Friday, August 7, 2009

Upper Deck Baseball - Not Dead Yet

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard that Topps is now the exclusive license-holder for Major League Baseball. What this means is that Topps is the only company that can print and distribute any Baseball cards with Major League Logos and trademarks.

HOWEVER, that does not mean that the other former license holder, Upper Deck, is left entirely out of the loop. Recently UD signed an extension of their agreement with the MLB Players' Association, which means that they can produce products with the players' names and likenesses on them, BUT without MLB Logos and trademarks. This is not the first time this has happened in Baseball, in fact, many of the sets that Topps produced in the 70's and 80's were unlicensed by MLB and carried no logos (you can see them airbrushed out, famously in the 1981 Topps set).

So while fellow bloggers are decrying exclusivity and a lack of Upper Deck Baseball Cards next season, it ain't gonna happen. In fact, I just received this press release:


Upper Deck Sets the Record Straight on the Future of the Baseball Card Market

Carlsbad, CA (August 7, 2009) – On July 2, 2009, The Upper Deck Company and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) announced their renewed partnership to produce baseball trading cards for the upcoming 2010 season, building on the successes of recent years in rebuilding the trading card category through strengthened distribution, consumer-friendly pricing, dynamic products and interactive promotions designed to attract kids to the excitement of baseball cards. This license provides Upper Deck with the rights to feature current Major League Baseball Players on their trading cards, including the game’s most collectible and sought-after superstars.

“Looking ahead to 2010, we are 100% committed to building the highest quality and most innovative baseball cards in the industry,” said Upper Deck CEO Richard McWilliam. “We look forward to announcing more details on our product portfolio in the coming weeks.”

Since its inception in 1989, Upper Deck has been the market leader for both its ability to create top-quality super premium products and to develop innovative programs that promote baseball cards to kids. In the past four years alone, Upper Deck has committed more than $21 million dollars to increase kids’ interest in baseball cards. Through annual television advertising campaigns, numerous retail promotions and online initiatives such as Upper Deck’s Kids Rewards and the current virtual world, Upper Deck has led the way in dramatically increasing household penetration of kids collecting sports cards from 8% in 2005 to a reported 44% in 2008.

The MLBPA license agreement provides access to more than 1,200 current Major League Baseball players, including all of its stars. Fans can look forward to finding cards featuring autographs and pieces of game-used equipment from the biggest names in baseball including Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Ken Griffey Jr., and hundreds more. "Great cards of great players will continue to be the cornerstone of all Upper Deck products,” added McWilliam.

The license agreement between Upper Deck and the MLBPA ensures the company's continued commitment to its existing consumer base, while at the same time building on its extensive investments to stimulate even greater interest among new users and kids.

“We’re looking forward to continuing the partnership with Upper Deck, a licensee that is clearly focused on the long-term growth of the trading card category," said Judy Heeter, MLBPA Director of Business Affairs & Licensing. "We believe strong competition is generally good for consumers, and expect that our ongoing relationships with both Topps and Upper Deck will ensure consumer choices that lead to category growth."


UD cards will still be published next season, albeit with no Logos, and perhaps no team names either (I guess that means that the Angels will be called Los Angeles (AL)).

I also don't see this as a permanent situation, in fact Will's crystal ball will predict that the exclusivity will lead to a proliferation of licensees once Topps completely drops the ball, which we all know they will. ESPECIALLY with Topps owner Michael Eisner, who spent much of the last three decades desicrating Walt Disney's company, saying he wants to bring Trading Cards back to their intended market, children.

Uh...hey Mike, it's not 1983 anymore. Kids don't buy Baseball cards anymore. They'd rather buy video games, or certain TCGs, or even Bakugan. Trading Cards are not even a 20th Century collectible when you think about it, they're rooted deeply in the past of the 19th Century. Kids don't buy nostalgia, adults do.

While the budget collector is happy that Topps has continued it's flagship brand as a budget collectible, and has produced a quality product year in and year out, I don't see how this new focus on kids is going to help the hobby. Not one iota.

Meanwhile, Upper Deck can feel free to focus their marketing efforts on those who TRULY drive the hobby, the obsessed fanatic collectors who still have disposable income. Talk about different worlds, we're in different solar systems. For the budget collector, it's all about packs these days, because you can virtually always justify a few dollars here and there, but even a $20 blaster is getting too rich for most budget collectors.

Over the last few years Topps had made great inroads into revitalizing the Hobby direct market, with their hobby exclusive giveaway cards, HTA program, and hobby only product. Now that the focus is on kids, and kids increasingly don't bother with hobby stores these days, will Topps start caring more about retail, where the Wal-Marts and Targets of the world are actually selling more product than at Hobby? for thought.

In many ways, the trading card market needs to take a page from the Toy collecting market. After a great many years, toy manufacturers finally discovered that a good segment of their market was adult collectors who will pay more for what they want, if they can find it. Mattel and Hasbro, the two major Action Figure toy companies both have their own exclusive online-stores, and also have other products that go exclusively to online retailers. While both Topps and Upper Deck both have online stores, neither have products that are exclusive to the online world, unless you count e-Topps, and most people wouldn't.

With technology driving our world faster and faster, trading cards are ultimately a dying breed of collectible. Much like cassette tapes, 8-tracks, and eventually CDs, the medium itself is now meaningless. Is it any wonder that the two most popular card types these days are relics and certified autos? Is that because virtually days after release, every single card in a set has been scanned and posted online?

Will the simple act of sorting your collection become nothing more than a click of a computer button?

Will Topps take their exclusive contract and run with it, or drop the ball? My bet is on a colossal tank job, but I'm also a bit hopeful that this actually could be in a move in the right direction. Already in this down economy we've seen far fewer sets than last year or the year before. The real question is can Topps and Upper Deck continue to roll with the economic punches, or will trading cards finally go the way of the dodo?

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