By Kevin Glew
“There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction.”
– Winston Churchill
Spoken more than a half-century ago, Churchill’s words could also be applied to today’s sports card industry.
An unparalleled series of changes hit the hobby in 2009. Exclusive licensees became the norm. Many of our favorite brands are disappearing. And the weak economy has dogged card companies, storeowners and collectors.
At times like these, it’s easy to get misty-eyed about the way things once were, but if we want this hobby to persevere, we must adapt. So let’s not wax nostalgic about the past, but rather discuss the present and the future. What do these changes mean? How are we coping with the recession? Is our industry heading “in the right direction?”
Recap of exclusives
Among the four major professional sports leagues, the NHL’s pact with Upper Deck was the only exclusive card license in place prior to 2009. That changed, however, in January when Panini was awarded the sole NBA license.
In August, Major League Baseball dropped another bombshell when it tabbed Topps as its exclusive licensee. The deal will take effect on Jan. 1, 2010.
Not to be outdone, Upper Deck inked an exclusive agreement with the Collegiate Licensing Company that same month. Effective April 1, 2010, the pact will enable the card maker to produce pasteboards featuring athletes in their collegiate uniforms from more than 200 U.S. colleges.
Topps stole the hobby spotlight again in November, when they sealed an exclusive, multi-year agreement with Minor League Baseball that gives them sole rights to produce minor league prospect cards starting in 2010.
Card Company Licenses Chart
Co. MLB NFL NHL NBA
Panini X X
Upper Deck X X
Are exclusives good or bad for the industry?
Longtime hobbyist Bob Brill, who now blogs for SportsBuy.com, believes exclusive deals could be good for the hobby.
“I don’t have a problem with exclusives. If a company is only focussing on baseball, for example, they’re going to do a really, really good job on baseball,” he said.
But Calgary-based collector Ryan Cracknell isn’t so sure. He believes that competition motivates companies.
“With someone behind you, there’s a bigger drive to try out new things, add value and evolve the hobby,” he said.
Cracknell agrees that a reduction in brands would benefit the hobby, but exclusives could also create confusion.
“So now there’s going to be a bunch of licensed and unlicensed products side-by-side in shops and I’m guessing some will be confused why one has logos and others don’t,” he said.
The “Big Three” card companies
With the whirlwind of changes in the industry, coupled with the weak economy, how are the “Big Three” card companies faring?
After Panini landed the exclusive NBA license in January, they purchased Donruss in March. Scott Prusha, former Donruss employee and now Panini America’s marketing manager, says it has been a smooth transition under the new ownership.
“Panini has been great. Their goal was to successfully start a trading card business in the United States and the sale of Donruss came together very well. They kept everybody from Donruss in place,” he explained.
Pierre Noboa, a basketball collector in Long Island, N.Y., believes the Panini pact is a positive step for the hobby.
“There were so many brands to choose from that I think it diluted the value of the cards,” he said. “I think the exclusive deal will help.”
Partnering with a European company also gelled with the NBA’s goal of increasing global sales.
“I think Panini was a good choice for the NBA, because Panini has the worldwide distribution that other manufacturers don’t,” noted Brill.
Inking Kobe Bryant to an exclusive autograph deal in September was another coup.
“Kobe is probably the most global icon in the sport,” noted Noboa.
The Lakers great signed cards that were inserted into Panini Prestige, the company’s first hoops release. Early feedback on Panini’s basketball products has been positive.