fall in love with the game. The inability for the two sides to come together and play in the sand box nicely is painful to watch. Could you imagine what Fanatics thinks of the shenanigans going on between the two sides after they committed to an unimaginable amount of money to get an exclusive license from the two sides?
The whole thing made me think of working in the hobby in the 1990s. The baseball strike in 1994 was a significant event in life. It changed things for me personally. It was devastating for me both emotionally and professionally. I thought it would be a useful exercise to remember the 1994 baseball strike and take a look at what it did to baseball fans and to the sports card industry.
Before we do that, let’s go back to 1981. That was the year of the first lengthy baseball strike. It resulted in a split season, with a first half champion and a second half champion in each division. I was in high school then. Growing up two hours from Montreal, I was a big Expos fan. I still wear my Gary Carter and Tim Raines jerseys to this day. I will never forget how happy I was when baseball came back with the All-Star Game to kick off the second half. And Gary Carter was a hero.
The baseball strike in 1981 dug a hole in the soul of every sports fan. People on the streets talked about it every day. Everyone knew who Pete Rose and Reggie Jackson and Steve Carlton and Fernando Valenzuela were. There was an unthinkable void felt by everyone. Baseball mattered then. My friends and I still bought packs of cards, and we still played baseball. But what I remember most about that year is that the North American Soccer League exploded. The Montreal Manic were drawing more than 50,000 fans at Olympic Stadium. The New York Cosmos became the biggest sports draw of the summer across North America.
Baseball as a whole should have learned from that.
The hobby was not really affected back then, because the hobby was more or less buying packs at the local five and dime, ordering sets from the classified ads in the back of Street and Smith’s Baseball Annual, and trading cards with your friends.
In 1994, it was completely different.
The hobby was already declining by the time the strike halted play in the middle of the season. Once again, soccer filled the void as the United States hosted the World Cup that year, and Major League Soccer was a fresh new face as a fifth major sports league. As an Expos fan, the strike robbed us of what could have been our only World Series, and it ultimately killed the franchise.
Sales Plummeted In 1994-95
After the 1994 strike was over and play resumed, I remember sitting down for a conversation with then-Upper Deck President Brian Burr over a Philly cheesesteak sandwich at the All-Star Café in New York. Burr made it very clear that we were not dealing with the same hobby that existed in the early 1990s.
“Sales are down for everyone compared to what they were at the beginning of the decade,” he said. “Why is that? That’s what we all have to examine.”
Looking back, it’s pretty easy to figure out. But back then, the hobby executives lived in a world where none of us could accept the realities of what was going on around us. No one wanted to admit that collectors were leaving because the hobby became too expensive. No one wanted to admit that collecting wasn’t cool anymore. No one wanted to admit that overproduction and product proliferation had destroyed the industry, as boxes of cards that people bought for $75 as investments were now worth $5 in the bargain bins of the shrinking number of hobby shops that were surviving.
Regardless of all of those reasons, the 1994 baseball strike more impact on the hobby than all of those things put together.
“I would say that our baseball sales between 1994 and 1995 went down by 50 per cent,” Burr said. “The baseball strike cast a chilling effect on the other sports. Having hockey experience a work stoppage added to the problem.”
Suddenly, collectors questioned why they would spend their $5 bill on a pack of cards. That bill could buy them lunch. It could go toward a hat or t-shirt of their favorite team. It could also go toward a video game, something that did not really exist in 1981 unless you count going to the arcade to play Galaga or Pac-Man in the equation.
Burr said that Upper Deck’s challenge at the time was to be innovative. They succeeded by coming up with the jersey card. To this day, that remains the most significant innovation in the history of the hobby.
The biggest obstacle that the industry faced coming out of the baseball strike was the licensing arms of the leagues and players association. Royalty deals that made sense in 1990 did not make sense in 1995 or 1996. The league and players got a combined 20 per cent royalty on wholesale sales, with a huge minimum guarantee. When sales plummeted, 20 per cent of sales did not cover the minimum guarantee. Suddenly, the manufacturers were paying 40 and even 50 per cent royalties to the leagues and players’ associations to meet the minimum guarantee.
“They have to understand that market conditions are very different from what they were in the boom days,” Burr said during our meeting. “From that standpoint, the licensors have not done anything. The licensors made some serious coin during the boom years, but they seem not willing to know those days are over.”
No Loyalty To Card Companies
While the minimum guarantees were crippling for baseball, Burr praised the NFL and Player’s Inc., the NFL licensing arm, for their efforts in working with the companies to build the industry. However, Players Inc. eventually saw its licensees drop like flies. Action Packed and Donruss were bought by Pinnacle, who went bankrupt in 1998. A couple years later, Collector’s Edge disappeared when their parent company, Shop At Home TV, was sold and all sports programming was eliminated. Pacific lost their NFL Players Inc. license after a group of shop owners complained to MFLPA President Gene Upshaw at an industry conference in Hawaii that there were too many products on the market. His knee-jerk reaction was to eliminate a licensee, and Pacific drew the short straw.
If the industry ever forgot how the card companies were treated by the leagues post-1993, they were given a harsh reminder last year when Fanatics swooped in and shocked the manufacturers by receiving exclusive licenses.
Were any other lessons learned in 1994 and 1995 that can be reflected upon? It appears not. Players and owners are bickering over minutiae and turning the few true baseball fans and collectors away from the game. The biggest names in baseball are Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, Aaron Judge and Mookie Betts. They are hardly household names, like the biggest stars were a generation ago. Kids won’t even notice that the games aren’t on. If they want baseball, they will get on their Playstations or X-Boxes.
As for baseball card sales? The impact of this strike will not be as devastating as the 1994 strike was. When I worked at Pinnacle in the late 1990s, we were the number one retail brand in America. Today, the retail market is only a fraction of what it once was.
I will miss baseball. I watched several hundred games last year, often with a binder of Topps or Bowman complete sets, sorted by teams and put into binders, on my lap. But now, there are many more options for me to turn to and make me not miss baseball as much.
The more I miss baseball every day, the more I end up watching Major League Soccer. I am becoming more of a soccer fan instead of having just a passing interest. Interest in pro soccer blossomed while baseball was going through its labor issue in ’94, a year when the World Cup came to North America.
I haven’t bought a box of MLS cards since the Tony Meola days when Upper Deck made them in the early-to-mid 1990s. But this year, I might buy a box or two of soccer cards. If I buy do, I will likely buy one or two fewer boxes of baseball cards than I normally would. Those two boxes will mean nothing to the MLB and MLBPA. But to me, they will mean everything.
And that is the fundamental problem that neither the players or owners seem to understand.