Thursday, August 6, 2009

Topps and Major League Baseball going steady.

The big news today is that Topps has reached an agreement with Major League Baseball to exclusively produce baseball cards in 2010 and beyond.  Upper Deck had previously reached a deal with the MLB Players Association which probably meant that they knew the writing was on the wall.

While I’m not too disappointed with Upper Deck losing their license, I was kind of hoping that Donruss would be allowed back into the hobby.  I don’t know if an exclusive deal is a good thing for collectors.  Exclusivity has reared its head in the sports video game world and it seems to have annoyed more people than it made happy.  The people that are happy are the video game company though so nothing changes.  Electronic Arts got the exclusive rights to produce NFL games for their Madden franchise, but then lost the ability to make MLB games when an exclusive deal was signed with Take-Two Interactive.

In a way, the same thing happened here.  Upper Deck negotiated the first exclusive deal when they got the right to be the only licensed NHL card manufacturer.  They first lost the ability to make basketball cards when Panini was given an exclusive deal and they’ve now lost the ability to make baseball cards.  Well, baseball cards with team names and logos on them.  It remains to be seen how popular cards without MLB uniforms and logos will be.   For some, if you throw enough autographs and relics in there it probably won’t matter, but personally I don’t see myself buying cards of players in street clothes, generic uniforms or on highly air-brushed cards.

In all honesty, I’m not too distraught over Upper Deck losing their license.  They were in a downward spiral over the past few years and didn’t seem to want to fix their problems.  The biggest problems are the collation and quality issues in their products.  Upper Deck must have used the dullest blades on the planet to cut their cards because the corners always seemed to be soft right out of the packs.  Roller marks have been an enormous issue as well with the worst problem being in 2008 Timelines where every card from one of the subsets had a pair of roller marks through it.  High-end, one-per-pack cards come with dinged corners.  Watch enough box breaks online and you’ll see plenty of damaged cards.

Collation is the second huge issue.  I opened a box of this year’s baseball that had 4 packs containing only 10 cards (and only 1 of the 3 “average” hits).  I’ve written Upper Deck numerous times and sent in my UPC along with the hologram from the box and haven’t gotten anything in return.  Numerous attempts to follow up have been ignored.  Mine wasn’t an isolated incident as the blogosphere was full of stories about how people were missing hits or cards from their boxes.  Upper Deck is careful to word that the expected hits are only an average so if you don’t get anything then they don’t have to make it up to you unlike other companies who guarantee the number of hits contained in a box.

Customer support also became a big issue as of late.  Upper Deck made sure to pimp all of their new releases on their Facebook page, but you’d never see anything on there such as the changes to O-Pee-Chee baseball.  It wasn’t uncommon for e-mails to customer support to go unanswered.

The final thing to me, is that Upper Deck really seems to cater to the high-end collector while not putting a lot of effort or creativity into their lower end releases.  Since I don’t ever plan on buying boxes that contain 2 cards for $200, Upper Deck doesn’t see me as their target demographic.  I don’t even like paying $8 for 4 cards that look like postage stamps.  I tend to buy Upper Deck products a year or so after release once the price drops drastically.  2007 Elements, 2007 Masterpieces, etc.  Of course, you can no longer get damaged cards replaced at that point, but many times you are paying around half of what the boxes used to sell for.

So, it’ll be interesting to see what Topps does with the exclusive contract.  All of the naysayers think that Topps will stop being creative the second they are the only game in town.  I see no reason to believe this.  Topps not only had the better looking baseball releases in 2009, but they also gave you the best value for your money with the best of the bunch being the flagship HTA jumbo boxes.  I pulled cards from those boxes that put many Upper Deck high-end hits to shame.

I think the biggest reason for this exclusive deal is Michael Eisner.  Right or wrong, many people credit him for saving Disney.  If he surrounds himself at Topps with a strong team such as the one he had at Disney then he could take Topps far.  Major League Baseball is at its least popular with kids and they see this deal as a way to get back into the lives of kids.  Will it be successful?  Who knows.  Baseball cards didn’t get me interested in the sport.  I was interested in the sport from playing it and bought the cards to collect the players that I watched.  With less kids playing sports and tickets to sporting events being so expensive, it’s not a surprise that fewer kids are interested in baseball.  When I was a kid, my friends and I could walk up to Fenway on any day that Clemens wasn’t pitching and buy $9 bleacher seats on the day of the game.  These days if you don’t get tickets the day that they go on sale then you’re out of luck for the whole season unless you pay outrageous secondary prices.  Between that and steroids, I think baseball has problems that cheaper baseball cards aren’t going to fix.

Good or bad, it’s going to be an interesting year in the hobby.  Panini will be releasing their first basketball sets and Upper Deck will be releasing unlicensed basketball and baseball sets.  It’ll be interesting to see if their strategy in baseball will mirror that of basketball where they try to sign a bunch of big name players to exclusive deals to keep their autographs out of Topps products.  They’re going to need something to draw people to their unlicensed products.  Improving the issues that they’ve got now will be a huge step in the right direction.

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