Yesterday afternoon I came back from a swim and found that my phone had exploded as a result of the Topps/Fanatics/MLB/MLBPA news. In short, it currently looks like starting in 2023 Topps won’t be able to use MLB players on baseball cards and in 2026 Topps will lose the right to use MLB teams as well. Given how Topps has been the card of record for 70 years now, this is a big deal and I’m not at all surprised at the amount of outcry that occurred online.
For my part, I’m simultaneously upset and happy about the deal. The biggest problem is that this is moving things into even more of a monopoly where MLB will control even more than they already do and Fanatics will have a stranglehold on basically all sports merchandising in the US. Both monopolies will continue to optimize toward efficient profitmaking in search of the cheapest product that makes the most amount of money right now. I have zero reason to expect anything good from either MLB or Fanatics. But I also had zero reason to expect anything good from the already-existing Topps monopoly.
There is however an emotional connection to the Topps brand and how it stands in as Baseball Cards™. That 70-year history is the history of the game itself. The players. The stats. The uniforms. The stadiums. When my kids are asking about old baseball players, the photos they end up referencing are invariable baseball cards. Losing that connection, even if there’s a Fanatics Flagship, will be sad.
I’m not sure MLB even realizes what it’s tossing. There are a lot of people for whom collecting baseball cards is collecting Topps cards. They won’t change brands and they even may step away this season because they’re done with MLB. I’m a bit surprised by this point of view—as someone who collects 1940s and 1950s cards, I’m used to the idea of other brands, like Bowman, also serving as the card of record—but it’s come up a lot, especially among a lot of older collectors.
As a child of the 1980s when I had three (soon to be five and quickly after, over a dozen) flagship sets to choose from, while I still saw Topps as the primary I didn’t grow up to have the same level of brand loyalty. Give me a flagship set of a couple dozen players per team and I’ll be happy no matter who makes it.
Which brings me to the side that I’m happy about. The last year of card collecting has been abysmal. Everything sold out in stores. Everything sold out online. Prices in the secondary market through the roof. The Fanatics deal is a commitment to cards existing in the forseeable future and I can’t see things getting worse than “completely unavailable.”
Heck, Fanatics’s distribution is the kind of thing I’d love to see happen for cards. Available online from multiple web shops. Available in team shops. No more having to deal with sketchy distributers and resellers. It’s long past time for trying a different distribution model and actually getting cards to people who want to collect them.
I’ve also found Topps’s production to be lazy and uninspired for a couple years now. Pictures get reused set to set. Inserts and gimmicks that are a complete waste of time. Checklists that always the same couple hundred stars and rookies. An utterly predictable emphasis endlessly boring on New York and LA markets to the detriment of all others.
I don’t expect Fanatics to do anything radical but at the very least they’re a company that emphasizes selling to all teams and, as with the distribution side of things, I really don’t see things getting much worse.
The thing though is that 2023 is really a long way off. Topps has an IPO planned and this news is the kind of thing that’ll crater its stock price no matter how rosy its earning statement is. I totally expect Fanatics to make a play at buying Topps and keeping that connection to the past. I also totally expect Fanatics to shake up the existing product lines. There’s a lot of deadwood right now and printing cardboard isn’t very efficient anyway.
I’ve been expecting more on-demand releases as it is. The Fanatics news pretty much confirms that we’ll be getting exactly that plus NFTs (not dead yet unfortunately). I remain hopeful though that some cardboard will remain and be accessible to everyone. Fanatics’s notorious lack of product quality though will remain a cause for concern for a while.