Monday, November 27, 2017

Approaching the End of the Topps Monopoly

It's almost here! No, not Christmas, though that is also coming. What I am referring to is the end of the Topps monopoly of MLB-licensed baseball cards. The "exclusive contract" (read, monopoly) with the MLB runs out in 2020, and I, for one, cannot wait.

Way back in 2009, Topps and the MLB signed the paperwork that brought Topps back into the monopoly it held over baseball cards. I say "back into" because before 1980, Topps had a monopoly on producing MLB-licensed cards. That was challenged and we collectors were blessed with some of the worst competitors we have ever seen. The Fleer and Donruss sets were awful, wrought with horrible photos and errors galore. But, we didn't care. We FINALLY had something other than Topps to collect! Sure, there were other brands and off-shoots before that, but they were not "official" and often featured very bad airbrushing to get rid of the team logos. But, starting in 1980, we finally had REAL cards with REAL teams that were NOT Topps.

Competition bred furious innovations: crazy die-cuts, foils, Christmas ornaments, autographs, game-used swatches, bats, etc. It also, admittedly, bred a bizarre spiral into horrid product quality control. Some cards were made of cheap paper, some would fall apart, some had fuzzy, awful photos. Print runs were out of control. Though, the 90's were the heyday of so-called "junk wax" runs in which so many cards were produced at such low quality, they are often sold for less than 1 penny per card.

Then, Topps and the MLB inked a deal to "save card collecting." The deal (in 2009, extended to 2020 in 2013) allowed Topps to once again grab hold of the business and serve as the monopoly of officially licensed baseball cards. For a while, things really sucked. We had horrible products, rehashed versions of old Topps designs, and even the photography looked like a thumbnail image your grandfather enlarged with Paint in order to make it fit onto a card (fuzzy and pixelated crap). Collectors revolted, buying non-licensed cards from Upper Deck, Panini, etc.

Topps got better.

Enter the digital age. Topps developed several card-collecting apps (everything from baseball to Star Wars to soccer, football, and more) - digital versions of baseball cards, acquired through online trading and a VERY lucrative micro-transaction mechanism (where users buy virtual coins and diamonds with real money in order to buy digital cards that do not exist physically - it's genius, really). Topps also came up with "Topps Now" cards, which depict players from the previous day's "hot list of achievements (my own phrase)." These might include Ichiro's 3000th hit or the Indians crazy 20+ game winning streak. Again, Topps has managed to do some things right. Of course, there were the epic failures like 3d baseball cards (which used an app and augmented reality to show a 3d version of the player when you pointed your phone at a card) and whatever that online card collecting site they had was called - sorry, I blocked it out of my memory and don't even want to Google it.

Would those things have developed in the same manner had Topps not inked the deal? Did Topps and the MLB really save baseball card collecting? It's hard to say. How can anyone say for sure, given there was no competition. For all we know, other brands may have popped up that might have developed better apps, better cards, better experiences. Then again, maybe not.

As for the future? I can only hope and pray that 2020 marks the END of the Topps monopoly once and for all. I can only hope that new card companies will rise up and offer worthwhile competitive products. Exclusive contracts are meant to provide one supplier and one manufacturer the opportunity to help spark competition once the contract is over. Please, please, for the love of The Hobby, let's hope that is the fruit of this stranglehold we collectors have been subjected to for all these years.

Here's hoping 2020 provides a clear vision for competition in MLB-Licensed baseball card collecting.


  1. Well written. 2020 seems so far away...

  2. I also cannot wait to see the end of an exclusive license. However, my fear is that the MLB will give another exclusive license to... Panini. Panini has released way too many products since they got the exclusive and it was really turned me away from football cards.

    While a Topps exclusive isn't ideal, it's far better than a Panini exclusive. It is scary to think what Panini would do to baseball...

    1. If Panini had the exclusive license, it'd be the end of collecting modern cards for me.

    2. It pains me to say it, but...I agree. If exclusivity went to anyone (which I hope it does not), I would prefer Upper Deck over Topps. But Panini would be a disaster. Topps, though, is the traditional choice, and baseball loves loves loves its traditions.

  3. Eloquently stated - I'm right there with you. 2020 can't come soon enough! Competition breeds creativity and hopefully MLB sees that.

  4. "Competition breeds creativity"

    I completely agree!

    "and hopefully MLB sees that"

    Sadly, they will see the projected profit margins instead...

  5. MLB loves exclusivity. Watch a game on TV and you will only see Chevrolet, Budweiser and State Farm commercials. It's the way they do business. I don't really see a reason for them to change their way of doing business. Perhaps Rob Manfred will be inspired by competition, though.

  6. I think the best thing Topps did during their exclusive time was when you got code cards that you entered into their website which unlocked cards which you could trade with others and then have the physical cards mailed to you.