Cleaning Up A Cardboard Mess

I got into the hobby full time in 1988. That year we had Donruss, Score, Fleer, Topps, Upper Deck (in 1989), and a host of smaller companies, all making cards. There were no real exclusives and they made way more cards than are made today. Topps, UD, Fleer, Score, Donruss, and soon, Pinnacle all produced baseball cards. Now, only Topps makes baseball cards. Well, licensed baseball cards, that is. I’ll get back to that in a minute.

Over the years, Topps, Fleer, and UD all made NBA cards and Pinnacle was fighting for a license every year and actually came close to getting one. Now, ONLY Panini America makes NBA cards. Well, licensed NBA cards, that is.
Topps, Fleer, Donruss, Pinnacle, Score, and UD have all made NFL cards. Now, only Panini America and the recently re-licensed, Topps do. Well, licensed NFL cards, that is.

Topps, Fleer, Pinnacle, Score, and UD have made NHL cards. Now, only UD and recently licensed Panini America do. Can we all say shrinkage?

A year ago, Panini was thought of as the “Italian sticker guys” by the American collector and dealer, if they even ever heard of them in the first place. Today, they are the guys in the hobby. Panini America or DLPanini as I call them (Panini America bought Donruss/Leaf/Playoff and still employs most of the key players that were there through the years) now has an exclusive NBA license along with an exclusive card deal with former UD front man Kobe Bryant. They also have a co-exclusive NFL license, along with Topps and a co-exclusive NHL license as well. They also make entertainment/celebrity cards.

Topps has the exclusive with MLB. That is the jewel. No one else can make licensed baseball cards in the near future. Topps also will now make NFL cards again. That’s it for Topps and the four major sports. Topps does make a lot of entertainment cards, however.

So, what about Upper Deck? Well, they get to make NHL cards with The Cup being the last man standing among UD’s line of super high-end products. Goodbye Exquisite NBA, NFL, and MLB. Goodbye Ultimate. They have a half an NFL license with the recent renewal of their Players license, but without a license from NFL Properties they cannot produce cards that show any uniforms, helmets, marks, stadiums, etc.

They also have an exclusive NCAA license. Now, many have tried marketing college cards in the past: Press Pass, Classic, etc. Remember 1992 Classic? Remember the $100 Shaq “rookie”? I sure do. I had a customer that had a few hundred when they were white hot. I told him to cash them out. He held fast and I believe still has them along with a very wet towel he’s been crying on for the past 18 years.

The point is that Upper Deck has jumped the shark so many times in the past few years that it’s hard to imagine them coming out of it. They produced counterfeit Yu-Gi-Oh cards and were sued. They lost millions. They thumbed their nose at MLB and produced three lines of cards after they lost their MLB Properties license, all showing team colors, marks, and logos. Again, they were sued and lost more millions. I really doubt they would take on the powerful NFL by trying what they did with MLB. So, what the heck will they do with their Player’s Association license? I doubt that collectors want a card of Drew Brees wearing a suit. Might they make some kind of rookie set using college uniforms? I think so, but will they sell? Actually, will they sell enough to make the cost viable and to keep UD afloat?

There have been stories in the media that UD might owe the IRS a lot of money and recently it was released that they owe players a bunch of money for autographs. The players have been advised to not sign anything else for UD until the matter is settled. It’s pretty hard to sell wax without autographs and even harder to fulfill old redemptions for autographs if the players will not sign because they haven’t been paid.

It’s hard to imagine the cardboard real estate without UD, but unfortunately, that looks very possible, if not likely. The dealer sentiment is not for UD at all. Many dealers dislike them intensely. As for collectors, I feel the sentiment is reversed. The collectors I speak with still love their cards and lines. They dislike their poor redemption card program and customer service but for the most part like their products. It’s very hard to feel sorry for them, as they made the bed they currently lie in.

So, 23 years after I entered the hobby, most of the makers have gone to that big cardboard heap in the sky. If UD doesn’t make it, we would be left with a situation where the only makers are the oldest and the newest. What will that mean going forward? Collectors like variety. Many collectors love Upper Deck. Some like the obnoxiously expensive lines like the aforementioned Exquisite, while others like the affordable, content-laden SP Authentic and SPx. They will not have that choice now. Many collectors love Topps and are happy with the current situation. Many have embraced DLPanini America, who no doubt is spending money left and right to establish itself as the industry leader. Fresh money is a good thing and Michael Eisner and his group have it along with DLPA.

Between the bad economy, unemployment, and to be frank, UD’s own stupidity, the cardboard landscape is a mess. I do have high hopes moving forward though. I hope that UD either somehow makes all this better or sells to someone that will. The hobby needs a third face. The hobby needs some of those great, popular UD lines. But the hobby also needs UD to make things right. Where’s that white knight on the white horse when we need him?
Until next month, I remain … On Your Side.

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