Thursday, March 21, 2013

Monpopoly Money

In case you were wondering, yes I am aware these are football cards.  In a post about Topps' baseball monopoly. 

So what do a bunch of 90's football cards have to do with Topps' exclusive MLB contract that will make them the sole producer of licensed baseball cards into the next decade?  Everything.

Last weekend we were back in Pittsburgh doing some wedding planning, and coincidentally (cough cough) there happened to be a card show going on at a mall in the area.  At one dealer's table, I stumbled across a box of 90's inserts and parallels from all three Pittsburgh teams.  Sure, there weren't any Donruss Crusade cards or super rare inserts, but I picked up some great looking and underappreciated cards for the insane price of 7/$1 (I'll be posting more of my finds in the coming days).

As I flipped through the cards, the thing that stood out to me wasn't just how awesome the 90's cards looked, but how many different companies were producing cards during the decade, and perhaps no sport had a more diverse marketplace than football.

Topps, Fleer, DLP, Pacific, Pinnacle, Edge, Scoreboard, and dozens of offshoot brands kept products fun and unique behind rookie classes led by the likes of Moss, Manning, and Tim Couch.  Ok, maybe not Tim Couch.


 Each company had a distinctive flair (or in Fleer's case, literally Flair).  I can still identify any Edge card just from a quick glance at the design.  But perhaps more importantly, the crowded marketplace forced manufactures to both be creative in branding themselves and fostering their market share, but also in coming up with something creative, engaging, and unique that collectors would want in what was probably a far too crowded marketplace.

Setting aside the potential ROI on recent Topps products, and to a certain extent even the overall product quality, let's look at the Topps brand.  The Flagship set last year was recycled a dozen times: Topps 1,2, and Update, Opening Day, Topps Pro Debut, and Topps Mini.  And let's not forget the approximately two dozen parallels from those collective sets.  Heritage is inherently a recycled design, then spun off again into Heritage Minors and Heritage High Number.  Same for Ginter and Gypsy Queen and Archives. 

As Upper Deck continues to hit paydirt with their Fleer Retro products, it poses the question:  What iconic designs from the Topps monopoly will we look back at in 15 years?  There have undoubtedly been some great designs and sets released over the last few years, but those isolated cases are few and far between.  The point remains that much of Topps catalog is built upon recycling their iconic library rather than producing new benchmark cards/sets.

The argument isn't about whether Topps has produced strong products since acquiring the exclusive.  The argument isn't about whether Panini/Upper Deck/Leaf specifically deserve a license.  By committing to an exclusive contract, MLB has crushed any opportunity for a current or future upstart company to produce engaging or innovative MLB-licensed cards.  And it discourages significant innovation on the part of Topps, since their larger concern can be trained towards expanding their market in a broad sense, rather than expanding their market share among existing collectors.
At the end of the day, I just can't see having a range of options as a bad thing.  But clearly the decision is neither up to me, nor the very vocal collecting community.  At the end of the day, money talks.  And I anticipate much of my collecting budget going to MLBPA licensed cards like Panini and now Upper Deck or being refocused towards other sports.  If there are years and years worth of football and hockey cards that look like this that my collection is missing, can you really blame me?

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