Kaplan: Baseball cards needed overhaul

The baseball card market has been redefined in the past year by those who manage the licensing portion of the business. Some collectors and dealers wonder how the decisions to go from four to two trading card manufacturers and from 90 to 40 brands were arrived upon.

The short answer is there wasn’t a short answer – Major League Baseball, the MLB Players Association and all of the trading card companies put a great deal of time and effort into establishing the framework of the current environment. In the middle of the fray was Evan Kaplan, MLBPA category director for trading cards and collectibles. Kaplan spoke with SCD about his history as a collector, and the decisions made to try to turn around the new-card industry in 2006.

SCD: Did you collect as a youngster?

Evan Kaplan: Yeah, I collected baseball cards. I don’t know when I started, but I was pretty heavy in it. My dad made a comment that he used to worry about me, that I spent so much time thinking about my baseball cards. In light of my current job, he thinks that’s pretty ironic.
The first thing I collected was pennants. Growing up, we had season tickets to all of the local teams and my dad and I used to go to all the games, and every game I went to, I’d get a pennant. The first one was dating back to the early 1970s – I think the Jets and the Cowboys were my first two. I had the ceiling in my bedroom filled with every football, basketball, hockey and baseball team there was, even going into the USFL. There are so many push-pin holes in them that they’re worthless. Whenever my parents move, I’ll take them and put them in my own house someday.
So anyway, yes, I definitely collected, and I was a huge baseball card collector.

SCD: Did you ever finish sets?

EK: I always tried to, but I might have finished maybe one. I don’t even remember what it was. I only collected Topps. I remember checking every day to see if Topps showed up at the local deli. We used to look for colors; we’d flip based on colors. We didn’t take good care of the cards; none of mine are in good condition. I still have them all, but they’re all round, they have no corners.
I wouldn’t know which one would be my favorite set. I remember the cards based on a distinctive picture or a color, but there aren’t sets that stand out.

SCD: Do you still collect? In your position, you probably have access to some neat stuff.

EK: I don’t collect like I did as a kid, and I live in an apartment in Manhattan, so there’s a limited amount of space. In my office, I pay homage to primarily the 1986 Mets, with autographed items from Strawberry, Gooden, Hernandez, Dykstra, HoJo and Carter. But otherwise, I like personalized photos and art. I’ve got things from (Muhammad) Ali and (Roger) Clemens, from those unique opportunities when you get to meet an athlete and you want to commemorate it. At home, in my office area, I’ve got signed photos from a bunch of the Islanders and Joe Namath.
Growing up on Long Island, the Islanders were really accessible. I used to stay after the game with a friend, and he knew where the Islanders came out (of the stadium). We got every page of our yearbooks signed. Eventually, I knew what every Islander drove and where they parked. I still have those yearbooks. Those are pretty cool because it took a ton of work to get them done. It was about completing the collection.

SCD: Tell us about your professional history. How did you wind up where you are today, as MLBPA category director for trading cards and collectibles?

EK: Coming out of college my background was in advertising and graphic design. I worked for a few years at Victoria’s Secret, doing their catalog layouts.

SCD: So you have a relatively boring job now?

EK: Yeah, some of my friends still don’t understand why I would leave Victoria’s Secret. I started doing some freelance work for a small sports collectibles company. My wife is in publishing and helped open some doors for me. I developed a piece for Vanity Fair in 1997 profiling the newest faces in baseball.  It was personal stories and perhaps people at the PA noticed it. I researched every prospect in baseball. It came in handy during my first interview with the PA. They asked, “How well do you know the players?” I said, “I know all the players,” which was a bit presumptuous. The interviewer pulled out a roster and started naming the 25th man on every team. But because of fantasy baseball, I knew them all.  Then she pulled out an uncut sheet of prospects – minor leaguers, 40-man-roster guys. I couldn’t have named major leaguers by face but I knew the top prospects on every team from the Vanity Fair story, so I knew all those. At that point, the interview process went well. I started as an assistant in 1997, supporting the video games, apparel and novelty categories. I first became a manager handling our novelties category and eventually in 2000, I took over trading cards, first as a manager and then as a director.

SCD: So your experience as a collector wasn’t directly involved with your promotions?

EK: No. I think it helped me transition, having a lot of background and feel for the category. But having the collecting history didn’t help get into the PA, it was more about being a baseball fan and having done work in the industry that got me in the door here. But having been a collector made them more comfortable with the transition to collectibles.

SCD: What are your duties now? Liaison with all of the collectibles companies?

EK: All of the cards and collectibles companies, toys, memorabilia, art, photography … but I spend 90 percent of my time with the two card companies (Upper Deck and Topps). With the changes we’ve made, there’s so much to be done that my assistant Josh (Orenstein) is handling more and more of the day-to-day issues on the collectibles side so they can get their needs addressed faster and I can spend more time with the card companies.

SCD: What’s your take on how we got to so many brands – 250-260 as an industry – and how we got back to 120-130 this year?

EK: There was basically one brand when I stopped collecting and then I walk into this position and there were hundreds. I missed most of the mess in between. We went (in baseball this season) from 90 to 40 because 40 was the number that kept coming up in all of our meetings as being the right number (of brands in baseball cards). One of the card companies shared a poll of hobby shops asking them how many different brands they actually carried. The results reinforced the decision to move to 40 releases. Based on all of the expectations, expenditures and marketing efforts that we wanted to implement, 40 was the number that best fit for this category.

SCD: From a collector point of view, why were the reductions necessary? In particular, why was the Donruss reduction necessary?

EK: The changes, in general, were necessary because the business was shrinking. The profitability of our licensees was in trouble, and we saw Fleer go out. Our economists said that eventually we could lose another (company) if changes were not made. We had to do something to stabilize the business. We still believe that baseball cards are a great way to get kids excited about baseball. It’s not a category we ever want to sacrifice. So pretty dramatic changes were necessary.
People asked us, “Why couldn’t you do it over a slower course?” We needed major changes to jump start the business.  

SCD: One of the fruits of this new system will be a new level of promotion of sports cards. What elements from the multi-layered promotional plan are you most excited about?

EK: I’ve been spending a tremendous amount of time developing a TV campaign and an online promotion that it will support. I’ve been working with Colin (Hagen of Major League Baseball) who is more focused on retail programs.

SCD: What is the “call to action” in the commercial?

EK: There is going to be an online promotion that requires kids to build a new collection every two weeks. Each collection will be based on different themes that are designed to emphasize the various ways you can collect baseball cards. Kids will be eligible to win great prizes each time they have complete the online collection. The TV campaign will kick-off the second week of May on Nick, Cartoon Network and a few kids network channels. The online program will start around Memorial Day and run all summer. This is a long-term strategy, and in Year 1, it’s really about creating awareness and build excitement with kids and retailers.

SCD: Kids still like sports cards, don’t they?

EK: They definitely do; I believe that completely. Granted, they’re free, but on Halloween, I’m the most popular guy in Manhattan, giving away packs of baseball cards. All of my friends’ kids, they love cards, they have a natural appreciation for them. But we have a tremendous amount of work in getting cards to be something kids want to buy, and getting some excitement as a category so socially, it’s something they want to do together.
If I didn’t see the immediate connection with the product, I would be really concerned. But when kids are presented with cards, they get excited about them. For the kids that know about cards, it’s an immediate connection, and kids who are introduced to them for the first time are amazed by them.

SCD: Talk about the new rookie card rule. Why was it necessary to get that changed, and what can it do for us in the coming years?

EK: Hopefully we’ll see what the positive impact of a rookie class can do. In baseball, we have a disadvantage in that we don’t have players, straight out of the draft, making an impact. We have to wait as players develop in the minors. There is excitement that builds when a player gets called up and we need to tap into that excitement. Hopefully the results will be a positive boost to sales and hopefully the branded logo will help build awareness for the rookie cards. The young kids we’re trying to appeal to would go see David Wright play and they go to find his rookie card and find out it was three years ago. It was a horrible disconnect.

SCD: Are there any products from your early collecting career, or from the last 10 years, that you thought were landmark products?

EK: The one that stands out was Fleer Tradition, bringing back that old style of collecting that I grew up with. Tradition was special in that it brought the old feel back. And I always liked gum in the cards, so I remember when Topps brought gum back. The smell of that totally brings me back.

SCD: As a licensor, which product – doesn’t have to be cards – did you think would work, but it didn’t?

EK: I was disappointed with Hot Button Baseball (a game from Topps that incorporated player cards). I don’t know if it was poorly marketed, or if it seems like an old technology and people didn’t give it a chance. But while it seems simple, the kids I shared it with really liked it.

SCD: What are some of the other non-card collectibles licensees you have right now that are pretty cool? What else is happening in collectibles?

EK: I still love the quality of McFarlane’s figures, the way they capture the poses. I asked Todd once why he doesn’t use the MotionCap (a camera technology) to capture player images. He said, “When the guy’s getting his picture taken, he just smiles. But when he’s throwing a 90 mph fastball there’s strength and tenacity that the photo cannot capture. I need to capture the energy and intensity in his face.” You can see that in his figures. They’re pretty awesome and I keep a bunch of them around the office.

To see the entire interview with Evan Kaplan, see the May 19, 2006 issue of Sports Collectors Digest.

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