Friday, March 20, 2015

Who Watches the Watchmen?

Two interesting things caught my eye in the hobby this week.  Topps gigantic snafu with Tribute, where most of the autographs are smeared or bubbled in a high end product, and the Industry Summit.  While the former has gotten a lot of hobby traction, it's actually the lack of buzz around the latter that caught my attention.  For those unfamiliar with the Summit, it's a longstanding annual card industry event that brings together all the big money hobby folks - dealers, shop owners, and the manufacturers...the people whose livelihoods are in fact tied to the industry.  There also used to be some pretty nice perks, including exclusive Black Boxes that Donruss used to give out that were loaded with specially produced cards.  Any player collector from the early 00's will tell you how many empty pockets in their binder exist because of those damn things...but I digress.

See, this is supposed to be the hobby's big insider event.  It's not the same hoopla as the National.  But it's had always been a steady source of news, innovations, and a preview of where the thinking of the folks producing the cards was headed.  And this year?  That direction apparently sounds a lot like crickets.  I've read the event was very sparsely attended.  And as for manufacturers, do those even exist anymore?

Let's take a look at what the sports card hobby landscape is going to look like in 2016:

Baseball - Topps
Football - Panini
Basketball - Panini
Hockey - Upper Deck

and just to round out the conversation...
College - Panini exclusive
Racing - ???? (longtime manufacturer Press Pass has closed up shop)

And quite honestly, that list wasn't something I was aware of until I started doing some research for this post.  See, I'm a baseball collector.  I have a collection of Pens and Steelers cards, but I don't follow the release schedules, product lineups, etc.  I just sort of...accumulate cards on the cheap when the opportunity presents itself.  Basketball, racing, college licenses?  I couldn't name one basketball product produced in the last 5 years that wasn't a crossover product like Prizm.

And that's fine.  We all have our own little segments of the hobby.  It's a little crazy to think that a collector would have the time and energy to keep up with all that.  But you know who would?  Perhaps somebody whose livelihood is tied to the success of the products released by those companies!

I hope you'll forgive the snark.  Maybe even embrace it.  We've all been hearing for years that the hobby is shrinking drastically.  The financial data reinforced that.  The hobby shops that have closed down reinforce that notion anecdotally.  But at the most fundamental level, who is really looking out for the health of the card industry, across all sports and brands?

It seems pretty clear that Panini and Topps are the lone standing big dogs left in the industry.  As the dust of the 90's and 00's settled, Pacific, Fleer, Pinnacle, Press Pass, SAGE, HIT, and a host of others are scattered bones on the ground.  Upper Deck is a one legged dog that might be better off moving their offices from California to Canada.  And the remaining gladiators, Topps, king of the card monopoly for 3 decades and fabled Slayer of Bowman, and Sportflics.  No, seriously.  Wikipedia that shit.  The one time joke Playoff managed to absorb half a dozen competitors before eventually being bought up by cross-seas giant Panini.  And it now seems pretty evident the two are waged in a war of attrition, squeezing each other out of sports through exclusive contracts.

And all of this reminds me of my other childhood pastime.  Pro wrestling.

I started watching wrestling in the early 90's during visits to my grandmother's.  I was young, maybe 4 or so.  We'd go to visit Nana, who was largely couch-ridden.  Saturday mornings would always have WWF wrestling on.  Wrestling was, and still largely is, on the fringes of popular culture.  It was athletic, sports-ish, but not itself a sport.  In some ways, it's similar to card collecting.  The kind of niche thing you enjoy at home, but might not be inclined to share with your co-workers unprompted.  Or in my case, pre-school classmates, perhaps?

But anyone who had a bedtime before 9PM in the late 90's is at least aware of the pop culture invasion of pro wrestling.  Driven by competition between major promotions WCW and WWF, the industry saw an insane surge in ratings, and you could find ads, magazines, and any other number of cross promotional items featuring pro wrestling everywhere you looked.

After years of aggressive competition aiming to put each other out of business, WCW folded in 2001 and was bought up by its competitor.  Within another year or two, the wrestling fad would sizzle out.  And right around that time I was hitting high school, and found more...interesting...uses of my free time than watching shirtless men grappling on tv.  In the years since, I've watched maybe a grand total of an hour or two of wrestling.

But I saw an ad for a free month of WWF (now WWE's) streaming service last month, featuring archives of old programming.  And if you guys have been paying any attention to me, you know I love free, and I'm a sucker for childhood nostalgia.  So sign up I did (and of course I cancelled literally hours before my free month ended).  They had an interesting mini-series on "The Monday Night Wars" as they were known.

The general narrative, if you'll stick with me on thing tangent a bit longer, was that competition drove the business to new heights of popularity, but ultimately missteps and a lack of knowledge about the core of the business made WWE victorious.  After all, history is written by the victors, and these particular victors are ones of no small ego.  But what stood out to me was the secondary questions and effects.  While the fad of pro wrestling would have surely waned as all pop culture booms do, there was absolutely no reason that there couldn't have continued to be room for both companies to thrive and succeed.  It didn't have to be a fight to the death, but they both decided to make it one.  And secondarily, the fallout of that finality.  Hundreds of people presumably lost jobs, from wrestlers to office staff and production folks with no other room in the industry to absorb them.  And just as that competition drove the ratings and marketability to new heights, the product has gotten stale, bland, and predictable in the years alone atop the mountain.

To steer this back to cardboard, I've always been a firm believer competition among manufacturers was the best thing for the hobby.  And that phrase: best for the hobby.  Who really has that interest at the top of the priority list?  Certainly not the manufacturers, who are looking to make the most profit possible.  And I think it's hard to argue the leagues do.  Do they really believe one licensee makes things better for collectors?  Or it simply a multi-billion dollar industry who would simply have as little as possible to have to keep an eye on for money that amounts to peanuts in their annual bottom line?  What about the bastions of the hobby, like Beckett.  Wait, does Beckett even have a print product anymore?  They're perhaps the biggest hobby cheerleaders, willing to heap praise in exchange for enough ad revenue from the manufacturers to redesign their website for the 18th time this month.

And then there are the hobby dealers.  I feel for them.  I know many of them are doing all they can do voice displeasure with the the quality of products.  But they're stuck between a rock and a hard place.  After all, their continued existence is dependent upon customers buying product today.  Whether it's shit or not, if people aren't buying the boxes today, it makes no difference whether the companies get their act together next year.  The hobby shop will be gone, and a 55th Dollar General in its place (seriously, is it around here or have dollar generals taken over the any and all available retail space near you?).  And while the old adage of voting with your wallet would be glorious in this example, it's become painfully clear a large segment of the hobby is simply addicted to the lotto ticket of sports cards.  The idea that collectors en masse will change their purchase habits to the extent needed for companies to change course seems to me to be the least likely.

I don't know where things go from here.  The exclusive contracts are lengthy, and they are not looking like something that is going away any time soon.  And even if they were to, will there be more than one company left standing by that time?  There was a point where you could walk into a card shop and see a wall of packed out boxes - a range of sports and manufacturers, each with its own distinctive style, checklist, and price points.  You knew you were going to hit a damn Ramon Nivar auto if you opened a Donruss/Leaf/Playoff box.  But you also knew that Ramon Nivar autos would only be found in DLP products.  Topps had their own incarnation - Terrance Long, maybe?  And UD their own.  Now you can pick from a range of Topps products, across all kinds of price points, shapes, and sizes.  But no matter what box you open, you're going to hit a Chris Owings auto.  It's just whether you hit the crappy unnumbered Topps sticker auto, or the fancy on card Tier One serial numbered Chris Owings auto, both of which will presumably sell for about the same amount.

And now, you can have a smeared Chris Owings auto from Topps Tribute.

Don't tell me they it was unexpected.  Don't tell me it was an unknown snafu, and it's going to be made right.  Is there no quality control in place?  No boxes opened before the cases are shipped out to make sure things look right?  Or, to paraphrase Fight Club, "Should we initiate a recall?  Take the number of ruined autos, A, multiply by the rate of failure, B, multiply by the cost of having people cancel their pre-orders for the next product only to be back to their normal buying in 2 months because they have no alternative, C.  A times B times C equals X.  If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one."

Well, maybe somebody just misplaced the decimal point.


  1. I've seen some of those Tribute autos on eBay. YIKES! Has Topps released an official statement yet? They will have to do some kind of exchange program. I have a feeling we'll be seeing Tribute on a lot of "deal of the days" for Dave and Adams.

    1. Their official statement was along the lines of "We're figuring something out." They're asking all dealers to hold any product. I'd imagine a full recall is next. From there? Thats where it will get interesting. I don't know that there was any real precedent for this that I know of. Sweet Spot had a ton of issues with fading one year, but that didn't become evident until a few months after the product went live.

      It's a shame, since the product actually looked really solid.

    2. Maybe I should grab the ones that went online. Super Rare!!!!!

    3. Topps released the announcement. They are recalling Topps Tribute.

    4. As much as I hate on Topps, a total recall is a really bold move. Should be interesting to see how this plays out.

  2. Man so much I could say. First I don't know if I want to go back to the early 2000's. While I miss the variety, the overwhelming quantity of product was both hard for the collector and I'm sure hard for the shop owner to keep up with. And I hate, hate, hate exclusivity. With a passion. I even wrote to the MLB before they gave Topps the million year extension, but I hate even more the trend to more premium releases. Essentially pricing out a lot of collectors. Oh lets see groceries for the week or a pack of cards?

    The other problem I see is that while the big card companies pay lip service to the LCS's I don't see that carried over into practice. And with a growing trend of big case breakers opening tons of product and then selling off the pieces I don't know if a brick and mortar store can survive on it's own anymore in the age of the internet. I hope I'm wrong.

    Sorry for the rambling, you put out a lot to think about nice post Mark.

    1. I'm still getting caught up on some of the weird releases Upper Deck put out in their final couple years, so I definitely don't want to go back to the "throw 20 sets against the wall and see what sticks" approach. But I do think that competition is absolutely necessary for this hobby to sustain or ever hope to see growth again. While Topps has sets across a range of price points, they have little incentive to alter their formula of Heritage/Gypsy/A&G/Bowman in the mid range, low end Flagship, Stickers, Opening Day, and then a rotation of high end products. They have largely put it on auto-pilot, knowing that people will continue buying the product.

      My bigger concern is what the longterm exclusives will do to the few remaining companies. Let's say losing in 2015 football accounts for 30% of Topps' card based revenue. Losing that license outright has to have some trickle down impact. Loss of revenue will have to carry over to reducing costs. Even if the actual card production isn't changing, I'd imagine cuts might come from somewhere like the already sub-par customer service or media departments. Maybe we'll see more Players Association deals like Panini has in baseball.

      Like you said, lots to think about. I don't have any real answers. But I think it's an aspect of the hobby that perhaps deserves a little more conversation than it gets. Can collectors really change anything? Who knows. But I think losing another manufacturer would be hugely detrimental to the overall health of the hobby.

    2. I think the brick and mortar stores that will survive in the long run are those that also break cases on the side. In fact, I know of one store, which has been open for two-and-a-half decades, that has gone to just that. The owner told me he keeps the front door open for the kids and usual customers, but he makes his living selling on the internet.

      To me, a true hobbyist, the problem is the lottery ticket. I could care less if I open a pack with a big hit... I just want to complete that set I've been working and add nice cards to my player collections. Card collecting takes my mind off of the daily routine, puts a smile on my face, and takes me back twenty years. A $1 pack of Opening Day does that just fine.

      Whatever happens, happens. I just hope there's a place for a guy like me in the "hobby" down the road.

  3. Well written post. The exclusive deals are the WORST thing that's ever happened to the hobby. I'm a big time collector of both NASCAR and the NBA, and I've seen the damage it's done, NASCAR was the first to go exclusive, back in 2001. Press Pass put themselves out of business by doing high-end only, and now Panini is starting to fall into that trap.

    I liked the hobby better before the "hits" became all that most people cared about. Back when the actual cards were the mail goal in collecting, and if you pulled a hit, it was a happy bonus...not the main goal. I sometimes feel like I'm the last set builder still working the NBA.