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Whatever happened to baseball cards?

Things have changed a lot since the 90s.

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MLB All-Stars Carlos Beltran & Evan Longoria Open Topps Baseball Series 1 Cards
2016 Topps
Kris Connor/Getty Images

Today is the release date for 2018 Topps Series 1, marking the start of baseball card season. Looking at sales numbers and industry consolidation, I’m guessing most haven’t paid much attention to baseball cards since the 90s. I’ve poked my head (and wallet) back into baseball cards a little over the past few years and it’s easy to see the market has drastically changed since last I was in it.

I think my story is like a lot of people who grew up in the 80s and 90s. I grew up a baseball fan and collecting baseball cards was a way to enjoy the sport I loved while bonding with my dad over a hobby he had when he was a kid. When we went to the grocery or drug store, if I had saved up enough money, I could buy a pack of one of the half dozen brands they carried. If we were in the right part of town, we could stop at one of the dozens of baseball card stores that dotted the strip mall landscape. And, if it was a special weekend, we might even go to a baseball card show in some small hotel or even the big one at the convention center.

I even remember one time that we went to the basement of a guy who dubbed himself “King of the Commons” (Bill Henderson). In the pre-internet days, he ran a mail order business buying and selling (mostly) common cards from all baseball card eras. My dad spent hours picking through his cards from the 50s and 60s to fill his Cubs collection while I went through my checklist of contemporary cards, filling as many gaps as I could. He specialized in “older stuff” so, after I got bored waiting for dad, I started on a new project: cobbling together a 1981 set minus the costly cards. From afar, it was quite absurd: I rode an hour from my grandparents’s house to sit in the cardboard-crammed, shelf-lined basement of a complete stranger paying my hard earned money for little trading cards of baseball players who mostly played before I was born (all because I liked the little caps on the card).

Now there’s literally 1 baseball card shop left in all of Houston. How did we get here?

NBA Jam Session
RIP Fleer
Photo By Kent Horner/NBAE via Getty Images

If you remember your history, Fleer sued Topps and the MLBPA in the 70s to break their monopoly. Starting 1981, Fleer and Donruss competed with Topps in the market. In 1988 and 1989, Score and Upper Deck entered the fray. In a number of ways, it was a Golden Age of baseball cards. But in others, it was also the Dark Ages.

Remember that story your dad had about his mom throwing out all of his baseball cards from 30 years ago and how they’d be worth a fortune now? I hope you didn’t invest too much into 90’s baseball cards because, like those beanie babies and pogs in your attic, they’re not sending anyone to college. Your 1989 baseball cards still aren’t worth anything because they were so mass produced. Even that iconic Upper Deck #1 Ken Griffey Jr? It might fetch $20 on eBay, if you’re lucky.

Remember how Upper Deck upended the industry with that card and their business model? Baseball cards went from $10 a box to $50, $100, or even $500 seemingly overnight. Premium brands like Stadium Club, Pinnacle, Ultra, Studio, and even higher end products (that you’ve never heard of and couldn’t afford) saturated the market. The emphasis went from mass produced standard products (why those 1989 baseball cards aren’t worth anything) to limited run products.

Anahiem Ducks v Boston Bruins
Upper Deck is now relegated to just making hockey cards. We’ll get to that in a minute.
Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

And then the MLB strike happened. The 1994-95 NHL lockout and 1995 and 1996 NBA lockouts followed. These devastated the sports card industry, bursting the 80’s bubble and leading to a rapid consolidation in the industry.

Donruss was the first to fall. In May 1996, Pinnacle (Score) bought them up. However, in 1998, Pinnacle filed for bankruptcy. This hilarious line can be found on Pinnacle’s wikipedia page: “In early 1998, Jerry Meyer was named Beckett Media’s Sports Card Executive of the Year. Due to Pinnacle filing for bankruptcy less than a year later, it would be the only time Beckett would give out such an award.” They were both bought by a company known as Playoff Corp and limped along as Donruss Playoff until 2009.

Marvel (yes, that Marvel) purchased Fleer back in 1992 in an attempt to diversify the company. They also bought high-end basketball card maker Skybox in 1995. However, Marvel entered bankruptcy in 1996 and Fleer/Skybox was sold off in 1999. They also limped along for a few years before getting bought up by Upper Deck in 2005. The last Fleer set was released in 2007.

By 2009, there were only two major players: Topps and Upper Deck. Somehow, major sports leagues and trading card companies then found a way to consolidate the industry further.

Donruss still kindof exists, as part of Panini. Yes, the old European sticker company.
Photo credit should read BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

In 2009, Topps signed an exclusivity contract, trying to beat back competition from Upper Deck. In exchange for a undisclosed and (likely) substantial fee, MLB only licensed Topps to make baseball cards.

Upper Deck still made baseball cards in 2010 because they had an MLBPA agreement. However, without an MLB agreement, it was more akin to those video games where you could use player likenesses but they played for teams like CHICAGO and SEATTLE rather than the Cubs and Mariners. Still, MLB sued them and, a month later, Upper Deck settled and exited the baseball card business. Topps was now the sole producer of baseball cards.*

In 2013, the MLB contract was extended through 2020.

Upper Deck signed an exclusivity contract in 2004 with the NHL. But then the NHL allowed it to lapse and flirted with competition for a few years. But, in 2014, they went back to Upper Deck exclusively.

Other sports followed suit. Panini Ltd, the old European sticker and trading card company, negotiated a FIFA exclusivity contract long ago. They turned their sights across the pond and landed the exclusive NBA contract in 2009, removing Upper Deck and Topps from that market. Also, that year, they bought up flagging Donruss Playoff and scooped up their (non-exclusive) NFL contract. In 2016, they signed, you guessed it, an exclusivity contract with the NFL, shutting out Topps.

So now the one company covers the collecting world for each major sport: Topps for MLB, Upper Deck for NHL, and Panini for NBA and NFL.

*Technically, through an MLBPA agreement (and presumably through loopholes Upper Deck didn’t find), Panini still produces baseball cards. However, they’re heavily airbrushed with no team logos. But I guess it cuts into the business enough for Topps to do things like sign Kris Bryant to “seven figure” exclusivity contract.

MLB All-Stars Carlos Beltran & Evan Longoria Open Topps Baseball Series 1 Cards
World Series hero Alex Gordon in the middle of a pile of 2016 Topps
Kris Connor/Getty Images

So where are we today with baseball?

Topps produces a new basic set every year and a number of other sets. On this wonderful page, you can see a sample card of Topps from 1951 through the present. From 2009 through 2014 (i.e. since the exclusivity contract), designs barely changed - all were white bordered with a little bit of flair at the bottom of the card. 2015 was an nice transition year with a unique design but now we’re going on 3 straight years with a similar borderless design.*

*Never mind that while consistency is a negative in design, it would be welcome on the content side. Manager cards? Checklists? World Series or season highlights? Team cards? Will they be in a set in any given year? Maybe, maybe not! Who knows?!? I wish Topps would make a decision and stick with it for a few years. My back of the napkin sketch: series 1 (ws cards, league leaders, highlights from the previous season, previous year team cards, and keep free agents out of this set), series 2 (more rookies, free agents from the past offseason in new uniforms, managers), and update (all-stars, new rookies from in-season, traded players, debut cards). This shouldn’t be that hard.

According to BaseballCardPedia, there were 58 sets in 2017, which is about the same number as in 1993 (though there have been some wild fluctuations like all the way up to 82 in 2005 or down to 39 in 2009). The difference is in what types of sets exist. Back in 1993, any collector wanting a card of (almost) every player in the league could choose from Bowman, Donruss, Fleer, Score, Topps, and Upper Deck. Now there is one: Topps. Back then, each company had simple tiers of products like Fleer -> Ultra -> Flair or Donruss -> Leaf -> Studio.

That exists in some capacity today. Topps has their main set and Stadium Club still exists as a premium product that specializes in good photography. But the rest of the products are much more targeted and niche. The Bowman line specializes in prospects. Topps Heritage could be seen as another full core set, taking modern players and putting them in old card designs. For instance, the 2017 set looked like the 1968 Topps set. Topps Archives is a similar idea but mixes in older players in the base set, too.

But then you get into the really esoteric: Triple Threads comes 2 packs per box, including two relic cards and two autographs. A 2017 product called Topps Dynasty includes just a single super high end card per box and retailed for $400! This has led to a side effect that you see creeping into a lot of other industries like video games:

Fleischer said this is an example of how the industry, once dominated by kids and fans who viewed collecting as a hobby, now caters to “the gambler’s mentality” of collectors. “These cards are sort of like scratch-off lottery tickets,” he said.

7-29-1990, 7-30-1990; Baseball Cards; North Valley small - kids only baseball card show overall shot
What about the state of the industry today?
Photo By John Prieto/The Denver Post via Getty Images

As I mentioned in the introduction, there is literally one baseball card shop left in all of Houston. Nationwide, the count has fallen from 10,000 to around 200. But it’s not as if they can’t be found out in the wild. Major retailers like Target and WalMart still carry baseball cards and Toys R Us has had an exclusive purple bordered parallel for a few years now. It’s just a far cry from my childhood where a friend and I would brave the mile long walk to the local Walgreens with a couple bucks because we were fairly certain we’d find baseball cards there.

There are no longer baseball card shows every weekend. However, the major baseball card show in Houston is in a couple of weeks, its 32nd annual and it’s still in the old Astroarena (now NRG Arena). For the low, low price of $900, one can get autographs from 14 different players on the 2017 World Series team. Clearly business is still booming.

Like retail, a dearth of brick and mortar space hasn’t spelled doom. Online business is booming. Entering “baseball cards” into eBay produces 8 million results. Buyer beware: if you’re looking to fill a couple of gaps in, say, that old 1990 Donruss set, you’re going to pay $3 in shipping for 20c in cards from 5 different dealers. For those type of requests, I had great luck filling gaps at a site called Just Commons (now Card Barrel). Dean’s Cards and Burbank Sports Cards should get a mention for their huge inventory, even if they remind me of every large, overpriced card store I ever walked into as a kid.

There’s a giant online consignment marketplace (COMC) with a unique business model. Sellers send in boxes of cards which COMC scans and posts to their marketplace (for a small fee, of course). Then buyers can just pay one low shipping price for everything they order, regardless of whose inventory it comes from. Cardboard Connection has a great article about selling there.

Speaking of Cardboard Connection, they have nice little overviews of every set, including descriptions and checklists. For instance, here is their page for Topps 2018 Series 1. The BaseballCardPedia is another good place to find information like this. As you can see from this page for 2017 Topps Series One, it contains no sponsors but also no images.

What about Beckett? The magazine which lent legitimacy to lopsided trades in neighborhoods all around the country? The bible for baseball card pricing? They’ve done quite well in the digital age. The Beckett Marketplace is yet another place to buy and sell cards. They still have price guides, both in print and available via online subscription. And you can even use those to keep track of your collection. Unfortunately, they’ve also used their legal muscle to eliminate (read: threaten, buy out, and fail to maintain) fan-run competitors.

Naturally, the baseball card blogosphere is alive and well. A personal favorite of mine is the Lifetime Topps Project. It’s run by a Reds fan got back into collecting as an adult and is trying to collect every base Topps card since he was born in 1980. He does a wonderful job of providing the details and scanning in the highlight cards of each set in posts like this one for 2000 Topps. I can get lost reading that site for hours. Another one that’s a bit more sophomoric, but fun in its own way is Baseball Card Bust. It pokes fun at cardboard foibles, including possibly “the best card ever”.

Antique Vintage Baseball Memorabilia and Collectables.
Has the time for baseball cards come and gone?
Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

So where do we go from here?

From the New York Times article cited above about Topps’s contract:

The business has shrunk drastically since the mid-1990s. T. S. O’Connell, the editor of Sports Collectors Digest, estimated that it was one-fifth the size it was before the 1994-95 players strike.

Of course, that was in 2009, before the exclusivity in the marketplace and returns on that contract are mixed to negative. In the Beckett article about the renewal of the contract, 68% opposed to the deal in an informal poll.

The industry also suffers some measure of a “kids these days” problem. How much appeal do baseball cards have when pictures and stats are available anywhere and at any time on an iPhone?

However, it’s a bit premature to declare baseball cards as another fad that has finally run its course. Baseball is, arguably, as healthy as it has ever been. And the baseball card industry looks different but appears fairly strong. It’s just more of a niche market than it was during the boom of the 80s. If you’re going to get (back) into it, enjoy it for the love of the game and not as an investment.