Editor’s Blog: Card Licensors Stay With Less-is-More Philosophy

There were a variety of news and notes to come out of the recent Hawaii Trade Conference/Mainland Edition (which is the rather clumsy sounding name for the sports collectible industry’s annual trade conference). One of those newsy tidbits that didn’t generate a lot of reaction when it was first announced, but almost certainly will be more noticeable a year from now, is the decision by Major League Baseball Properties and the MLB Players Association to trim the number of baseball card releases for 2008 to 17 per manufacturer, down from the current limit of 20 per company.

There are many collectors who believe 34 baseball card sets in a given year is still too many, but considering there were 90 on the market just a few years ago, the baseball licensors still deserve credit for removing the excess from the marketplace.

What’s perhaps surprising to some in the industry is the decision to trim six more products – a 15-percent decrease – from the brand lineup for next season, even though baseball card sales in 2006 had one of their best seasons in recent memory and 2007 appears to offer to a very good start as well. For instance, Topps said its baseball card sales in 2006 were up 68 percent over the previous year, and we know the basic 2007 Topps set (remember that Derek Jeter/George Bush card?) outsold the 2006 offering.

There are also a number of card dealers who believe the cut to 40 products was too drastic, because it resulted in having too few choices for high-end products that appeal to their most active buyers and generate the bulk of the revenue for most card stores.
The decision by baseball’s licensors to offer only 34 products next season already has some hobby shop owners concerned. While some of those remaining 34 brands will sell better because of less competition, dealers say it also gives die-hard customers six fewer reasons to visit stores and check out the latest product releases. Fewer customer visits and fewer revenue opportunities makes it even harder for some of these stores to stay in business.

While it’s never possible to pinpoint the “perfect” number of card sets for the marketplace, the decision to reduce brands even more next season does show that the baseball card licensors are firm in the resolve they first stated in 2005 to rebuild the baseball card category.

They focused on several strategies for reaching their goal, with the reduction in brands among the most important. It was a decision that resulted in the very unpopular removal of Donruss Playoff as a baseball card manufacturer. And while many collectors and dealers still would like to see Donruss Playoff back in the baseball market, most also would have to agree the marketplace is healthier today than it has been in several years.

The licensors have backed up their tough talk on brand limits by maintaining high-profile marketing efforts and requiring the card companies to maintain programs aimed at getting more kids involved in collecting. Those efforts are also paying dividends.

While not everyone in the industry agrees with all of the decisions made by the baseball licensors on how to fix the fortunes of the baseball card market, it’s hard to argue against the progress made thus far. It’s also further proof that when dealing with collectibles, the “less-is-more” philosophy is usually best.

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